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Machine Learning: What’s In It For Finance?

SAP News Center

Automating standard processes has long been the top priority for finance departments. Now, things are moving to the next level: Thanks to machine learning, intelligent software can now handle tasks that it has never been able to perform before.

Most enterprises deploy software that posts payment transactions automatically and ensures that compliance rules are met. Which means that finance personnel are only called on to intervene manually when exceptions occur – such as customers omitting key payment data, making a typing error, or paying multiple invoices in a single transaction.

“This is precisely where machine learning comes in,” says Robin Bau, director of Shared Service Automation at SAP. “The new technology can now be deployed in any scenario where additional knowledge is required.”

Machine learning-enabled software learns in a similar way to humans, that is, chiefly through experience, observation, and historic data. It uses self-learning algorithms to spot patterns; it recognizes contexts, and it makes predictions. And while the concept of artificial intelligence is by no means new, it’s only now that computers have become powerful enough to analyze sufficient volumes of data and to allow data scientists to develop corresponding models from it.

Using machine learning to identify universal processes

Of course, theoretically, you could create a set of rules for every conceivable error by hand. But self-learning software saves you the trouble. “The technology runs in the background and ‘observes’ human actions. When an employee in finance allocates a consolidated payment to multiple invoices, the software remembers the action and performs it autonomously the next time around – without being explicitly programmed to do so,” explains Bau.

After a brief “familiarization” phase, the software understands comparatively simple, universal processes. It is also quick to learn company-specific compliance procedures: “Each company has its own rules and business scenarios. All the software needs is access to historic in order to be able to respond correctly,” says Bau.

Built-in AI for SAP solutions

In the medium term, SAP plans to build artificial intelligence into its entire software suite and all of its cloud solutions. One key objective is to ease the workload of shared service organizations.

“Many of the inquiries processed by shared service centers are fairly similar: When was my invoice paid? Why did I receive a reminder? Answering them is a very time-consuming process. [Software] identifies the correct processor when a ticket arrives and can often answer questions itself,” says Bau.

Going forward, artificial intelligence will be used for strategic matters, to provide accurate forecasts, and thus to support a company’s growth.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)  | LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Optimizing Disclosure Management For Capital Markets: Part 2

Christian Brandl and Stefan Paetzold

Part 2 in a 2-part series. Read Part 1.

In our last blog, we outlined the importance of effective and efficient capital market communication for company growth, for convincing potential investors about the soundness of the company’s current and future financial situation. We also described the shortfalls inherent in most companies’ processes, and the tools now available to guide corporate accountants and analysts in a well-structured approach to optimize their closing and reporting cycle.

Here are a few key benefits of these solutions:

  • Management and structuring of the production, filing, and publication of (external and internal) financial and regulatory disclosures
  • Automation of workflows to assign responsibilities across teams and units, share information, and reduce risk
  • Foster collaboration by giving users more autonomy and accountability
  • Publish financial statements in a variety of formats, including Microsoft Word, PDF, and XBRL
  • Ensure compliance with IFRS, multiple GAAPs, and other industry-specific accounting standards

Result: Faster financial close

A specialized solution will allow users to automate all the process steps related to the “last mile of finance.” The full digital integration of data from many sources and the dynamic storage of data in a single source of truth supports a swift regulatory reporting and disclosure. A central cache stores data from multiple systems and keeps the data up-to-date. Last-minute changes need to be reflected in all the documents connected to the single source of truth. This can be achieved by creating multiple dynamic connections to various systems that will update data (and other related information) automatically in case of changes without manual interference.

Once the process of putting a report together is started, access to relevant data is given by creating chapters of reports (data, narratives, charts) in common and widely used file formats such as Microsoft Excel and Word. Users are very experienced with Microsoft Office and will find it much easier to use a new software solution when it is accompanied by certain familiar components.

When data is stored in “chapters,” the disclosure management solution will automatically store multiple versions of documents with change-tracking abilities on a dedicated server. When users want to continue working on a chapter, the solution will always provide the latest version automatically.

