How Finance Is Thriving In A Digital World: 17 Experts Share Their 2018 Predictions

Judy Cubiss

Change is the new normal. The rate of change due to digitalization and technology continues at a breakneck pace. Technologies that were nascent last year are becoming mainstream. Businesses and organizations need to be agile to keep ahead of the competition. An Oxford Economics survey showed clearly that finance organizations that are taking advantage of digitalization are reaping the benefits. Automation allows finance organizations to focus on strategic and value-added topics. What does all this change mean for the finance professional in 2018?

We asked finance thought leaders to share their 2018 predictions for finance in this new digital world. Their insights include a sharp focus on automation, providing immediate insights, agility to support change and new regulations, reskilling the workforce for all these new technologies, and more.

Review the predictions from 2017 and see how they have evolved for 2018.

  1. Sebastian Behrendt, SAP, Regional CFO, Middle and Eastern Europe
    Artificial intelligence (AI) as an academic discipline has been around for 60 years. In recent years, computer power has increased massively, and machine learning became available for everyone. At the same time, algorithms for the business community left the labs and become mainstream. In 2018 and beyond, we will see the benefits on a broader scale for the finance department, which supports self-driving end-to-end processes with a very high degree of automation like automated intercompany reconciliation and processing. The same applies for distributed ledgers (blockchain). We will see more productive scenarios and introduce reality checks against the hype. Besides all the new technologies, we should not forget to do our homework – to invest in training and upskill our finance colleagues. They need to gain knowledge about new technologies and not only about accounting rules. In addition, we need investments in data governance to ensure data consistency and reliability.
  1. Alex Bennell, Capgemini, SAP Finance Transformation Practice Lead @Capgemini
    Cloud burst! Public cloud is now a genuinely disruptive option for finance organizations in large enterprises, offering agile solutions for rapidly growing business units or new group acquisitions, deployed in a two-tier landscape. The public sector will consider cloud to replace overly complex and expensive on-premise ERP, the overwhelming majority of which they don’t use, with something standardized yet powerful, robust yet frequently updated. Simpler; more agile; CapEx to OpEx.
  1. Joel Bernstein, SAP, CFO Global Operations
    2018 requires maintained focus on the redesign and automation of processes, continued focused on customer service, gained experience with embedded business outcomes, and ongoing compliance adherence. We need to shed the burden of legacy data, processes, and systems, which will allow us to spend our time on innovation and the future.
  1. Thack Brown, SAP, GM Finance Audience @thackbrown / @SAPFinance
    The digital revolution in corporate finance has been underway for a solid 3 years now. With a solid foundation of first-movers now achieving material improvements, 2018 will be the year that established best practices using digital tools will go mainstream. At the same time, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics for automating processes and delivering insight from data will become standard operating procedure. Just to show that digital is a journey, and not a destination, blockchain will emerge with its first enterprise-scale applications, offering fuel for more improvement in the future.
  1. Tammy Coley, BlackLine, Chief Strategy Officer @BlackLine
    Under pressure to increase efficiencies and productivity and ever fearful of competitors gaining an advantage, businesses in all sectors are taking a serious look at new technologies, such as AI and robotics. Many businesses are already dipping their toes in the water. And it’s happening throughout organizations — including finance and accounting. A recent survey commissioned by BlackLine revealed that the role automation is playing in F&A is gaining prevalence. Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed said that AI plays a role in their organization today, and 30% currently are investigating its use. This certainly won’t make accountants irrelevant, nor does it mean they’ll lose jobs. It does mean, however, that they need to evolve along with the technology. Every challenge is an opportunity: in this case, upping their game to add an even higher level of value.
