Are We Preparing Today’s Students For Digitalization In Their Finance Careers?

Matthias Heiden

One of the fascinating aspects about digitalization is thinking about the future, visualizing the opportunities that weren’t previously within reach. It’s no secret in business or athletics that having a view on where you’re going – your goal – and then building out the path to get there – your plan – are essential. We’re clearly doing this with our customers, and the other CFOs I speak with are talking about how they’re doing this with their businesses.

The other day, I was talking with an academic about digitalization, and learned that his school is beginning to consider offering a business course on digitalization. I guess that’s a start, albeit maybe not one keeping pace with today’s changes. I offered a view into what my peers are doing as business strategists as well as what I consider to be the CFO’s building blocks in my recent blogs. But what about academia? Are we teaching today’s students how to succeed in the digital economy?

I suspect that today’s students aren’t yet being prepared for data’s impact on how we conduct business. There are positive signs and research focus areas, yet the digital economy has not yet become an integral part of business syllabi. Thinking back, when I was in university we studied business functions and processes and what they meant. We focused on the mechanics of doing business and how business changes along with economies, learning about the business building blocks – HR, finance – the entire corporation, end to end. Data was never really a consideration as we limited ourselves to information systems and business process modelling. Considering the idea of preparing today’s students for the future, here are my thoughts.

First, a solid foundation can’t and shouldn’t be replaced. Double bookkeeping entries, invented centuries ago, aren’t going anywhere. The basics, such as what constitutes a profit as well as the basics of marketing, HR, or risk management must remain because they’re the foundation, the business principles that anyone studying finance and business must know.

The area that needs attention, which is ever more relevant, is data and its impact on how we conduct business. Doing complicated calculations is an important skill, but it’s not so meaningful if people don’t understand the implications of the data and how it correlates to the business fundamentals. For instance, how does the information fit within the smaller market, the wider region, and the global digital economy, for instance? What does it mean for risk analysis? These considerations are what turn a CFO into the business strategist, advising the business on the best path forward.

The fundamentals remain valid and important and should be at the core of study. Aspiring business leaders need to learn to bridge from the business processes they’re learning with the end-to-end processes prevalent in the digital economy, where there’s data throughout, and give meaning to that data. Whoever owns the data has the competitive advantage.

Working with that data for the business is what students for tomorrow’s workforce need to learn: the data and its impact on how we conduct business. With modern computing and the Internet, research has become empirical. Today’s students can do the most complicated calculations, but are they being taught to understand the foundations of business, how they correlate, and the impact in the digital economy? For instance, energy prices are decreasing, rising temperatures are affecting agriculture, and politics are fueling tensions between countries. How can you crunch the data and advise the business with a coherent risk analysis? It is not always possible and feasible to do a complex econometric model for this. Sometimes it’s about applying business acumen and connecting political developments with business planning and decision making. Maybe this is being taught in academic pockets, but I think there’s a case for this to be taught in a widespread fashion.

This is an area where academia can be investing. And there’s a case for business leaders to contribute to ensure that today’s students are learning the theory, but also seeing the world through from a realistic business perspective with an end-to-end process view. Organizational silos are among the biggest problems enterprises face, and business leaders can help tomorrow’s workforce with a real-world view shared in the classroom.

Technology and data allow us to do things today we only dreamed of before. We knew there’d be correlations, and some people could tease it out with experience. But now you can predict and prepare. Are we preparing our future students, who have grown up with computing, to be successful in the digital economy?

To learn more about how finance operations are evolving to meet business needs, and how CFOs can prepare their organizations to thrive in the digital economy, read the Forrester report Digital And Automation Enable Finance Operations Efficiency.

Matthias Heiden

About Matthias Heiden

Dr. Matthias Heiden, senior vice president, regional CFO, Middle and Eastern Europe (MEE), is responsible for the field finance organization of MEE. In this role, he supports the organization in managing P&L, continuously driving strategic finance transformation initiatives initiated by Corporate Finance together with the other regional CFOs. This team helps improve business-related processes and supports the Market Unit CFOs in their role as business facilitator and transformation agent.