- Marsha Smith, the CFO of Siemens USA and Siemens Mobility North America, is modernizing the company.
- This year, Smith and the global CIO worked to improve financial processes through automation.
- Scaling automation efforts presents both challenges and opportunities, Smith told Insider.
- This article is part of the “Innovation C-Suite” series about business growth and technology shifts.
A great deal has changed at Siemens since Marsha Smith first joined the global technology and manufacturing company over two decades ago. In particular, Smith, who became the chief financial officer of Siemens USA and Siemens Mobility North America in January 2020, has witnessed changes regarding the company’s digitalization in finance.
“We still used typewriters back then to type POs,” she told Insider. She recalled how even just 10 years ago, the finance organization’s month-end close was entirely manual. “We would all sit around on the first of the month until 2 a.m., waiting for things to upload and making sure the numbers were right,” she said.
Now, most of Siemens’ financial processes – everything from financial planning and analysis to general accounting operations – are highly automated, with little to no manual work in Excel or on-premise ERP systems required. The organization has implemented chatbots, Robotic Process Automation, cloud computing, AI, and machine learning – even Blockchain and advanced analytics and forecasting – to modernize various areas within finance.
Challenges and opportunities in transforming financial processes
There’s still a long way to go to transform the finance organization in ways that free up capacity, reduce manual tasks, and enable mobile and 24/7 control. For example, implementing a cloud-based ERP across the global Siemens organization remains an unmet goal.
“It’s a large project with a pretty massive cost, so we have a global team and steering committee determining what we want in an ERP system,” Smith said. “Right now, we do all our procurement, project-controlling, and order management in the ERP, but do we need a ‘lean’ ERP? If so, how lean is lean?”
However, Smith and her team have also made significant strides to identify the most suitable automation opportunities, working regularly across the C-suite to help redesign financial processes with digitalization while retaining flexibility and decision-making.
For example, in January, Smith raised her hand and agreed to have the US finance organization serve as a Siemens digitalization pilot, working closely with the global chief information officer to implement process improvements through automation. “I knew that we were a big enough organization to provide useful results,” she said.
One of the pilot’s first projects was to automate a finance spreadsheet process. Traditionally, the process required employees to spend nearly two days at the end of each month manually entering data and collecting commentary from multiple businesses.
“The global IT team took five months to recreate and automate the entire process in a cloud-based tool,” Smith said. Now, it’s automatically available on the cloud and anyone can have access to it 24/7. “There is one set of financials with no quality issues and no manipulation allowed, which makes it easy to quickly create a report,” she explained.
The advantage of process automation
The beauty of these new automated processes, she emphasized, is their ability to scale. “The pilot project is now going to be rolled out to any country that wants to use it,” she said. “The global IT department worked with us for five months and now it’s just a matter of using the process elsewhere, whether it is Singapore or India.”
The need to scale automation in finance, she added, remains one of the organization’s biggest digitalization challenges.
“Everyone is trying to optimize and automate and reduce manual steps, but you may not realize that someone in another department has already figured it out,” she said. “So we have to figure out how to get people to learn from one another, to do something right and then scale it across the organization.”
That can become a tall mountain to climb, however, when the number of possible digital tools seems endless. “In the past, we had an ERP system and Excel, those were the tools, and everybody knew how to use them,” she explained. “Now, if someone is automating invoice processes, why did he choose one tool and not another? It can be hard to know what is the best one to implement.”
Digitalization skills are now considered core competencies when it comes to recruiting within the finance organization, Smith said. “The idea is to find people who already know how to use these tools so they can improve what we do,” she explained. “The goal for us is to learn as much from our new hires as they learn from us.”