10 minute read 13 Mar 2024

Why Irish CFOs must embrace the winds of change in sustainability and AI

By Derarca Dennis

EY Ireland Assurance Partner and Sustainability Services Lead

Experience advising both global and local companies across financial and non-financial reporting with a particular focus on CSRD, ISSB standards and other non-financial advisory support.

10 minute read 13 Mar 2024

Finance leaders remain firmly focused on cost reduction and control, and upgrading skills as they face into sustainability reporting challenges.

In brief
  • CFOs remain positive in relation to both the economic outlook and growth prospects for their organisations.
  • While there is considerable preparedness for ESG requirements through investments in in-house specialists, it’s primarily compliance factors that drive ESG reporting.
  • Efficiency gains remain a key area of focus, but CFOs are at the early stages of the AI adoption journey.

CFOs and finance leaders in Ireland display a slightly more optimistic mood in relation to economic performance than last year and are poised to significantly increase AI budgets over the next two years. The results of the EY Ireland CFO Survey 2024, however, suggest that although finance leaders are beginning to commit more resources to AI, businesses in Ireland may still be at the discovery stage when it comes to use cases for the technology.

The optimism among CFOs amidst fiscal fragilities is possibly a reflection of the continued buoyancy in the Irish economy and public finances along with the prospects of a soft landing for the global economy. The anticipation of economic recovery is reflected in the fact that CFOs are seen to be putting their weight behind mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for the longer term.

The survey points to a strong focus on the bottom line, unwavering commitment to cost control, preparing for new reporting requirements while addressing talent needs. These are likely to remain key priorities for CFOs in Ireland for some time to come. Talent development and retention emerges as the second highest priority for driving growth over the next two years, as it was in the last two surveys.

The environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) agenda presents a mixed picture with preparations continuing apace for new reporting requirements but with less progress on organisations becoming more sustainable.

It’s all about the bottom line

Chapter 1

Mixed signals on sustainability

Chapter 2

AI investment set for growth

Chapter 3  

It’s all about the bottom line
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 1

It’s all about the bottom line

Eyes on M&A for the longer term, while focus on talent acquisition persists.

The survey, conducted among 150 CFOs and finance leaders in Ireland, reveals that the majority of the respondents are confident in relation to growth prospects for their organisations in the year ahead. On average, expected growth is a very healthy 11%, broadly in line with last year’s survey result.

What growth are you anticipating in your organisation this financial year?

Despite this optimism, a surprising 47% of respondents are unsure of expected growth levels in their businesses. This may reflect continuing uncertainty in relation to the inflation and interest rate environment as well as ongoing geopolitical tensions that could impact business performance in the period ahead.

That uncertainty is evident in the diminishing focus on expanding into new markets to drive growth. Just 13% cited it as a top priority for growth this year, down from 20% in 2023. That could indicate a near term concentration on maintaining and improving margins as opposed to increasing market share and exploring new routes to market. The emphasis, therefore, remains resolutely on the bottom line.

Eoin O’Reilly's quote
“It is difficult for organisations to make decisions on investment priorities when they face continued cost pressure and geopolitical uncertainty. Many CFOs are clearly focusing on the areas they can control such as costs and are cautious when it comes to committing to expenditure to drive growth,” said Derarca Dennis, Assurance Partner and Sustainability Services Lead at EY Ireland.

However, for the longer term, a positive outlook has fed into a shift in attitudes of finance leaders towards M&A, with 13% of the respondents citing growth through M&A as a strategic area of focus over the next five years, up from just 4% last year. Following two years of depressed M&A activity this indication of green shoots in the market is very welcome.

Cost reduction along with improved efficiency continues to trump everything else when it comes to organisational priorities, with talent coming next.

Organisations are still very much under cost pressure due to high energy prices and increased inflation over the past two years. These are moderating somewhat but still weigh on businesses due to increased costs of materials and other inputs. Reducing costs is likely to continue to be a priority for the next 12 months or more.
George Deegan
EY Ireland Assurance Partner

This is the third successive year that cost reduction has topped the priority list for CFOs. Given the spike in inflation and the surge in energy costs during the period, it is not altogether surprising that CFOs continue to grapple with an increased cost base.