  1. Peter David, SAP, Regional CFO Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA)
    With enhanced capabilities in machine learning and artificial intelligence, we will see further automatization on standard finance processes and improved predictive analytics, increasing the relevance of the finance function for future business success. It’s important for finance professionals to realize that they own the data, not only to analyze the past, but much more importantly, to deliver insights to improve business in the future, dig for new opportunities, and propose new business models. Finance departments need to be prepared for much faster and shorter innovation cycles using state-of-the-art finance systems and setting up the finance organization for success.
  1. Nilly Essaides, The Hackett Group, Senior Research Director of Finance/EPM Advisory
    The Hackett Group research reveals that finance’s main objective in 2018 is to support the enterprise with better analytics. Faster and better insight gives management the intelligence it needs to make decisions about capital allocation, investment and assess strategic objectives. Digital technologies are a core part of finance’s ability to deliver insight and drive business value. Increasingly, finance will leverage predictive analytics tools and AI to create more robust forecasting and business analysis capabilities. By automating and augmenting finance’s decision-support abilities, new digital technologies will enable finance to build better business partnerships and support senior management in the assessment and development of business strategy.
  1. Joe Harpaz, Thomson Reuters, Managing Director @joeharpaz
    In 2018, U.S. tax reform (Tax Cuts & Jobs act), new sales and value-added tax regulations abroad, (notably in Middle East and India), and new OECD reporting requirements will introduce the biggest disruption that U.S. corporate tax departments have faced in over 30 years. To meet increasingly stringent compliance requirements and deadlines, tax departments will have to streamline and automate quickly, and effectively utilize its enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology and tax compliance solutions. Those who are heavily dependent on spreadsheets and manual processes will struggle, given the rapid and compressed timeframes to adjust their processes.
  1. Drew Hofler, SAP Ariba, Senior Director, Financial Solutions Marketing @dhofler
    2018 is a year when finance will build upon the foundation of networked finance and peer-to-peer (P2P) data, combining visibility into data at all points in the P2P process with robust, collaborative tools to yield new insights and respond nimbly to changing market dynamics and business goals. Through a connected business network, finance will have the visibility and the tools to collaborate with suppliers to increase free cash flow, improve working capital, and increase yield on cash to improve their bottom lines while concurrently reducing supply chain risk. With the application of AI to sort through the massive amounts of transactional data, finance will be able to make smarter decisions faster, and execute on available opportunities in a more timely manner.
  1. Brian Kalish, Kalish Consulting, Principal @FpandaBTK
    The trend of using increasingly sophisticated tools and technologies that we have witnessed over the past several years will only accelerate in 2018. That will enable today’s FP&A professionals to break free of mundane and low-value data-focused activities, and focus on providing business partners and organizations with the insights and foresights to make those better, smarter decisions faster, which is needed to support the strategies designed to make the organization thrive in the years ahead. There will also be a higher premium placed on the ability to communicate findings and insights to greater and more diversified audiences, both inside and outside the organization.
  1. Tony Klimas, EY LLP, Partner, Global Finance Practice Leader @tonyklimas / @EY_Alliances
    As traditional finance and accounting objectives around controls and reporting are fully met, the ability to see value where no one else does will continue to become an important capability that sets apart world-class finance organizations from others. The cloud will play a big role in making unstructured data something everyone is focused on, with the best finance organizations figuring out how to leverage this data to create value. A focus on the human capital agenda, from career paths to competency models, will become even more critical, and the best finance organizations will inspire their teams to innovate and lead despite all the uncertainty that exists today. Disrupted career paths and automation technologies will make simulation- and scenario-based training more important than ever. The concepts around blockchain and distributed encrypted ledgers will start to move from theory to practice at an accelerating pace.
