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The evolving role of financial controller in the digital age

Dec 26, 2023

Traditionally, controllership has focused on numbers.

Controllers are responsible for overseeing financial reporting and operations, leaving little time for the role’s critical parts: identifying insights and trends that can impact an organization’s success.

Technology is changing that by transforming the way financial data is accessed and reported. And with that change has come a shift in expectations for the role of financial controller.

In the digital age, controllers aren’t just reading and reporting the numbers — they’re using them to make meaningful financial decisions.

The technology that’s driving change  

Rather than reducing the time it takes to manage day-to-day financial operations, the latest accounting innovations are focused on repurposing it.

Here are three key technologies that are changing the way controllers use their time:  

1. AI 

AI is helping controllers automate the decision-making process by streamlining access to actionable insights.

Where controllers previously had to manually pull data and make charts, AI takes those same pieces of data and automatically works to identify transit trends and analytics.

For example, when looking at a specific vendor, a controller would need to go through the vendor’s records, pull that data and aggregate it manually to identify important trends like a rise in average costs. AI can identify that trend automatically, freeing controllers to focus on larger issues like reevaluating that vendor relationship or negotiating lower costs.

2. Cloud-based ERP

Workplaces are increasingly going mobile, and financial data should be following suit.

Cloud-based ERPs allow controllers to access near real-time financial data from any location. They eliminate the need to manually initiate and update systems, helping controllers reduce administrative work and increase efficiency.

3. Financial dashboards 

Using dashboards not only helps give controllers easier access to financial data but also helps improve the way they communicate it.

A typical financial report requires the recipient to have some financial literacy to be able to understand and apply the data. Dashboards help bridge that gap by presenting the numbers in more impactful representations, like bar graphs and charts. This visual formatting can make it clear how financial data relates to business activities.

Dashboards also make it easier to drill down into specifics, allowing you to manipulate data into a more meaningful format rather than just looking at the high level. For example, you can filter a financial report on payroll for a specific time period, department or even individual employee.

The evolution of controllership

Technology is transforming the way controllers can access, update and report on financial data, helping them transition from an administrative role into a strategic one.

As the responsibilities of controllership continue to evolve, controllers are now shifting their focus to: 

Building relationships 

Controllers are not only expected to deliver information but also to build the internal and external relationships necessary to act on it.

In this more collaborative position, any lack of soft skills is going to be more pronounced. Controllers need to develop their ability to communicate solutions, work with teams and maintain key external relationships, such as vendors and financial institutions.

Leading their team 

According to the 2023 AICPA Trends Report, bachelor’s degree completions in accounting dropped 7.8% from 2021-2022. Accounting departments have to do the same work with fewer people and getting that done effectively requires strong leadership.

Controllers should be working with their staff to identify upskilling and educational opportunities so that they have a clear vision of their career progression. This will help boost overall employee satisfaction, leading to better employee retention. It also helps empower teams to do their work effectively and adapt to how technology is also impacting their roles.

Being proactive 

Increased access to up-to-date financial data is helping controllers shift their focus away from historical reporting to being more proactive in identifying and implementing corrective action.

Controllers are no longer working with a set-it-and-forget-it budget. They have the time and the information they need to make decisions and hold departments accountable regularly. They can also improve planning, working with departments on issues such as setting more realistic goals and reducing costs instead of just reconciling.  

Making business decisions 

Controllers are a source of valuable financial knowledge for any business. But too often, they’re stuck generating reports to apply that knowledge to improving financial health.

With technology making reporting easier, controllers can get out of the office and act as an important financial presence when strategic decisions are being made. They can provide critical insights into operations and potential financial implications — they just need the right tools to make it possible.

How Wipfli can help 

Wipfli’s outsourced controller and accounting services give you access to experienced, knowledgeable controllership without the full-time costs. We’re ready to help your accounting department take advantage of the latest technology so that you not only understand your financial data, but also know how to apply it to make your business more successful.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you evolve controllership in your organization.

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Jessica Barnas, CPA
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