What CFOs should know about generative AI

It’s “like the early days of the internet,” said Sage CTO Aaron Harris.
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Almost every day, there’s a breathless new headline about generative AI. Tech giants, professional services firms, and venture capitalists alike are investing billions in the technology. With all the hype about generative AI, CFOs may be wondering if they, too, need to get on board or risk being left behind.

Is generative AI just a trend? Definitely not, according to Sage’s global CTO Aaron Harris, who calls the advent of the technology “the biggest leap forward in my lifetime.” In the past year, his role shifted to “completely focus” on the implications of generative AI for Sage’s strategy, he told CFO Brew.

“We’re in a phase with this technology where we can see the raw potential. It’s much like the early days of the internet,” Harris said. “Companies like ours are moving very, very quickly [and] doing a lot of brainstorming through what we can do for our customers that’s transformational.”

Alex Singla, senior partner and global leader of QuantumBlack and AI at McKinsey, told CFO Brew that, just over the past few weeks, his clients have started asking how they can implement generative AI in their businesses. “That is a fundamental shift,” he said, noting that it usually takes months, not weeks, for clients to want to adopt new technologies.

“I’ve yet to find a company or an industry” that won’t be affected by AI, he said.

Future is now. Generative AI represents a leap forward from today’s AI, Harris said, due to “its ability to understand input, to understand instructions and human terms.” Today’s AI is capable of automating individual tasks, but generative AI opens up the possibility of “linking together tasks in a workflow,” he said.

“Anything that’s repetitive [or] on a cycle,” such as the monthly close or accounts payable, is a “candidate to be automated from end to end,” he said.

Generative AI will also allow CFOs to do more with interactive dashboards, Harris said, as it’s capable of responding to questions and choosing how to display its answers. If a CFO asked an AI-enabled dashboard a question about cash balance over time, for instance, the AI would be “smart enough to choose to show that as a line graph with an associated table with all the values,” he said.

AI may even provide a partial solution to the accounting shortage, Harris said, by increasing “productivity and efficiency within accounting teams.”

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Not risk-free. Both Harris and Singla encourage CFOs to start exploring generative AI, if they haven’t already. “The faster companies can start leveraging generative AI”  the faster their people can learn about it, Singla said—and not just the technically inclined employees, but all of them. Harris suggests CFOs should become familiar with the technology to “test its boundaries” and learn about its strengths and weaknesses.

While exploring this emerging technology, CFOs also need to be aware of the many risks it poses. In particular, it can threaten privacy.

Accuracy is also a concern: Chatbots like ChatGPT, in particular, have been known to produce falsehoods or “hallucinations.” To address this concern, Harris suggests CFOs use generative AI to make inferences or to clarify their intent, and then “revert to traditional technology to get the answer.” Traditional technology, he points out, is “deterministic” and designed to give accurate answers to limited queries, while generative AI is “non-deterministic,” meaning it can give different answers to the same question.

There’s also a risk that generative AI can alienate talent, said Stephanie Bell, senior research scientist for AI and shared prosperity at Partnership on AI. Leaders need to implement it “in a way that helps people keep their professional identity secure, that protects those kinds of activities people see joy and meaning from” in their work. To do so, she recommends speaking with staff about which tasks they’d want to see AI handle, and what they’d do with the time they’d save.

“Make sure your workforce is part of the conversation,” she said. “The folks who are really close to the work” are usually the best positioned to figure out all the ways new technology can be implemented, she observed.

Companies that ably handle the risks that generative AI poses, Singla said, will differentiate themselves. Using AI ethically and transparently, or creating “digital trust,” he said, which would “be a cornerstone to competition.” Employees and customers, he said, will both be drawn to companies that have shown they use AI responsibly.

By exercising the proper care, Harris said, organizations can use AI as a force for good. “This transformative technology has the opportunity to elevate the work of humans as opposed to replacing them,” he said. “We’ve got this opportunity to make it a very positive thing.”

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.