The CFO’s future starts today

BDO partners with Vlerick Business School

On 7 October, Vlerick Business School launched its ‘Centre for Financial Leadership & Digital Transformation’. BDO Belgium and BDO Global will serve as primary knowledge partners and experience experts. The aim? ‘To take the finance department to the next level through digital transformation.’ Additionally, the Centre is intended to be a community with a strong focus on practical applications for everyone who wants to advance digitally in finance.

Author: Mieke Loncke, Director BDO Marketing & Communication BDO Belgium

What do we mean by ‘the next level’? And how strong is the demand for digital transformation among CFOs? We asked five driving forces from the Centre:

  • Marion Debruyne – Dean of Vlerick Business School

  • Peter Van Laer – CEO BDO Belgium

  • Prof Dr Kristof Stouthuysen – Director of the Centre (specialising in managerial accounting, AI for the CFO)

  • Alexander Veithen – Head of Financial Advisory BDO Belgium

  • Veronique Allemane – Director Learning & Development BDO Global

“By gathering and interconnecting CFOs and finance experts, we encourage cross-fertilisation, knowledge-sharing, exchanged experiences and enthusiasm.”

Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School

Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School

What was the inspiration behind the Centre?

Kristof Stouthuysen: “Our most recent survey of CFOs in Belgium and the Netherlands showed that finance managers want to know with what technologies they can even more effectively convert the growing masses of data into value for their companies in the future. At the same time, many still feel uncomfortable or inadequate when it comes to implementing new digital applications.”

Alexander Veithen: “BDO experiences this with clients on a daily basis as well. The highest-performing CFOs are those who control and manage the quality of their data. They can then use them as a basis for meaningful analyses that the company can truly get to grips with – to increase profitability, for example. (ed.: Be sure to also read the article ‘How to enhance your company’s value?’ to learn how BDO assures companies of sustainable value growth.) In short, demand is high for support in embracing digital transformation and to further transform the finance function.”

Marion Debruyne: “High enough to inspire the launch of a broadly supported, academic and applied Centre for Financial Leadership & Digital Transformation. A few years back, we focused on raising awareness of the need for digital transformation. Today, no one questions the value of digital transformation any longer. It can be found in all links of the business value chain – from HR, operations and the supply chain, to finance, sales, marketing, etc. However, although the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated digital transformation, too often the new technology has not achieved great penetration as yet. Most finance departments still need to undergo a thorough learning process.”

Is that the Centre’s goal?

Kristof Stouthuysen: “Vlerick Business School’s mission is ‘Live. Learn. Leap.’ Live your dream, keep learning, and dare to take the big leap forward. Modern CFOs wish to implement digital transformation and learn the required skills to ensure that that digital transformation is successful. A partner such as BDO understands this as no other.”

Marion Debruyne: “Sharing expertise and knowledge is one of our objectives. Additionally, we want to create knowledge through objective fundamental and applied research. These two objectives complement each other; they are yin and yang.”

Peter Van Laer: “Yes, the Centre must constantly expand its own body of knowledge as well, through doctoral research, for example. Nurturing itself enables it to remain relevant and to respond proactively to market developments and challenges. The Centre offers a unique opportunity to share and disseminate a collective understanding of science and business. Both of these areas need each other to be and remain openly innovative. Vlerick’s credo is thus a perfect fit for BDO’s: ‘Let’s grow. Together.’ Together, we are in a stronger position to help our clients and employees grow.”

“The Centre functions as a safe haven, a platform where the CFO can gain an objective knowledge and understanding of technology.”

Prof. Dr. Kristof Stouthuysen, Director of the Centre

Prof. Dr. Kristof Stouthuysen, Director of the Centre

Does technology’s strength lie in the combination of operational and financial data?

Alexander Veithen: “That is indeed its main contribution. Finance managers have made use of data for decades. This takes place in a very traditional, structured way. The challenge in the coming years is to also include other data in analyses and reports that have less or no structure, such as text or image data. The CFO’s perspective must expand to include that of the IT expert. To be able to roll out the right technology for the right finance application, both must empathise with each other’s activity. They, too, complement one another like yin and yang.”

Peter Van Laer: “What people don’t know, they won’t apply. To a CFO, technology is not part of his or her ‘natural’ context. It is also unreasonable to expect or assume that CFOs will be intimately familiar with all of the most advanced technological possibilities. For example, you can’t imagine how much time BDO has invested in proclaiming the importance of process mining. Once the penny drops, however, they discover technology’s value in contributing to effectiveness, productivity, profitability, etc. Combining different activities can unlock a great deal of added value.”