Collaboration, compliance, and control

Another main key in an improvement of the overall close process is efficient and effective collaboration among team members. A disclosure management solution needs to facilitate communication among team members and management, and support workflows and approvals across organizational hierarchies, geographies, and business units. This can be done by individually assigning access rights to the various “chapters” in the reports on a “need-to-know” basis to individual users with potentially individual workflow steps.

In the last steps, compliance and control is another key element. The solution will support the process to publish auditable financial and regulatory statements in multiple formats (including XBRL). It will also ensure compliance with various accounting standards such as IFRS, multiple GAAPs, and other industry-specific regulations.

Based on our experience, many companies are surprised by the gain in speed, quality, and confidence they can achieve by using a dedicated disclosure management solution instead of relying on manual validations and last-minute copy-and-paste activities. We encourage you to find out more about the latest developments and features to optimize your capital market communication with the use of SAP Disclosure Management.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)  | LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Christian Brandl

About Christian Brandl

Christian Brandl is a business enterprise principal consultant and has worked for SAP Consulting for more than 5 years. He has been supporting companies as a solution architect and functional consultant in the areas of financial planning, controlling, and consolidation. Christian received his M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration) with a focus on corporate finance and controlling from Purdue University (USA).

Stefan Paetzold

About Stefan Paetzold

Stefan Pätzold is a global business transformation manager, PMP, and has worked for SAP Business Transformation Services for more than 6 years. He has been supporting companies as a program manager and trusted advisor in the areas of finance, controlling, and consolidation. Stefan received his diploma in business administration and engineering with a focus on finance and controlling from the University of Applied Sciences, Giessen.

Becoming An Exceptional Accountant

Zach Deming

Part 9 in the continuous accounting blog series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6,  Part 7, and Part 8.

As an accounting and finance professional, you do so much more than just handle money matters; you’re also critical for creating strategy and driving process improvements across the entire organization.

But if you spend most of your time manually reconciling accounts and matching transactions, little is left for these bigger-picture activities.

What if you could be more productive with fewer resources and less overtime, and also easily improve the quality of your work? Not only would you be pleased with this improvement, but it would set you apart in the industry.

The modern approach

Continuous accounting is a modern approach that enables this improvement and creates competitive advantage. It transforms the way accounting and finance are done by embedding automation, control, and period-end tasks within day-to-day activities, smoothing out the end-of-period spikes and allowing the rigid accounting calendar to more closely mirror the broader business.

Effectively implementing continuous accounting requires a holistic approach, combining a mix of technology, process, and people to realize continued improvements across the accounting organization.

Using technology to automate procedures enhances the benefits of process optimization while increasing the overall productivity of accounting team members. Optimized processes will streamline automation, reduce risk, improve accuracy, and increase efficiency, benefiting the entire accounting and finance function.

Optimizing your people

Your accounting and finance professionals are at the heart of your organization’s innovation, and crucial to driving strategy and future business growth. But according to a recent BlackLine survey conducted by Censuswide, many midsize and large company decision-makers are not fully leveraging this talent.

Manual processes and tedious tasks take up too much time and result in this invaluable skillset being widely underutilized. To unlock this value, companies need to automate the tedious and manual accounting work that consumes so much of accountants’ time and effort.

When manual processes are automated, accounting and finance teams spend fewer hours on transactional activities. The focus shifts to analyzing the data and reports, and addressing only the exceptions.

Thus, by embedding continuous accounting practices, every accountant can become an exceptional accountant, providing high-value services in areas like fraud detection, compliance, data analytics, technology, and business advice.

What is an exceptional accountant?

By researching only the anomalies, accounting and finance staff can also refocus on providing strategic guidance to the business, such as improving internal processes or finding cost-saving opportunities. In other words, the added time allows accountants to apply not just their knowledge and expertise, but also their nuanced creativity and intelligence.