It may also suggest a strategic shift on the part of organisations. The focus was firmly on the top line and increasing revenue during a long period of near zero inflation and interest rates, but it may now be shifting to the bottom line to rebuild margins that have been eroded over the past two years.

Talent remains a top priority: The changing skills requirements driven by the rapid advance of technology along with extremely tight labour market conditions are both in evidence in the high priority given to talent. Irish organisations are prioritising upskilling existing talent and acquiring new skills through recruitment, although to a slightly lesser extent than last year.

Priorities for Driving Growth in the Year Ahead

What are your priorities for driving growth in the year ahead?
  • Chart description

    The chart highlights CFOs' growth priorities for 2024 compared to 2023. 59% cite cost reduction (including energy) as their top concern extremely similar to last year. 38% prioritise investing in upskilling existing people / talent - slightly lower than last year's 40%. investing in new talent is at 31%, slightly down from 34% in 2023. Innovation – new products / services is at 28%, compared to last year's 24%. Expanding into new markets dropped from 20% in 2023 to 13% in 2024. Tech investment rose from 15% to 19%, while capital investment is around 9% in 2024 versus 10% in 2023. Opportunities in sustainability and decarbonization saw a big jump from 10% in 2023 to 25% in 2024.

To meet the increasing demands being placed on their teams, there’s a pressing need for CFOs to focus on the two “Ts” – of talent and technology. Rapid advances in technology and a changing regulatory landscape are driving the need to invest in upskilling existing talent as well as to acquire new skills by hiring. 50% of CFOs cited lack of talent / talent retention as one of the key challenges likely to affect the desired level of growth in the next five years.

This reflects the extremely tight labour market conditions in Ireland at present as well as the ever-widening remit of the finance function.

The remit of the finance function has widened over the past several years and will continue do so at an increasing pace. This presents a challenge for the education system to adequately equip people with the broader skillsets increasingly required. In addition, more experienced members of finance teams may struggle to upskill because they are so busy in their day-to-day roles. The demand for new skills will only grow in years to come and organisations will need to find ways to address this challenge.
Vickie Wall
EY Ireland Financial Accounting Advisory Services (FAAS) leader

Interestingly, talent does not appear as a strategic area of focus over the next five years. The apparent contradiction suggests that organisations see the technology challenges and labour market issues as short term in nature and it’s likely that CFOs are taking an optimistic view regarding the potential impact of finance transformation and the power of AI in the long term.

Among the growth agendas for the coming year, 25% of respondents recognised opportunities in sustainability and decarbonisation as a priority. However, that doesn’t appear to be matched by investment or effort in identifying or capitalising on the opportunities.

Growth challenge: With the evolution in the CFO’s role in recent years due to the ever-changing business landscape, finance leaders find themselves grappling with multiple challenges. Notable among the key challenges likely to affect desired levels of growth in the next five years are the revenue impact of inflation / prevailing economic conditions, lack of talent and talent retention, and the revenue impact of energy prices (as seen in the chart below).

Another key challenge that has been cited by respondents is customer expectations around sustainability. 28% of respondents in this year’s survey say they represent a challenge to achieving growth targets over the next five years versus just 11% who said so in 2023.

Main Challenges to Achieving the Desired Level of Growth in the Next Five Years

What are main challenges to achieving your desired level of growth in the next five years?
  • Chart description

    The chart reveals the top challenges CFOs face for growth in the next five years. 50% cite revenue impact of inflation / prevailing economic conditions and talent issues, 37% point to revenue impact of energy prices, 28% identify customer expectations, and 22% mention manual processes and controls. Existing / emerging compliance requirements (e.g., ISSB / CSRD), supply chain issues, and enhancing own skills across a diverse range of areas (technology, finance, non-financial / ESG reporting, regulatory) are cited by 9%. Stakeholder expectations around sustainability has been identified by 8%, while 6% reference adapting to a fast-changing technology landscape and AI advancements.

Also worthy of note is the relatively low priority given to transformation programmes. Organisations could be missing out on an opportunity here. Technology driven transformation offers a clear pathway to addressing the talent deficits in finance functions.

