Why we face a shortage of good controllers

5 January 2022
Serge Vigoureux Blue Chip Boutique Leader Management Information & Systems Connect on Linkedin

According to LinkedIn, there are approximately 29,000 controllers in Belgium. And there are about 100,000 companies with more than 50 employees. With larger companies usually having more controllers than smaller ones, it sounds fair to say that about 1 in 3 Belgian companies have a controller, at least where having the role makes sense.

The controller as business economics researcher

Theoretically, that means there already is a shortage. Companies that don't have a controller probably still rely on accounting to provide management figures, which is far too late to be able to act quickly in a rapidly evolving market.

The 'controller' function is poorly defined and therefore broadly interpreted. In Wikipedia, we find the following definition: 'A controller is responsible for the process of planning and control within an organization. As a business economics researcher, the controller monitors the efficiency and effectiveness of the activities undertaken and advises the (financial) management of the company.

Fortunately, 'financial' is in parentheses here, because a business controller must provide everyone who needs management information with the correct information and not only work within the finance department.

Controllers come in various guises

There are financial controllers, business controllers; commercial controllers, and plant controllers. We distinguish corporate, group, and credit controllers - but some controllers are excellent and others are poor.

The last category brings no added value to the organization because they still act from a 'control' perspective. In a finance team, they can be harmful because they have relevant information not provided by finance, but by smarter colleagues who work in other departments, such as sales, supply chain,...

As a financial director, you obviously lose control this way, remaining purely involved in compliance work, which will not be perceived as a job with a lot of added value.

A controller should ensure that the relevant data from the data flow is aggregated and filtered into comprehensible information for the company's decision-makers.

Serge Vigoureux

A lack of formal training

A major issue is the lack of formal training for controllers. No such program exists in Belgium, neither in higher education nor as a long-term program for working professionals. Some certificates are awarded for short-term training, but there is no real formal curriculum. In short, the difference with the official accountancy curriculum is enormous.

Discussing the labor market shortage for financial profiles in a recent interview, TriFinance Ghent BCB leader Kristoff Temmerman pointed out that young graduates have a substandard knowledge of technology and (financial) systems. Though a consensus seems to have grown that finance is evolving towards software, systems, and automation, higher education and other training institutes in Belgium are still not sufficiently successful in bridging the gap between IT and functional knowledge.

The growing controller shortage also has an interesting psychological component. Controllers are by nature rather introverted people. They like to duck into a corner to do complicated analyses on numbers but are less willing to 'sell' their results. For controllers to communicate their calculations comprehensively and their colleagues to process the information provided, further soft skills training is absolutely required.

Facing the data boom

Despite recent technological advancements (IoT, non-structured data, publicly available data, data from cameras…), we still find ourselves in the stone age of data. The constant flow of data that will become available in real-time through event-based transactions, will not only become increasingly relevant for organizations, it will broaden the controller function and make it more complicated but also more interesting.

Returning to our definition, a controller should ensure that the relevant data from the data flow is aggregated and filtered into comprehensible information for the company’s decision-makers. If the information were spread over various functional departments, you risk the data used in one department being different from that in another department, leading to suboptimal or incorrect decisions being made.

New opportunities emerging

In the years to come, controllers will be able to contribute visibly to efficiency improvement.

Proactive monitoring of industrial processes for instance will ensure that action can be taken before problems occur, such as shortage of raw materials. Analyses will also take place at a deeper level: a decision will, for example, have to be made at the level of an individual piece instead of at the level of a pallet of raw materials.

Because business models are shifting more towards services (lease instead of sale), other metrics need to be developed for reporting, an evolution that definitely influences cash flow and revenue recognition in the P&L.

IT will feed the BI system, but who exactly will handle the definition and reporting of gross and net margin? Who will ensure that this data is used correctly in the budgeting process? Who will ensure that this data is enriched with comments and input from budgeting and forecasting?

According to Gartner, the value of data and information will be expressed on the Balance Sheet in the future! Who will take care of the valuation and activation?

If your organization does not have good controllers, there is a real chance that a 'smarter' company will make faster and better decisions, weakening your competitive position.

Controller shortage on our labor market will increase exponentially

Controllers are urgently needed in Belgian organizations, and their added value will increase enormously. When training controllers, it is necessary to pay attention to the technology side, but it is also crucial to improve soft skills. If all these elements are included in the profession, controlling will be experienced in the labor market as a broad position in which many people might find a career choice.