According to Helen Brand, chief executive of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), “To succeed as a professional accountant…a vastly different set of skills is required than was necessary just 10 short years ago. And in the next decade, things are likely to change even faster and more dramatically as the global economy continues to evolve at an ever-quickening pace.”

So, what does the exceptional accountant of tomorrow need to cultivate today? Think mastering communication, not macros. Strategic aptitude, instead of being spreadsheet savvy. In short, capabilities that enable any accountant to deliver predictive insights to leadership, drive data-based decisions, and provide expert counsel. Analytical skills, communication skills, relationship skills, creativity, business acumen, and tech savviness: these six skills work in unison to serve as building blocks to Exceptional Accountant status.

My next blog on Wednesday, August 2 will explore in more detail.

To learn more about continuous accounting, read the Ventana Research Paper.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)  | LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Zach Deming

About Zach Deming

Zach Deming is the director of Product Marketing at BlackLine. Zach partners with accounting and finance leaders to help them realize how their spreadsheet-driven processes hiding in the shadows simply can’t cope with the demands of always-on modern business, and the expectation of real-time analysis. After a decade in the industry, he thinks the benefits of cloud software can free accountants from the chains of transactions, liberating them to focus on strategy and analysis. Zach is skeptical of the robot uprising, and as a champion of Continuous Accounting, he believes the future of accounting does not lie in new technology alone, but also with the nuanced intelligence of skilled accountants. Connect with Zach on LinkedIn and Twitter (@ZachDeming).

Heroes in the Race to Save Antibiotics

Dr. David Delaney, Joseph Miles, Walt Ellenberger, Saravana Chandran, and Stephanie Overby

Last August, a woman arrived at a Reno, Nevada, hospital and told the attending doctors that she had recently returned from an extended trip to India, where she had broken her right thighbone two years ago. The woman, who was in her 70s, had subsequently developed an infection in her thigh and hip for which she was hospitalized in India several times. The Reno doctors recognized that the infection was serious—and the visit to India, where antibiotic-resistant bacteria runs rampant, raised red flags.

When none of the 14 antibiotics the physicians used to treat the woman worked, they sent a sample of the bacterium to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for testing. The CDC confirmed the doctors’ worst fears: the woman had a class of microbe called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). Carbapenems are a powerful class of antibiotics used as last-resort treatment for multidrug-resistant infections. The CDC further found that, in this patient’s case, the pathogen was impervious to all 26 antibiotics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In other words, there was no cure.

This is just the latest alarming development signaling the end of the road for antibiotics as we know them. In September, the woman died from septic shock, in which an infection takes over and shuts down the body’s systems, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Other antibiotic options, had they been available, might have saved the Nevada woman. But the solution to the larger problem won’t be a new drug. It will have to be an entirely new approach to the diagnosis of infectious disease, to the use of antibiotics, and to the monitoring of antimicrobial resistance (AMR)—all enabled by new technology.

But that new technology is not being implemented fast enough to prevent what former CDC director Tom Frieden has nicknamed nightmare bacteria. And the nightmare is becoming scarier by the year. A 2014 British study calculated that 700,000 people die globally each year because of AMR. By 2050, the global cost of antibiotic resistance could grow to 10 million deaths and US$100 trillion a year, according to a 2014 estimate. And the rate of AMR is growing exponentially, thanks to the speed with which humans serving as hosts for these nasty bugs can move among healthcare facilities—or countries. In the United States, for example, CRE had been seen only in North Carolina in 2000; today it’s nationwide.

Abuse and overuse of antibiotics in healthcare and livestock production have enabled bacteria to both mutate and acquire resistant genes from other organisms, resulting in truly pan-drug resistant organisms. As ever-more powerful superbugs continue to proliferate, we are potentially facing the deadliest and most costly human-made catastrophe in modern times.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even if new antibiotics could solve the problem, there are obstacles to their development. For one thing, antibiotics have complex molecular structures, which slows the discovery process. Further, they aren’t terribly lucrative for pharmaceutical manufacturers: public health concerns call for new antimicrobials to be financially accessible to patients and used conservatively precisely because of the AMR issue, which reduces the financial incentives to create new compounds. The last entirely new class of antibiotic was introduced 30 year ago. Finally, bacteria will develop resistance to new antibiotics as well if we don’t adopt new approaches to using them.

