Group CFO at AKKA Technologies
Could you please introduce yourself and describe your role at AKKA?
I am Nathalie Buhnemann and I joined AKKA at the end of 2013. I then started working in the finance department in 2015 before becoming CFO in 2018. In addition to overseeing the finance activities of the Group, I have been in charge of all Group support functions since late 2020.
What has been the most challenging thing about your role so far?
Of course, there are many challenges I have to deal with as CFO. However, I would say the biggest one has been building an international team and changing the mindset of the people within the Finance function.
In 2018, when the decision was taken to transfer the Group’s headquarters to Brussels, we had a team that was predominantly French. As AKKA was accelerating its international expansion, it was clear to me that the make up of the team had to reflect that; an international company with a global footprint. The idea for me was to create an internationally diverse team, with its core based at our HQ in Brussels. As you can imagine, the transition involved a lot of change management and people management. It has taken a lot of time, but we have managed to do this successfully and looking at where we are as a team today, it’s an achievement I am very proud of, because at the time I had to really use my managerial and soft skills to the maximum. It was not easy.
How do you think support functions help the digital transformation of businesses and operations?
The same way they’ve always helped. The fundamental role of support functions is to enable the business to create optimal value. Digital transformation helps support functions to be leaner and more efficient, which in turn drives transformation of the business.
At AKKA, the digitalization of support functions started in 2018. We began investing in refining HR and Finance processes using artificial intelligence and chatbots, which was something completely new for the departments. What was really interesting, and I think this is a great example, is that we hired a start-up US company, UiPath, to help us create our first virtual assistants; automated processes that execute multiple tasks simultaneously in place of a human. At the time we had 171 robots, which amounted to 120 000 hours saved (about 70 FTEs). There were two main objectives behind this initiative. The first was to find new ways to avoid increased headcount in support functions, and the second was to save the time spent by our people on routine low value activities, allowing them more time to spend on other value-added projects for the business. Thanks to this, they were much more efficient in their productivity for project profitability.
Since then we have continued to ramp up our efforts to improve digitalization at all levels of our organization. I prefer to invest in smart solutions rather than having big ERPs or big systems all over the world.. The time zone problem would no longer exist. They work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can eventually replace a majority of manual tasks and that for me, would be a huge accomplishment.
Another major area in which the digitalization of support functions has been instrumental is groupwide accessibility of information. For instance, prior to the implementation of the Business Intelligence tool in the Finance Department, it was difficult for us to retrieve data especially for financial figures. Now, thanks to this tool we just need to go to the platform and click on the right functionality to get reports on workloads, profitability of projects, activity rates, budget allocated to projects et cetera. It’s really accurate and you can get the information very easily. I think this easy access to detailed information renders the various functions more agile, and is a key success factor in our ability to deliver results for our internal clients and ultimately support them in their own digital transformation.
What additional steps need to be taken to acheive 100% long-term digital transformation when it comes to support functions?
I don’t think there will ever be such a thing as 100% digital transformation, simply because digital transformation is a process that is in constant evolution. As technology advances, so will business and digital transformation needs.
I believe the human element is extremely important and cannot be completely replaced, there will always be high-value added tasks that cannot be fully automated. Going a step further, thinking of the events of the past year and how this has impacted the way we work, digital certainly plays a key role in our day to day activities, as most of my team is working from home. The fact that most of our processes were already digital, allowed us to transition to the “new normal” very quickly, but it has its limitations. I would say that the private life of our people is certainly better if they have more time to be at home with the kids and the family. Nevertheless, the relationship with the team has to be maintained, because it’s very difficult when you do not see each other for a long time.
What we’re doing in the various support functions teams is trying to keep in-person meetings on a regular basis so that we’re sure that we can see each other at least once a week and the teams are going to the office two to three days a week in jurisdictions where this is allowed. So there is still this physical relationship, because otherwise you lose the spirit of the team. We cannot just work with our computers all the time.