Recommendation for forward-thinking CFOs:

  • Shift towards technology-driven transformation programmes: Automating processes and aspects of existing roles can free up team members to move into higher value areas, reducing the need to recruit new talent.
Mixed signals on sustainability
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 2

Mixed signals on sustainability

CFOs anticipate greater pressure from consumers to become more sustainable.

With an eye on the bottom line and long-term value creation, finance leaders need to sharpen their focus on sustainability goals and ESG reporting. Our survey reveals that awareness of the opportunities presented by sustainability and decarbonisation has increased significantly this year with 25% of respondents citing this area as a priority for growth in the year ahead – up from just 10% last year.

Attitudes towards ESG compliance and reporting are either positive or broadly neutral. There is an air of acceptance that new regulations and reporting requirements are coming, and they will need to be dealt with.

“A lot more is going to come into the CFO’s domain. For example, they will in future want to know what steps have been taken to ensure human rights are respected in the supply chain and what contractual arrangements are in place to verify suppliers’ credentials in that regard. Many people in the finance function will see sustainability reporting as a great opportunity to do something different, broaden their skillset, and add more value to the organisation,” elaborated Derarca Dennis.

Compliance ranks third overall as an area where CFOs and their teams will intensify their focus in the coming years, so its importance is clear.

The survey reveals a relatively high degree of preparedness for ESG requirements with most organisations taking practical steps to prepare for the future by investing in in-house specialists, engaging specialist independent consultants, etc.

The findings in relation to proactive ESG reporting are interesting in this light. While the level of proactive reporting is relatively high at 56%, the reality is that it is mainly driven by compliance factors.

According to the survey, 62%¹ do it for compliance reasons or because of other external push factors. Just 38%² (21% overall) are doing so because of a focus on sustainability as an organisation. This number is likely to grow over the next two to three years as ESG reporting becomes a reality and pressure from customers and investors to become more sustainable increases.

ESG reporting is growing in strategic importance. Investors, regulators, customers, and employees are increasingly interested in an organisation’s ESG performance, and organisations failing to report adequately run the risk of damaging their reputation and their business. Finance professionals now need to manage a new kind of balance sheet that accounts for not only financial results, but also ESG factors. However, this task is not as daunting as it may seem, and finance teams are well equipped to deal with multi-dimensional data and to apply rigorous controls and processes. They also have expertise in report generation, and they understand the importance of providing accurate, timely and relevant information to stakeholders.
Katie Burns
EY Ireland Consulting Partner

Measures Taken to Prepare for ESG Requirements

Which of the below measures, if any, have you taken to prepare for future ESG requirements?
  • Chart description

    A chart showing what measures CFOs have taken to prepare for future ESG requirements. 46% say they have invested in specialists in house. While 21% respondents say they have engaged a specialist independent consultant, 16% say they have engaged a specialist advisory firm. 11% reveal that they have developed an ESG roadmap, while 22% say they have taken none of these measures.

When asked to name the areas where time is used least efficiently in the finance function, just 16% named new reporting requirements with ESG being just one of those. This suggests that while ESG reporting is a priority area, it is not seen as overly challenging.

Barriers to ESG reporting: A lack of buy-in from leadership and competing business priorities are still cited as key barriers to undertaking effective ESG/non-financial reporting.

Barriers to Undertaking Effective ESG Reporting

What do you see as the barriers to your organisation undertaking effective ESG/non-financial reporting?
  • Chart description

    The chart shows barriers to effective ESG reporting. 25% cite competing business priorities and leadership buy-in, 19% point to a lack of expertise / experience within the team, and 16% mention lack of capital. 9% cite continuing changes in non-financial reporting requirements and lack of globally consistent standards, 5% mention extent of regulatory requirements, while 8% list other factors. 22% of the respondents say there are no barriers at all.

Very encouragingly, 22% say there are no barriers in their organisation to undertaking effective ESG reporting.

It’s clear that organisations are anticipating greater pressure from consumers to become more sustainable. What is less clear is what they are doing about it. Indeed, if consumer expectations represent a challenge to growth, it would suggest that organisations will struggle to meet them in the coming years. Only a very small increase in the budget allocation for non-financial reporting is anticipated over the next two years.