Technology can play the lead role in heading off this disaster. Vast amounts of data from multiple sources are required for better decision making at all points in the process, from tracking or predicting antibiotic-resistant disease outbreaks to speeding the potential discovery of new antibiotic compounds. However, microbes will quickly adapt and resist new medications, too, if we don’t also employ systems that help doctors diagnose and treat infection in a more targeted and judicious way.

Indeed, digital tools can help in all four actions that the CDC recommends for combating AMR: preventing infections and their spread, tracking resistance patterns, improving antibiotic use, and developing new diagnostics and treatment.

Meanwhile, individuals who understand both the complexities of AMR and the value of technologies like machine learning, human-computer interaction (HCI), and mobile applications are working to develop and advocate for solutions that could save millions of lives.

Keeping an Eye Out for Outbreaks

Like others who are leading the fight against AMR, Dr. Steven Solomon has no illusions about the difficulty of the challenge. “It is the single most complex problem in all of medicine and public health—far outpacing the complexity and the difficulty of any other problem that we face,” says Solomon, who is a global health consultant and former director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.

Solomon wants to take the battle against AMR beyond the laboratory. In his view, surveillance—tracking and analyzing various data on AMR—is critical, particularly given how quickly and widely it spreads. But surveillance efforts are currently fraught with shortcomings. The available data is fragmented and often not comparable. Hospitals fail to collect the representative samples necessary for surveillance analytics, collecting data only on those patients who experience resistance and not on those who get better. Laboratories use a wide variety of testing methods, and reporting is not always consistent or complete.

Surveillance can serve as an early warning system. But weaknesses in these systems have caused public health officials to consistently underestimate the impact of AMR in loss of lives and financial costs. That’s why improving surveillance must be a top priority, says Solomon, who previously served as chair of the U.S. Federal Interagency Task Force on AMR and has been tracking the advance of AMR since he joined the U.S. Public Health Service in 1981.

A Collaborative Diagnosis

Ineffective surveillance has also contributed to huge growth in the use of antibiotics when they aren’t warranted. Strong patient demand and financial incentives for prescribing physicians are blamed for antibiotics abuse in China. India has become the largest consumer of antibiotics on the planet, in part because they are prescribed or sold for diarrheal diseases and upper respiratory infections for which they have limited value. And many countries allow individuals to purchase antibiotics over the counter, exacerbating misuse and overuse.

In the United States, antibiotics are improperly prescribed 50% of the time, according to CDC estimates. One study of adult patients visiting U.S. doctors to treat respiratory problems found that more than two-thirds of antibiotics were prescribed for conditions that were not infections at all or for infections caused by viruses—for which an antibiotic would do nothing. That’s 27 million courses of antibiotics wasted a year—just for respiratory problems—in the United States alone.

And even in countries where there are national guidelines for prescribing antibiotics, those guidelines aren’t always followed. A study published in medical journal Family Practice showed that Swedish doctors, both those trained in Sweden and those trained abroad, inconsistently followed rules for prescribing antibiotics.

Solomon strongly believes that, worldwide, doctors need to expand their use of technology in their offices or at the bedside to guide them through a more rational approach to antibiotic use. Doctors have traditionally been reluctant to adopt digital technologies, but Solomon thinks that the AMR crisis could change that. New digital tools could help doctors and hospitals integrate guidelines for optimal antibiotic prescribing into their everyday treatment routines.

