Applied Materials Inc.
is working to automate its finance processes to boost efficiency and free up employees for more analytical tasks. That includes using tools like robotic process automation and the cloud to reduce the time employees spend collecting data and increase the time they spend gleaning insights from it.
The company, which provides equipment, software and services to chip manufacturers, has held its finance head count largely flat in recent years, while its business has been growing.
corporate vice president of finance at Applied Materials, explains how automation can help with retaining finance talent and how it will change how his employees spend their time. This is the second part of a new series that focuses on how CFOs and other executives digitize their finance operations. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: What is the reasoning behind your agile finance initiative? Increasing automation in the finance function?
Mr. Ahmed: [Between] 2013 and 2018, the company almost doubled in size. As we looked ahead, it became apparent that we were going to aggressively grow over the next five years. But we are pretty resource constrained in finance [given that] we are heavily investing in research and development. That’s what formed the basis of the initiative.
WSJ: What do you want to achieve?
Mr. Ahmed: We want greater efficiency. At the core of it, finance needs to be an enabler of actionable insights for the business. And if we think about processes, then it’s about automating our processes relentlessly.
WSJ: What does that mean for your finance workers?
Mr. Ahmed: We have a very large upskilling program in place. We contracted with [a skills platform] to create a curriculum for the finance organization to become more competent and use new technology. So you have to enable people, you have to upskill people and then you have to get to this actionable insight.
WSJ: How did your employees respond?
Mr. Ahmed: At the onset of the initiative, we spent a lot of time communicating. We had a global launch and we went to each regional location and met with the employees. And we explained that [they] really need to think about future proofing [their] career. We said every area of the enterprise is going to get impacted. That resonated with people, and we got a lot of buy-in and a lot of traction with people wanting to upskill.
WSJ: How did you get people up to speed during the transition to new programs?
Mr. Ahmed: For every project that we implemented, we had a very strong training component, because we knew this would be a barrier that we would have to overcome. You have to get people to spend time in addition to the day job, learning a new application. We try to sell them value. We spent a lot of time making sure the value was very tangible. If you lose a bunch of people, you lose a lot of institutional knowledge and that means less insights. We want to keep all our people.
WSJ: Will you create new roles and job profiles?
Mr. Ahmed: My perspective is that there will be some changes. There will be some new job categories and new roles coming up. For large companies like us, the data was coming [to finance employees] and they were aggregating it and manipulating it and then reporting it out again. All of that is getting automated by these bots. They can pick up data from any application, combine it with other data and report it out, as long as there’s some rules associated with that.
WSJ: Going forward, your employees will likely spend less time collecting data, right?
Mr. Ahmed: Before, they were spending their time 60%, 70% with this data collection and data cleaning and then 20% was reporting it out. Maybe 5% or 10% was really spending time on getting insights. Now, what we want to do is flip everything and say 10% or 15% of the time is for data collection, and the majority of time is [for] analytics and driving into insights.
WSJ: What exactly will people spend more time on?
Mr. Ahmed: What the finance people need to do is provide judgment, provide insights. There’ll be less of a back office because it’s all automated. So we need to prepare for that time when finance people [spend] more time with business partners, even the junior analysts. It’s easy to send someone a report. The key value is, “can you answer why certain things have happened?” And you can. You’ve got the core financial skills and the digital skills to help you get to the right answer. But then you also need communication skills and leadership.
WSJ: Does that mean you will ban Excel from your finance organization?
Mr. Ahmed: Excel will always be there. But what [we] have established is an advanced portfolio of new applications. We’re moving the data into the data lake, and we’ve got this new portfolio sitting on top. We’re getting a much more automated workflow. All of these applications are built for a certain domain and they deal with certain types of workflows.
WSJ: How far does having real-time data play a role?
Mr. Ahmed: You need to have timely analytics and reporting to help enable the most optimal decision at [a] moment in time. So we want a greater velocity of data information and other reporting. We want greater real-time visibility into business performance.
WSJ: Applied Materials has 27,000 employees overall, but only around 600 in finance. Would a bigger head count help?
Mr. Ahmed: We’ve hired thousands of people during the pandemic. In finance, our head count growth is flat. If you want to drive valuable insights for the business, you need more bandwidth. It’s not just [about] adding more people with the same skill set. If we just hired 100 people more, we could not do this.
Write to Nina Trentmann at [email protected]
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