Cross-functional collaboration:
Irish organisations are taking steps to improve cross-functional collaboration in key areas like sustainability. 34% of the respondents claim they are building more cross-functional alignment to make stronger connections between CFOs, CTOs and CSOs while the same proportion claims to be reassessing existing finance and sustainability roles and responsibilities for greater collaboration. In addition, 25% say they are creating new roles and responsibilities in an effort to foster collaboration.

Eoin O’Reilly's quote
“There’s a strong commitment to developing sustainability reporting capability in evidence among respondents. And, just 9% of CFOs in Ireland rate existing and emerging compliance requirements such as CSRD as a challenge to growth over the next five years. This is very encouraging and suggests that Irish organisations will be well positioned to comply with the new regulations as they come into force over the coming years,” explained Derarca Dennis.

Overall, the findings suggest more of a neutral attitude rather than a positive or proactive approach to the sustainability agenda. There’s possibly an underestimation of the scale of the task ahead. That, coupled with economic factors like skyrocketing energy prices and high inflation, could make businesses focus on costs rather than the potential return on investment from sustainability measures.

The evidence thus far suggests that there is little or no price premium to be gained as a result of enhanced sustainability credentials. Customers are demanding more sustainable products and services but don’t appear to be willing to pay more for them. It is brands that tend to benefit in this situation which may deliver value in the medium to long term, but at present there is no evidence of a short-term return.

Recommendation for forward-thinking CFOs:

  • Understand their role in ESG reporting: CFOs need to recognise the importance of integration of financial and non-financial reporting and how they are uniquely positioned to create a reporting structure that delivers broader stakeholder value.
AI investment set for growth
(Chapter breaker)

Chapter 3

AI investment set for growth

Budget increase suggests readiness to integrate AI once suitable use cases are identified.

As CFOs in Ireland step up to future-proof the finance function and the business, their role in leveraging technology to improve efficiencies becomes pivotal. Finance leaders are not just looking to elevate business performance, they are also actively seeking to tap into the potential of technology while simultaneously strengthening their collaborative alignment with Chief Technology Officers (CTOs). There is no let-up in technology budget, with organisations intending to press ahead with investment in increasing sophistication of data and analytics to drive growth over the next five years.

Investment in technology




The continued focus of technology investment is unsurprising considering the finding that manual processes and controls have been identified by 47% of respondents as an area where time is used least efficiently in the finance function.

It is somewhat perplexing that such a high number of respondents continue to cite manual processes and controls as an area for improvement in the finance function. This suggests that organisations have some way to go in their automation efforts and significant further investment in technology will be required in the coming years.

Despite the investment in technology, the survey results for AI indicate that it is a low priority for organisations at present. Finance leaders in Ireland are still at the very early stages of Generative AI (GenAI) adoption and are firmly focused on cost reduction and efficiency gains to realise growth ambitions. Usage of AI remains modest with just 26% claiming to have leveraged it for enhanced efficiency, automating manual tasks and risk detection among other use cases. The use of GenAI is even lower at just 15%.

  • Chart description

    Question 1: Have you leveraged AI for any of the following in the past year?
    18% are enhancing efficiency by making AI-enabled data-based decisions. This was followed by automating manual tasks and audit risk detection by 13% and 11%, respectively. 4% say they have leveraged AI for ensuring financial transparency. Managing risks and delivering real-time insights have been cited by 3% respondents, while 1% say they use it for running impact analysis. 74% of the respondents say they have not leveraged AI for any of this in the past year.

    Question 2: For which of the following have you leveraged GenAI in the organisation?
    6% of the respondents to the survey say they leveraged GenAI for finance support for deal-related activity (M&A and divestiture). Closely behind were corporate processes, data hosting and management, and financial planning and analysis cited by 5% and 4% respondents, respectively. 3% say they leverage GenAI for consolidation and reporting. 85% of the respondents say they have not leveraged GenAI for any of this in their organisations.