“Human-computer interactions are critical, as the amount of information available on antibiotic resistance far exceeds the ability of humans to process it,” says Solomon. “It offers the possibility of greatly enhancing the utility of computer-assisted physician order entry (CPOE), combined with clinical decision support.” Healthcare facilities could embed relevant information and protocols at the point of care, guiding the physician through diagnosis and prescription and, as a byproduct, facilitating the collection and reporting of antibiotic use.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s antibiotic stewardship division has deployed a software program that gathers information from electronic medical records, order entries, computerized laboratory and pathology reports, and more. The system measures baseline antimicrobial use, dosing, duration, costs, and use patterns. It also analyzes bacteria and trends in their susceptibilities and helps with clinical decision making and prescription choices. The goal, says Dr. David Haslam, who heads the program, is to decrease the use of “big gun” super antibiotics in favor of more targeted treatment.

While this approach is not yet widespread, there is consensus that incorporating such clinical-decision support into electronic health records will help improve quality of care, contain costs, and reduce overtreatment in healthcare overall—not just in AMR. A 2013 randomized clinical trial finds that doctors who used decision-support tools were significantly less likely to order antibiotics than those in the control group and prescribed 50% fewer broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Putting mobile devices into doctors’ hands could also help them accept decision support, believes Solomon. Last summer, Scotland’s National Health Service developed an antimicrobial companion app to give practitioners nationwide mobile access to clinical guidance, as well as an audit tool to support boards in gathering data for local and national use.

“The immediacy and the consistency of the input to physicians at the time of ordering antibiotics may significantly help address the problem of overprescribing in ways that less-immediate interventions have failed to do,” Solomon says. In addition, handheld devices with so-called lab-on-a-chip  technology could be used to test clinical specimens at the bedside and transmit the data across cellular or satellite networks in areas where infrastructure is more limited.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can also become invaluable technology collaborators to help doctors more precisely diagnose and treat infection. In such a system, “the physician and the AI program are really ‘co-prescribing,’” says Solomon. “The AI can handle so much more information than the physician and make recommendations that can incorporate more input on the type of infection, the patient’s physiologic status and history, and resistance patterns of recent isolates in that ward, in that hospital, and in the community.”

Speed Is Everything

Growing bacteria in a dish has never appealed to Dr. James Davis, a computational biologist with joint appointments at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago Computation Institute. The first of a growing breed of computational biologists, Davis chose a PhD advisor in 2004 who was steeped in bioinformatics technology “because you could see that things were starting to change,” he says. He was one of the first in his microbiology department to submit a completely “dry” dissertation—that is, one that was all digital with nothing grown in a lab.

Upon graduation, Davis wanted to see if it was possible to predict whether an organism would be susceptible or resistant to a given antibiotic, leading him to explore the potential of machine learning to predict AMR.

As the availability of cheap computing power has gone up and the cost of genome sequencing has gone down, it has become possible to sequence a pathogen sample in order to detect its AMR resistance mechanisms. This could allow doctors to identify the nature of an infection in minutes instead of hours or days, says Davis.

Davis is part of a team creating a giant database of bacterial genomes with AMR metadata for the Pathosystems Resource Integration Center (PATRIC), funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to collect data on priority pathogens, such as tuberculosis and gonorrhea.

Because the current inability to identify microbes quickly is one of the biggest roadblocks to making an accurate diagnosis, the team’s work is critically important. The standard method for identifying drug resistance is to take a sample from a wound, blood, or urine and expose the resident bacteria to various antibiotics. If the bacterial colony continues to divide and thrive despite the presence of a normally effective drug, it indicates resistance. The process typically takes between 16 and 20 hours, itself an inordinate amount of time in matters of life and death. For certain strains of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, though, such testing can take a week. While physicians are waiting for test results, they often prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics or make a best guess about what drug will work based on their knowledge of what’s happening in their hospital, “and in the meantime, you either get better,” says Davis, “or you don’t.”