  1. Richard McLean, SAP, Regional CFO, Asia-Pacific and Japan @McLean_Richard2
    2018 will see finance leaders accelerate the adoption of digital and innovative technologies to drive continued finance transformation in three main areas. The first is core process automation, with technologies such as machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA) becoming more mainstream to drive even higher levels of efficiency. Second will be Big Data management and powerful analytics to bring increased transparency to key business metrics and enable better data-driven decision making at all levels. Third, we will see finance leaders increase their investment in training and upskilling their people with the essential “soft” skills to play a more influential and collaborative role and to drive improved business performance.
  1. Phuong Nguyen, Principal and Central Finance Lead, SAP Center of Excellence, Capgemini @phuongnguyen_1
    2018 will position finance as an important piece in the digital transformation strategy. The triangulation of unified reporting-cum-distributed ledger technology, machine learning, and cloud will tackle complexities of back-end reporting processes and infrastructure scalability and security. Finance will sit snugly with supply chain and procurement initiatives like Integrated business planning (IBP) and robotics, creating a need of a redefined ERP play within the organization.
  1. Rob Ried, Deloitte Consulting LLP, Senior Manager @Rob_Ried / @DeloitteSAP
    Automation everywhere. Automation will blossom from niche solutions to a pervasive solution juggernaut. Maybe you have heard about it? That little automation proof of concept that showed some promise has now proven its mettle. 2018 will be the year of the bot. Digital transformation will emphasize automation as a prime enabler for change. We will see a surge in white-collar automation; organizations big and small will deploy bots and quickly redeploy their human resources. Organizations that embrace automation will take the lead within their industry.
  1. Henner Schliebs, SAP Global Marketing, Head of CFO Marketing @hschliebs
    CFOs will start managing big-ticket items as part of their finance transformation initiatives. They will start to optimize their working capital to fund sustainable growth initiatives and gain better insights into their corporate spend via connecting their financials to the value chain. This will enable the capture of employee-related costs like salaries, contingent workforce, employee-initiated cost, direct and indirect spend in the supply chain, as well as sales, marketing, and all other costs that affect profitability. The connected finance department will focus on the use of modern automation capabilities such as machine learning, advanced predictions, and connected platforms to continue to feed the need for insights and decision-making support. As the CFOs are leading the strategic aspects of their companies, they will be the natural drivers to tie the strategy to operational guidance to optimize the company’s performance.
  1. Joan Warner, Oxford Economics Group, Thought Leadership Managing Editor and Senior Analyst for Finance @OxfordEconomics
    This year, CFOs will work more closely than ever with their tech colleagues in the C-suite—as signaled in the Oxford Economics/SAP 2017 research study, How Finance Leadership Pays Off: Six Ways CFOs Stay Ahead of the Pack. The finance mandate and the technology mandate will intersect in three ways: firstly, as CFOs evaluate tech investments to improve enterprise competitiveness in the digital economy; secondly, as cybersecurity is recognized as a grave business risk in every industry sector; and thirdly, as CFOs improve finance-function effectiveness with automation and AI.
  1. David Williams, SAP, VP, Global Product Marketing, Analytics (EPM & GRC) @daveswilliams
    Financial applications are about to get much more intelligent. Whether it be in the form of embedded compliance to reduce risk, automated routine processes to improve efficiency/reduce errors, guided machine discovery with prescriptive actions to make better decisions, or natural language processing to simplify search for answers, in 2018 it gets real. Modern financial apps will have these capabilities woven in, in a way that finance teams can actually use without having to rely on IT.

