Interview: Embrace the Change—and the Robots

“To bring in a new technology is to change the way we do things today,” says Mauro Rial, AccorHotels CFO for Latin America.

One of the aspects of digital transformation in a company is the inevitable cultural change that comes with it. Even with the best technologies, any efforts when implementing could be in vain if training and awareness are left out of the process.

In this interview, Mauro Rial, AccorHotels CFO for Latin America, talks about his experience with the essential aspects of cultural change when implementing new technologies in a financial area, as well as crucial issues such as cybersecurity, innovation, and the changes ahead in the role of the financial executive.

Q: What is your cybersecurity strategy?

A: For us the main issue is the customer side. Today, most of the efforts we are making in terms of security have to do with taking care and protecting all the confidential information of our customers. It also indirectly covers the financial information of the company.

Because Accor is a European company, we have made the necessary efforts to comply with European data protection standards, but we are also doing the same for the entire region. There are countries that are a little more advanced in these issues, such as Chile, Peru, and next year Brazil, that will be adopting new data protection laws that basically replicate the principles that the European standard sets, so we will be making adaptations and training an ad hoc working group.

We also have a whole system of firewalls that not only protect via software but have certain protections via hardware to make access to that information difficult.

As Accor is listed on the Euronext Paris stock exchange, we handle sensitive financial information, and all the information sent to the parent company is encrypted through specific data links. We have point-to-point connections to have more security in sending information.

Q: How are you innovating in the financial area?

A: We’ve brought automation and robotic process automation (RPA) to our day-to-day tasks.

Basically, what we do is debug our processes to leave them 100 percent standardized, and then we work to automate them. In some cases, it’s done through robots, which are basically programs that allow you to perform an activity for small stages of a large routine process that has clearly defined algorithms.

In that way, we see that it brings improvements at the quality level, because once a program is told that an invoice or that a certain material must be sent to a certain point, the program will always do it that way, until you re-program it.

The second benefit is efficiency, because the program works 24 hours and, because it applies to routine tasks, it makes them much faster. For example, some tasks that took about four hours ended up being done in seconds.

Q: What other technologies do you think are best for the financial area, such as blockchain or the cloud?

A: The advantage of blockchain is that it allows you to store transactions or data on various servers with a level of cryptography that cannot be modified. From then on, there are a lot of applications in which it could be used, for example, bank transactions. But today we really aren’t using it much. What I have heard in the market is that it’s a technology that is not yet being used beyond cryptocurrencies.

Q: What are the risks of implementing a new technology?

A: For me the most important is cultural change. To bring in a new technology is to change the way we do things today. That can be inefficient at the beginning, because if you’re already trained to use a certain technology, you become efficient and work better, but when a new technology arrives and changes everything, that can affect the process.

We have made large investments in technology, especially focused on the client. For example, we have chatbots, where you can make reservations in many languages from our app just by using voice. We have also made significant investments in our websites and apps.

In the back office, we are now working on implementing new technologies, especially for business intelligence and for performance analysis.

Q: How do you handle cultural change?

A: We have assembled teams that have helped us with change. The teams are able to teach how that new technology is used and the advantages it brings, map the previous situation, compare it to the new one, and in that way facilitate change.

Q: How has the role of the CFO changed and where is it going in the next decade?

A: When I started my career, the great added value of a CFO was to be able to analyze the business and from there bring analysis that fed the strategy. CFOs added value via the reporting function and the financing function.

Over the years, the financial function ended up being much more involved the business. Today, the CFO really participates in development decisions, in the definition of the company’s strategy, and increasingly participates in operations, where the CFO is consulted to make decisions about manufacturing and optimization of the production chain.

In the future, CFOs will bring new technologies to the business, and bring more speed and support to a world of greater complexity. Fifteen or 20 years ago, financial directors had a fairly limited knowledge of the business, because they were far more focused on the technical aspects, taxes, accounting, reporting, budgeting, and optimizing costs.

I see more and more CFOs with an increasingly refined knowledge about the business. Why? Because ultimately, it makes their work more and more relevant. They continue to add more value from there, and as a consequence, actively participate in the decision-making of the business.

This interview was conducted by Latin Trade for Council of the Americas.