Soaring energy costs. Rising interest rates. Supply chain disruption. The life of a modern CFO is far from easy, with many still battling to recover from the pandemic. Not, of course, that the situation is hopeless. Leveraging the immense power of artificial intelligence, finance leaders could yet revolutionise their position, streamlining business practices everywhere from procurement to risk management.

Yet as an increasing number of finance directors move towards a future shaped by new technology, a range of obstacles remain. Data breaches and other risks are a constant concern here, especially as regulatory hurdles become higher – and when CFOs struggle to escape the clutches of archaic legacy platforms.

In its second Strategic CFO survey, encompassing the views of 500 finance executives across Europe and the United States, software company Coupa explores the challenges and opportunities of AI across the finance space, along the way considering how external expertise can help.

Macroeconomic worries

As the second Strategic CFO survey makes clear, finance leaders across the Western world are battling to remain afloat. That’s clear enough from even a cursory glance at Coupa’s poll, with 90% of respondents concerned about hitting sales and revenue targets over the next 12 months.

In a sense, these headline fears are unsurprising: almost a third of finance leaders see rising interest rates as a major external threat through 2024, even as a similar number are concerned about energy bills and supply chain issues.

This unfavourable business climate has clearly impacted operations in practice. While, for instance, 86% of respondents of last year’s survey stressed that layoffs were a last resort, a fair percentage have been forced to let workers go, with a full 78% admitting that their organisation still hasn’t been able to recover from the macroeconomic shocks of recent years.

With these difficulties in mind, at any rate, it equally makes sense that CFOs should this year be focusing on the essentials. One good example here involves increasing profitability: 36% of CFOs aim to pursue alternative revenue streams, whereas 35% hope to enforce stricter company spending limits.

That’s neatly echoed by attempts to drive growth. As the Coupa study confirms, almost half (44%) of finance executives are determined to expand into new markets. Almost the same percentage (41%) would like to bolster R&D.

A single thread runs across all these ambitions: AI. And why not? Promising versatility and efficiency – all at a global scale – it has the potential to reshape how CFOs and their teams go about their work. That’s apparent right across the finance function. When it comes to third-party risk management, to give one example, machine learning can quickly highlight trouble-prone suppliers.

And if that explains why 29% of finance leaders plan on making AI investments in this field over the next year, joining the 27% who’ve done so already, that’s far from the only area where AI could be transformative. AP automation, for its part, is one area ripe for reform, with almost 35% of CFOs earmarking it for AI investment.

Yet if it’s a similar story elsewhere too – Coupa’s survey stresses the power of AI from strategic sourcing to liquidity management – finance leaders remain worried about embracing all those ones and zeros. Once again, that’s apparent from the numbers, with a remarkable 89% of respondents admitting concerns about their company’s ability to implement its AI strategy.

Implementation challenges

How to explain this disconnect – between the undoubted potential of AI on the one hand, and the obvious discomfort of many CFOs around the technology on the other?

If you examine the survey, one answer involves internal business culture. Among other things, finance executives aren’t communicating with colleagues in IT, with 73% reporting that they’ve never aligned with their CIO on their organisation’s strategic priorities.

It goes without saying that this makes implementing AI challenging, not least when corporates are grappling with a plethora of regulatory hassles too. That’s true wherever you look, from GDPR in Europe and the Digital Personal Data Protection Act in India through China’s Personal Information Protection Law.

Factor in the broader strain of keeping up with technology that’s constantly advancing – to say nothing of siloed data across legacy platforms, with 45% of CFOs lamenting a lack of visibility around financial information – and you can soon appreciate how tough comprehensive AI truly is. That’s doubly true when you recall compliance worries around maintaining data protection (cited by 36% of CFOs) and cybersecurity (cited by 34%).

A trusted co-pilot

Listen to the experts, meanwhile, and it seems that these pressures will only become more pronounced as AI develops. 

“In today’s digital supply economy, the volume and complexity of financial data continues to grow exponentially,” explains Kevin Burns, CFO at Coupa. “Without the right platform and technologies, viewing this data and extracting meaningful insights in a timely manner remains a significant challenge that can be detrimental to an organisation’s performance.”

Particularly with the higher financial stakes – liquidity events like M&As look set to be a main strategic goal for many global companies this year – and comprehensive AI integration looks more vital than ever before.

Fortunately, overburdened CFOs are far from alone in making this happen. For if barely a third can currently access all their financial data via a single system, companies like Coupa are boosting that figure fast. Unifying inventory management, contracts, procurement and more in a single digital space – then exploiting AI to provide actionable suggestions from the numbers – these platforms act like a trusted co-pilot for CFOs everywhere.

A range of macroeconomic challenges is making life hard for modern CFOs – as a major new survey by Coupa makes clear. Finance Director Europe explores the results of the poll in detail, exploring the main pressure points for finance executives across the Western world, as well as considering the challenges and opportunities of groundbreaking AI technology.

In practice, meanwhile, that’s possible through the sheer amount of information these systems have at their disposal. At Coupa, for instance, the California tech firm’s proprietary technology leans on around $5tn of proprietary transactional data.

No wonder the company can call 3,000 global organisations, and ten million suppliers, among its partners. Given, moreover, how crucial such platforms seem destined to become, expect that figure to rise by next year’s survey.

To read the full findings of Coupa’s 2nd ‘Strategic CFO’ study, please click here