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Judy Cubiss

About Judy Cubiss

Judy is director of content marketing for Finance at SAP. She has worked in the software industry for over 20 years in a variety of roles, including consulting, product management, solution management, and content marketing in both Europe and the United States.

The CFO Role In 2020

Estelle Lagorce

African American businessman looking out office window --- Image by © Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/CorbisThe role of the CFO is undergoing a serious transformation, and CFOs can expect their role to continue to evolve, according to a recent CFO.com article by Deloitte COO and CFO Frank Friedman.

In the futurist article, Friedman says one of the biggest factors that will contribute to the CFO’s significant change over the next five years is technology.

Digital technology is obviously expected to drive change in high-tech companies, but Friedman says it’s industries outside of the tech sectors that are of particular interest, as they struggle to understand how to grasp and harness the digital capabilities available to them.

Working with high tech in low-tech industries

Five years from now, a finance team may be defined by how well it uses technology and innovative business tools, regardless of what industry it’s in. The article outlines some examples of ways that digital technology will increasingly be used by CFOs in “non-tech” sectors:

  • Predictive analytics: CFOs in manufacturing companies can forecast results and produce revenue predictions based on customer-experience profiles and current demand, instead of comparing to previous years as most companies still do today.
  • Social media and crowdsourcing: You may not think CFOs spend a lot of time on social media or crowdsourcing sites, but these methods can actually expedite finance processes, such as month-end responsibilities of the finance organization.
  • Big Data: CFOs already have a lot of data at their fingertips, but in 2020 they will have even more. CFOs in both tech and non-tech sectors who understand how to use that data to make valuable, informed decisions, can strategically guide their company and industry in a more digitally oriented world.

To do this, Friedman says CFOs can lead the way by addressing some critical areas:

  1. Know the issues: Gather the key questions that leaders expect Big Data analytics to answer.
  1. Make data easily accessible: Collect data that is manageable and easy to access.
  1. Broaden skills: The finance team needs people with the skills to understand and strategically interpret the data available to them.

The tech-savvy CFO

The role of today’s CFO has already expanded to include strategic corporate growth advice as well as managing the bottom line. In 2020, Friedman says expectations placed on the CFO are presumed to be even greater, and CFOs will likely need a much more diverse, multidisciplinary skill set to meet those demands.

The article details several traits and skills that CFOs will need in order to keep up with the pace of digital change in their role.

  1. Digital knowledge: CFOs must be tech-savvy in order to capitalize on technical innovations that will benefit their company and their industry as a whole.
  1. Data-driven execution: CFOs will need the ability to execute company strategy and operations decisions based on data-driven insights.
  1. Regulatory compliance: Regulations continue to be more stringent globally, so CFOs will need to be proficient at working closely with regulators and compliance systems.
  1. Risk management: With the growing global economy comes increased cyber and geopolitical risks worldwide. The CFOs of 2020, especially those in large multinational organizations, will need to have the expertise to monitor and manage risk in areas that may be unforeseen today.

The future CFO’s well-rounded resume

By 2020, the CFO role will require much more than just an accounting background. According to Deloitte’s Frank Friedman, “CFOs may need to bring a much more multidisciplinary skill set to the job as well as broader career experiences, from working overseas to holding positions in sales and marketing, and even running a business unit.”

So if you’re a current or aspiring CFO, you have five years to round out your resume with the necessary skills to be ready for the digitally driven role of the CFO in 2020.

The above information is based on the CFO.com article What Will the CFO Role Look Like In 2020?” by Deloitte COO & CFO, Frank Friedman – Copyright © 2015 CFO.com.

Want to learn more about best practices for transforming your finance organization? View the SAP/Deloitte Webinar, “Reshaping the Finance Function”.

For an in-depth look at digital technology’s role in business transformation, download the SAP eBook, The Digital Economy: Reinventing the Business World.

To learn more about the business and technology factors driving digital disruption, download the SAP eBook, Digital Disruption: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our World.

To read more CFO insights from a tech industry perspective, read the Wall Street Journal article with SAP CFO Luka Mucic: Driving Insight with In-memory Technology.

Discover 7 Questions CFOs Should Ask Themselves About Cyber Security.

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Estelle Lagorce

About Estelle Lagorce

Estelle Lagorce is the Director, Global Partner Marketing, at SAP. She leads the global planning, successful implementation and business impact of integrated marketing programs with top global Strategic Partner across priority regions and countries (demand generation, thought leadership).

Get Your Payables House In Order

Chris Rauen

First of 8 blogs in the series

Too many organizations ignore the business potential from streamlining accounts payable operations. In a digital economy, however, this may represent one of the best opportunities to improve financial performance and boost the bottom line.

In its recent report, E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground, the research and advisory firm Ardent Partners made a strong case for accounts payable transformation. “In 2015, more AP groups are accelerating their plans to transform their operations and scale to new heights,” states the report.

The digital makeover

From a payables perspective, how you go about fixing outdated procure-to-pay (P2P) practices is much like the decision to improve an aging home. Do you tear your house down and build a new one, or leverage as much of the existing structure as you can and begin a major home improvement project?

