April 09, 2021 at 09:00AM

Dramatic disruption often means dramatic response. For many organizations, the pandemic presented the sudden opportunity to fast-track modernization initiatives that had been put on the back burner for years. Not only did the global crisis create an ecosystem in which digitization was a necessity, but it also offered an unquestioned justification for forcing immediate alterations in the back office.

While change was inevitable, there are strategies that finance leaders can deploy in order to minimize the disruption, both for internal employees and for vendors, noted Kevin O’Connor, chief financial officer of Acuant.

In a recent discussion with PYMNTS, O’Connor described his process of igniting transformation in areas like accounts payable (AP) and accounts receivable (AR), finding avenues of least resistance to improve workflows. Plus, he described his goals for not only integrating more technology, but also getting the most out of solutions already in place to help his organization prepare for the years ahead.

Working With The Grain

Among the most common shifts the enterprise back office has experienced over the last year is the migration away from paper checks, particularly in AR and AP departments. CFOs have taken the pandemic – and the inability to physically step into the office to collect checks – as an opportune moment to migrate their business customers toward electronic payment methods. While the strategy can support internal digitization, it can create friction for payers at a time when disruption is already sky-high for many firms.

For O’Connor, the pandemic certainly presented the chance to make some changes, but his strategy relied on a less disruptive approach. Rather than forcing customers to lose the check, the behavior change focused on where those checks were sent. Acuant implemented a digital lockbox service and encouraged customers to send their checks to that destination, allowing those clients to retain their preferred payment method while also addressing key check-related pain points for the firm’s own AR operations.

“A lot of times, these are large partners,” O’Connor said. “It’s not in our nature to try and dictate terms to them. We want to be able to be flexible as we receive payment, so some of that is electronic, and some of that is checks.” Lockbox services, he noted, immensely accelerated AR workflows and offered teams access to electronic data for faster payment processing.

When it comes to AP, however, the enterprise had greater leverage to impose change upon its own employees. Still, said O’Connor, it was important that even as the organization embraced technology from third-party solution providers, he collaborated with professionals to ease the transition.

“Getting buy-in from your team is critical,” he said. “They have to have input, they have to understand it. It’s got to be collaborative, because if you simply dictate a tool to your team, you won’t get as much participation.”

Getting The Most Out Of Technology

While it became important for O’Connor to collaborate with customers and internal employees to minimize the pain of change, when it comes to technology adoption itself, the CFO said the bigger impact, the better. “Minor improvements are nice … but a minor gain probably isn’t worth our focus right now,” he noted, adding that third-party FinTech tools “must have substantial improvement.”

It’s a philosophy of extracting the most out of technology, and it will continue to permeate the way O’Connor presses ahead with modernization efforts. He pointed to a remote project management solution that was already in place with Acuant’s engineering team and will now be deployed across the organization as it readies for a more hybrid and flexible work model.

Another top priority will be to make use of the increasing volumes of electronic data emerging from these back-office systems. While members of the finance team are “in the weeds,” noted O’Connor, the CFO has more of a bird’s-eye view of operations – and data can be a powerful tool to fuel insights and drive actions for finance and the enterprise overall.

As the organization continues to explore how technology can support its need for collaboration amid a globally disbursed workforce, drive greater automation in AR and AP, and support well-informed investment and growth decisions, data will continue to be at the heart of growth initiatives.

“In today’s day and age, the CFO really has to be thinking about data,” O’Connor said. “You want your data to be meaningful, timely, accurate. Getting that into a BI [business intelligence] tool, to be able to expose that to the rest of the organization and visualize that data, is something that we’ve done and that we’re working to improve.”

Taking Friction Out Of Back-Office Digitization …

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