At PATRIC, researchers are using machine-learning classifiers to identify regions of the genome involved in antibiotic resistance that could form the foundation for a “laboratory free” process for predicting resistance. Being able to identify the genetic mechanisms of AMR and predict the behavior of bacterial pathogens without petri dishes could inform clinical decision making and improve reaction time. Thus far, the researchers have developed machine-learning classifiers for identifying antibiotic resistance in Acinetobacter baumannii (a big player in hospital-acquired infection), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (a.k.a. MRSA, a worldwide problem), and Streptococcus pneumoniae (a leading cause of bacterial meningitis), with accuracies ranging from 88% to 99%.

Houston Methodist Hospital, which uses the PATRIC database, is researching multidrug-resistant bacteria, specifically MRSA. Not only does resistance increase the cost of care, but people with MRSA are 64% more likely to die than people with a nonresistant form of the infection, according to WHO. Houston Methodist is investigating the molecular genetic causes of drug resistance in MRSA in order to identify new treatment approaches and help develop novel antimicrobial agents.

The Hunt for a New Class of Antibiotics

There are antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and then there’s Clostridium difficile—a.k.a. C. difficile—a bacterium that attacks the intestines even in young and healthy patients in hospitals after the use of antibiotics.

It is because of C. difficile that Dr. L. Clifford McDonald jumped into the AMR fight. The epidemiologist was finishing his work analyzing the spread of SARS in Toronto hospitals in 2004 when he turned his attention to C. difficile, convinced that the bacteria would become more common and more deadly. He was right, and today he’s at the forefront of treating the infection and preventing the spread of AMR as senior advisor for science and integrity in the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. “[AMR] is an area that we’re funding heavily…insofar as the CDC budget can fund anything heavily,” says McDonald, whose group has awarded $14 million in contracts for innovative anti-AMR approaches.

Developing new antibiotics is a major part of the AMR battle. The majority of new antibiotics developed in recent years have been variations of existing drug classes. It’s been three decades since the last new class of antibiotics was introduced. Less than 5% of venture capital in pharmaceutical R&D is focused on antimicrobial development. A 2008 study found that less than 10% of the 167 antibiotics in development at the time had a new “mechanism of action” to deal with multidrug resistance. “The low-hanging fruit [of antibiotic development] has been picked,” noted a WHO report.

Researchers will have to dig much deeper to develop novel medicines. Machine learning could help drug developers sort through much larger data sets and go about the capital-intensive drug development process in a more prescriptive fashion, synthesizing those molecules most likely to have an impact.

McDonald believes that it will become easier to find new antibiotics if we gain a better understanding of the communities of bacteria living in each of us—as many as 1,000 different types of microbes live in our intestines, for example. Disruption to those microbial communities—our “microbiome”—can herald AMR. McDonald says that Big Data and machine learning will be needed to unlock our microbiomes, and that’s where much of the medical community’s investment is going.

He predicts that within five years, hospitals will take fecal samples or skin swabs and sequence the microorganisms in them as a kind of pulse check on antibiotic resistance. “Just doing the bioinformatics to sort out what’s there and the types of antibiotic resistance that might be in that microbiome is a Big Data challenge,” McDonald says. “The only way to make sense of it, going forward, will be advanced analytic techniques, which will no doubt include machine learning.”

Reducing Resistance on the Farm

Bringing information closer to where it’s needed could also help reduce agriculture’s contribution to the antibiotic resistance problem. Antibiotics are widely given to livestock to promote growth or prevent disease. In the United States, more kilograms of antibiotics are administered to animals than to people, according to data from the FDA.

One company has developed a rapid, on-farm diagnostics tool to provide livestock producers with more accurate disease detection to make more informed management and treatment decisions, which it says has demonstrated a 47% to 59% reduction in antibiotic usage. Such systems, combined with pressure or regulations to reduce antibiotic use in meat production, could also help turn the AMR tide.