There is, of course, a third option. Take no action and make calls to plumbers, electricians, roofers, and other specialists as needed before the house falls apart altogether. While few organizations would consider a “triage” strategy the best option to address deficiencies in P2P operations, many still do. (Just don’t share that with your CFO.)

This blog post is the first in a series that will examine options for upgrading procure-to-pay processes from outclassed to best-in-class. Continuing to focus time and effort on managing transactions just doesn’t make sense. With today’s business networks, organizations have new ways to collaborate with suppliers and other partners to buy, sell, and manage cash.

Automation handles low-value activities, eliminating data entry, exception management, and payment status phone calls. That leaves more time for benchmarking operations, monitoring supplier performance, expanding early payment discounts, and improving management of working capital – the kinds of things that can dramatically improve business performance.

Where do you start?

To begin, you have to recognize that getting your payables house in order is much more than a process efficiency initiative. While cost savings from e-invoicing can be 60% to 80% lower than paper invoicing, there’s much more to the business case.

Improving contract compliance and expanding early payment discounts are other components of a business case for P2P transformation. According to various procure-to-pay research studies and Ariba customer results, the cost savings from getting your payables house in order are conservatively estimated to be $10 million per billion collars of spend. We’ll break down these ROI components in greater detail in future posts on this topic.

The value of alignment

Another important first step, validated by the Ardent Partners report, is getting procurement and finance-accounts payables in alignment. As this is a holistic process, you’ll need to make sure that both organizations are in sync, and you have support from upper management to make it happen.

Now, back to the question: Do you approach a payables makeover to support P2P transformation as a tear-down or a fixer-upper? If your procurement-accounts payable teams are out of alignment, your P2P processes are predominantly paper, and decentralized buying leaves little control over spend, you’re looking at a tear-down to lay the foundation for best practices payables. We’ll share a blueprint with you in the next post in this series.

Chris Rauen is a solution marketer for Ariba, an SAP company. He regularly contributes to topics including e-invoicing and dynamic discounting as well as the value of collaborating in a digital economy. 

Learn more about how to take your payables to the next level of performance in Ardent Partners’ research report “E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground.

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Chris Rauen

About Chris Rauen

In his role at SAP Ariba, Chris Rauen educates procurement, finance, and shared services professionals on the business value of accounts payable automation, procure-to-pay transformation, and collaboration via business networks. Chris has addressed these topics at finance and shared services conferences, in articles for trade and business publications, and in blogs for online communities. Chris has more than 15 years of experience in e-payables, and holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


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

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

About Stephanie Overby

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Future Of Work 2018: 10 Predictions You Can’t Ignore

Steven Hunt

The start of winter is often referred to as the “holiday season.” But it might also be called the “prediction season.” When it comes to human capital management (HCM), most predictions tend to be variations of the same things.

A colleague and I even created a scale to rate HCM predictions based on whether they are new or just “old wine in new bottles.”  The reason HCM predictions do not change much over time is because the “H” in HCM is about people. People do not evolve as fast as technology. Consequently, the basic challenges of HCM are constant: getting the right people in the right roles and providing them with the right work environments while complying with employment laws.

The following are my “top ten” predictions about how these will change in 2018.

Workforce agility will become the most critical concept in HCM. It is often said that the only constant is change. It is now more accurate to say the only constant is an ever-accelerating rate of change. The only way companies can survive in the modern economy is to excel at adapting to changing markets, technologies, and business landscapes. This requires tapping into people’s innate capacity for learning, growth, and innovation.

Staffing will reach new levels of complexity. For over 100 years, most people interpreted “staffing” to mean hiring employees to work onsite in full-time or part-time roles.  This concept is changing due to shifting skill shortages, global labor pools, and a massive rise in virtual work and contract employment.  Staffing no longer means hiring employees.  It means finding the right mix of skills and matching them to business demands by tapping into an increasingly global, virtual, and contingent labor force. Companies will be forced to redefine workforce planning, recruiting, staffing, and management to work in this much more complex labor market.