Kristof Stouthuysen: “Knowledge and understanding are crucial elements of the acceptance and learning process. A future-oriented finance expert must be aware of the existence of artificial intelligence (AI) that is relevant to his or her work. He or she also needs to understand in what ways such technology can contribute to objectives and to be able to interpret the findings from the resulting analyses. At the Centre, we also make this theory tangible by putting it into practice. Does that mean a CFO must become a programmer too? No. The Centre guides the CFO through the learning process. That’s not to say this will be a walk in the park. The programme (see the insert ‘Centre for Financial Leadership & Digital Transformation’ Programme) is not simply a list of use cases. We will be getting our hands dirty.”

“Data are the CFO’s new treasure.”

Alexander Veithen, Head of Financial Advisory BDO Belgium

And establishing a genuine community?

Marion Debruyne: “That is the intention. By gathering and interconnecting CFOs and finance experts with the same interests, we encourage cross-fertilisation, knowledge-sharing, exchanged experiences and enthusiasm. One plus one equals three.”

Alexander Veithen: “Many CFOs still regard artificial intelligence as something far removed from their own reality. Something that is only relevant to mega-corporations and, what’s more, unaffordable. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, you must put in the effort to understand the power of AI. Without insight, you can’t dream of more. The Centre offers the field of finance a safe, reliable, accurate and hands-on platform to discover technology’s possibilities and make meaningful choices in line with business strategy and objectives.”

Peter Van Laer: “We are at a tipping point. Digital transformation is making complex tools much more affordable and accessible. As a result, competitive pressure is also rising exponentially and new business models are emerging. Thousands of models at a time, in fact. Nowadays, anyone can use freely available algorithms to develop an application in their attic, as it were. A company and CFO that lack awareness of such potential competition may well experience an unpleasant surprise tomorrow.”

Marion Debruyne: “Too often, disruption is seen as a tsunami; something that overwhelms you without warning. It is actually more like global warming; gradually, but inevitably, creating a radically different ‘normal’. I apply the same logic to digital transformation. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated digital transformation. However, many finance departments are still far from applying digital transformation in enough depth to affect effectiveness, efficiency and strategic value significantly.”

Peter Van Laer: “Companies have been investing in automation for decades. However, we notice that many of these projects were never rolled out to their fullest potential, because, at the time, the results achieved already seemed more than satisfactory. As a result, although all of the applications work as intended, they do not interact sufficiently or at all. This means gaps must still be bridged by people who print PDFs, scan them, re-input them elsewhere, and re-enter them manually, etc.”

Alexander Veithen, Head of Financial Advisory BDO Belgium

Veronique Allemane, Director Learning & Development BDO Global

Peter Van Laer, CEO BDO Belgium

So, there is still a great deal of progress to be made?

Peter Van Laer: “Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can help take care of such ‘residual automation’. RPA automates what ‘key’ applications omit, adding a layer that imitates employee actions. Bottom line: RPA relieves people of the need to perform ‘boring’ repetitive tasks, providing room for other, more knowledge-driven or creative assignments of higher added value. Equally importantly, integrating the various applications creates an uninterrupted digital trail for each process. Such footprints or ‘event logs’ form a treasure-trove of data that can be used to identify bottlenecks and optimise processes via process mining.”

Kristof Stouthuysen: “These types of solutions are particularly valuable in reporting, one of the Centre’s three areas of emphasis. Besides this, we also explore the role and relevance of technology and digital transformation in value creation and protection.”

“Combining different activities can unlock a great deal of added value.”

Peter Van Laer, CEO BDO Belgium

Why did Vlerick opt for BDO as its business partner?

Marion Debruyne: “We have a shared ambition to establish the Centre as a long-term investment, from which we can also learn a great deal ourselves. Moreover, our agendas match and complement each other very well. Although Vlerick Business School is an academic institution, we need knowledge and experience from the field to ensure that we make our target finance audience fit for the future in a relevant way.”

Kristof Stouthuysen: “Moreover, the themes we cover have no geographical restrictions. These new technological trends and challenges know no borders. The range of offerings worldwide is massive. That’s why the Centre also aims to function as a safe haven, a platform where the CFO can gain an objective knowledge and understanding of technology. That way, he or she can make the right choices tailored to his or her finance department’s needs and requirements (see the insert ‘BDO Global – Advisers of the Future’). Basically, the CFO must be able to apply what he or she learns in a workshop today to practice tomorrow, so to speak.”