Breaking Down Data Silos Is the First Step

Adding to the complexity of the fight against AMR is the structure and culture of the global healthcare system itself. Historically, healthcare has been a siloed industry, notorious for its scattered approach focused on transactions rather than healthy outcomes or the true value of treatment. There’s no definitive data on the impact of AMR worldwide; the best we can do is infer estimates from the information that does exist.

The biggest issue is the availability of good data to share through mobile solutions, to drive HCI clinical-decision support tools, and to feed supercomputers and machine-learning platforms. “We have a fragmented healthcare delivery system and therefore we have fragmented information. Getting these sources of data all into one place and then enabling them all to talk to each other has been problematic,” McDonald says.

Collecting, integrating, and sharing AMR-related data on a national and ultimately global scale will be necessary to better understand the issue. HCI and mobile tools can help doctors, hospitals, and public health authorities collect more information while advanced analytics, machine learning, and in-memory computing can enable them to analyze that data in close to real time. As a result, we’ll better understand patterns of resistance from the bedside to the community and up to national and international levels, says Solomon. The good news is that new technology capabilities like AI and new potential streams of data are coming online as an era of data sharing in healthcare is beginning to dawn, adds McDonald.

The ideal goal is a digitally enabled virtuous cycle of information and treatment that could save millions of dollars, lives, and perhaps even civilization if we can get there. D!

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.


About the Authors:

Dr. David Delaney is Chief Medical Officer for SAP.

Joseph Miles is Global Vice President, Life Sciences, for SAP.

Walt Ellenberger is Senior Director Business Development, Healthcare Transformation and Innovation, for SAP.

Saravana Chandran is Senior Director, Advanced Analytics, for SAP.

Stephanie Overby is an independent writer and editor focused on the intersection of business and technology.

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4 Traits Set Digital Leaders Apart From 97% Of The Competition

Vivek Bapat

Like the classic parable of the blind man and the elephant, it seems everyone has a unique take on digital transformation. Some equate digital transformation with emerging technologies, placing their bets on as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Others see it as a way to increase efficiencies and change business processes to accelerate product to market. Some others think of it is a means of strategic differentiation, innovating new business models for serving and engaging their customers. Despite the range of viewpoints, many businesses are still challenged with pragmatically evolving digital in ways that are meaningful, industry-disruptive, and market-leading.

According to a recent study of more than 3,000 senior executives across 17 countries and regions, only a paltry three percent of businesses worldwide have successfully completed enterprise-wide digital transformation initiatives, even though 84% of C-level executives ranks such efforts as “critically important” to the fundamental sustenance of their business.

The most comprehensive global study of its kind, the SAP Center for Business Insight report “SAP Digital Transformation Executive Study: 4 Ways Leaders Set Themselves Apart,” in collaboration with Oxford Economics, identified the challenges, opportunities, value, and key technologies driving digital transformation. The findings specifically analyzed the performance of “digital leaders” – those who are connecting people, things, and businesses more intelligently, more effectively, and creating punctuated change faster than their less advanced rivals.

After analyzing the data, it was eye-opening to see that only three percent of companies (top 100) are successfully realizing their full potential through digital transformation. However, even more remarkable was that these leaders have four fundamental traits in common, regardless of their region of operation, their size, their organizational structure, or their industry.

We distilled these traits in the hope that others in the early stages of transformation or that are still struggling to find their bearings can embrace these principles in order to succeed. Ultimately I see these leaders as true ambidextrous organizations, managing evolutionary and revolutionary change simultaneously, willing to embrace innovation – not just on the edges of their business, but firmly into their core.

Here are the four traits that set these leaders apart from the rest:

Trait #1: They see digital transformation as truly transformational

An overwhelming majority (96%) of digital leaders view digital transformation as a core business goal that requires a unified digital mindset across the entire enterprise. But instead of allowing individual functions to change at their own pace, digital leaders prefer to evolve the organization to help ensure the success of their digital strategies.

The study found that 56% of these businesses regularly shift their organizational structure, which includes processes, partners, suppliers, and customers, compared to 10% of remaining companies. Plus, 70% actively bring lines of business together through cross-functional processes and technologies.