The experience of work will greatly improve.  Technology has made a lot of things about our lives much easier and more enjoyable. Finding our way around a city, buying products, staying in touch with our friends, watching movies, and hundreds of other life experiences have been transformed by social and mobile technologies leveraging artificially intelligent interfaces and machine learning algorithms. We will see exponential growth in the use of artificial intelligence, chatbots, intelligent services, machine learning, mobile solutions, and social platforms to make work more enjoyable, simple, and engaging.

Performance management will become a solution, not a problem. People have hated performance management for decades.  This is changing thanks to companies rethinking performance management to focus on ongoing coaching and team based decision making.  We will soon reach a tipping point where the dreaded annual review will be nothing more than a painful memory, having been replaced by mobile technology enabled continuous performance management solutions that employees and managers both appreciate and like.

Re-conceptualizing compensation. Companies spend billions of dollars each year on merit increases, bonuses, and other form of compensation.  Yet few of them can confidently answer this question: “What is the return on investment you get from the money spent on compensation in terms of increased employee engagement, productivity, and retention?” Companies can tell down to the last penny how much is spent on compensation, but they cannot tell if that money is being spent wisely. The future of compensation will involve more continuous processes where employees receive different types of rewards throughout the year from different sources.  And analytics will be used to link investments in compensation to returns in workforce productivity.

Intolerance of inequity. For too long, companies have viewed inequity as a problem, but not a problem worth solving. With the workforce becoming increasingly diverse, particularly the rise of women who now represent 50 percent or more of the employees in many fields, society is reaching a long-awaited tipping point where inequitable treatment based on non-job relevant factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age is being openly acknowledged and addressed. Smart companies will proactively redesign their talent management practices to ensure bias is identified and addressed before it happens.

The rise of well-being tech. People are not meant to live in an “always on” 24-7 world.  The pace of work is literally burning people out.  Companies need employees to be highly engaged, creative, and service oriented.  But this is impossible to do if employees are tired, stressed, and distracted.  In the coming year, companies will continue to make more well-being tools available to their employees. With the explosion of well-being technology at the consumer level, such as smartwatches and fitness technology, many employers will be looking to bring these tools into the workplace.  However, successful organizations will be those who make such technologies accessible, enjoyable, and cultural for their employees.

Org charts will begin to phase out. There is a lot of talk about updating businesses for the digital age, and yet companies continue to manage work forces using a tool that has changed little since the Roman Empire: the hierarchical organization chart (“org chart”). Relying on org charts to guide workforce management decisions is both foolish and dangerous in a digitalized world. And while 2018 will not be “the year the org chart died,” some progressive organizations will begin to phase out traditional org charts for more modern, digital approaches.

Companies will ditch all-or-nothing retirement. 2018 will bring about a major shift in workplace dynamics with regards to older generations. Today, individuals are living longer, and thus working longer – past 60, 70, and even 80.  Forward-thinking organizations realize the need to keep this skilled talent in their organization, particularly as many industries face increasing skills shortages. However, this transition will also force companies to rethink jobs; for example, many positions that used to be full time will become part time.  In the coming year, organizations will begin to move away from the traditional, all-or-nothing view of retirement.

Growth in HR cybersecurity threats. Ransom ware made its main stage debut in 2017 with the WannaCry and NotPetya attacks.  In 2018, ransom ware threats will continue to proliferate.  HR systems have not historically been a major target of cyber criminals.  Unfortunately, this will change.  There will be a growing number of attacks against human resources departments, with cyber-criminals posing as potential applicants in the hopes of infecting the larger organization.

We should feel confident these trends will continue to evolve over the coming years. If there is one thing psychologists have proven over the years about predictions, it is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

For more on technology and HR, see Why (And How) Technology Is Bringing HR And The CFO Together.

This article originally appeared on Forbes SAPVoice.

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Steven Hunt

About Steven Hunt

Steven Hunt is the Senior Vice President of Customer Value at SAP. He is responsible for guiding the strategy and deployment of knowledge, tools and process improvements that increase the value customers receive from SuccessFactors & SAP Cloud software as a service solutions.