By creating a firm foundation for transformation, digital leaders are further widening the gap between themselves and their less advanced competitors as they innovate business models that can mitigate emerging risks and seize new opportunities quickly.

Trait #2: They focus on transforming customer-facing functions first

Although most companies believe technology, the pace of change, and growing global competition are the key global trends that will affect everything for years to come, digital leaders are expanding their frame of mind to consider the influence of customer empowerment. Executives who build a momentum of breakthrough innovation and industry transformation are the ones that are moving beyond the high stakes of the market to the activation of complete, end-to-end customer experiences.

In fact, 92% of digital leaders have established sophisticated digital transformation strategies and processes to drive transformational change in customer satisfaction and engagement, compared to 22% of their less mature counterparts. As a result, 70% have realized significant or transformational value from these efforts.

Trait #3: They create a virtuous cycle of digital talent

There’s little doubt that the competition for qualified talent is fierce. But for nearly three-quarters of companies that demonstrate digital-transformation leadership, it is easier to attract and retain talent because they are five times more likely to leverage digitization to change their talent management efforts.

The impact of their efforts goes beyond empowering recruiters to identify best-fit candidates, highlight risk factors and hiring errors, and predict long-term talent needs. Nearly half (48%) of digital leaders understand that they must invest heavily in the development of digital skills and technology to drive revenue, retain productive employees, and create new roles to keep up with their digital maturity over the next two years, compared to 30% of all surveyed executives.

Trait #4: They invest in next-generation technology using a bimodal architecture

A couple years ago, Peter Sondergaard, senior vice president at Gartner and global head of research, observed that “CIOs can’t transform their old IT organization into a digital startup, but they can turn it into a bi-modal IT organization. Forty-five percent of CIOs state they currently have a fast mode of operation, and we predict that 75% of IT organizations will be bimodal in some way by 2017.”

Based on the results of the SAP Center for Business Insight study, Sondergaard’s prediction was spot on. As digital leaders dive into advanced technologies, 72% are using a digital twin of the conventional IT organization to operate efficiently without disruption while refining innovative scenarios to resolve business challenges and integrate them to stay ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, only 30% of less advanced businesses embrace this view.

Working within this bimodal architecture is emboldening digital leaders to take on incredibly progressive technology. For example, the study found that 50% of these firms are using artificial intelligence and machine learning, compared to seven percent of all respondents. They are also leading the adoption curve of Big Data solutions and analytics (94% vs. 60%) and the Internet of Things (76% vs. 52%).

Digital leadership is a practice of balance, not pure digitization

Most executives understand that digital transformation is a critical driver of revenue growth, profitability, and business expansion. However, as digital leaders are proving, digital strategies must deliver a balance of organizational flexibility, forward-looking technology adoption, and bold change. And clearly, this approach is paying dividends for them. They are growing market share, increasing customer satisfaction, improving employee engagement, and, perhaps more important, achieving more profitability than ever before.

For any company looking to catch up to digital leaders, the conversation around digital transformation needs to change immediately to combat three deadly sins: Stop investing in one-off, isolated projects hidden in a single organization. Stop viewing IT as an enabler instead of a strategic partner. Stop walling off the rest of the business from siloed digital successes.

As our study shows, companies that treat their digital transformation as an all-encompassing, all-sharing, and all-knowing business imperative will be the ones that disrupt the competitive landscape and stay ahead of a constantly evolving economy.

Follow me on twitter @vivek_bapat 

For more insight on digital leaders, check out the SAP Center for Business Insight report, conducted in collaboration with Oxford Economics,SAP Digital Transformation Executive Study: 4 Ways Leaders Set Themselves Apart.”

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About Vivek Bapat

Vivek Bapat is the Senior Vice President, Global Head of Marketing Strategy and Thought Leadership, at SAP. He leads SAP's Global Marketing Strategy, Messaging, Positioning and related Thought Leadership initiatives.