This may come as a surprise to some. While GenAI has been commanding the headlines over the past 15 months, the technology is still not at the stage where it can be employed to carry out advanced functions in finance departments. CFOs are naturally exercising caution until they see some proven applications where GenAI can be trusted both in terms of its outputs and security.

Just 6% say they will leverage advanced AI to enhance the finance function or acquire AI skills in the next two years, with that getting only slightly better over the next five years with just 9% saying they will integrate AI and advanced AI into the finance function. The results of our survey indicate that organisations are still at the discovery and use case definition stage in relation to AI.

It is, however, somewhat surprising that greater use has not been made of the technology for automation purposes given the continued inefficiencies created by manual processes and controls in finance functions.

It is very welcome, therefore, to note that there is a fairly significant budget increase anticipated, albeit from a low base with the allocation for advanced AI (including GenAI) expected to increase from 1% to 3.2% in the next two years. This does suggest an openness to applying the technology as soon as use cases are identified and better understood.

CFOs have an incredibly important role to play in helping their organisations to champion and challenge the long-term value that can be created from AI, but there is a risk that some organisations continue in a cycle of seeking perfect information to make their AI investment decisions and lose ground to competitors or new entrants in the meantime.
Eoin O'Reilly
EY Ireland Partner, Head of Data, Analytics & AI

Not all AI solutions are expensive or require custom development. To get their organisations to accelerate the AI journey, CFOs can recommend adopting pre-built AI solutions that drive cost efficiency.

When asked to assess their readiness to deal with existing and near future digital reporting and real time data quality management (including e-Invoicing, BEPS reporting and other digital reporting regimes), 27% of respondents say there is a clear data and technology strategy in place, and clear visibility of appropriate technology solutions and AI propositions to deploy for their business. While another 18% have commenced work on one, more than half do not have a clear strategy or none at all.

The data challenges organisations face in implementing the new digital tax administration requirements should not be underestimated. Implementing a clear data and technology strategy is an imperative as the time required to cleanse data and implement relevant IT systems could be lengthy. Failure to act in time could result in significant cost to the business.
Deirdre Hogan
EY Ireland Sustainability Advisory Services - Tax & Law Partner

Eyes firmly on cybersecurity preparedness: In their role as strategic business partners, CFOs must do more than just comprehend the organisation’s risk tolerance. They must also be responsible for meticulously steering the budget towards areas that need more attention.

Just 39% of the respondents say they have ramped up investment in security tools, compared to 60% saying the same in 2023. This may indicate a degree of complacency in relation to cybersecurity or it could be that investments have begun to plateau following significant increases in recent years.

In a very welcome finding, 31% of the respondents this year say they instituted a cybersecurity task force versus the 8% who said so in 2023.

Although this indicates the adoption of a more structured approach to cyber defence and the rise in cyber investments is promising, it’s concerning that 69% haven’t set up a cybersecurity task force yet. This may be an indication of a false sense of security among leaders despite mounting threats and prominent breaches in the Island of Ireland. Challenging this mindset is crucial. CFOs must ensure that investments correspond to the requirement for enhanced security and that the organisation is resilient enough to sustain and counter relentless cyber onslaughts.
Puneet Kukreja
EY UK & Ireland Cyber Security Leader

Recommendation for forward-thinking CFOs:

  • Identify pilot projects: CFOs should identify pilot projects for AI that can produce quick wins and help balance risk and ambition and think strategically to enhance shareholder value.


Cost control and efficiency remain the north star for finance leaders in Ireland. Talent challenges continue to be a key area of focus for CFOs. However, the relatively low priority given to technology-driven transformation along with the low rate of AI adoption in finance functions are somewhat surprising in light of talent shortages. Proactive ESG reporting albeit relatively high, is essentially driven by compliance factors. Overall, the mood is optimistic and there are welcome signs of an upturn in M&A activity in the longer term.

About the survey

Research for the EY Ireland CFO Survey 2024 was carried out during January and February 2024. 150 people working in senior financial and leadership roles across a wide range of organisations responded to the survey. The sectors covered for the survey were broadly representative of Irish business generally and included professional services, manufacturing, retail, construction, healthcare, education, and wholesale. Respondents included CFOs, financial controllers, managing directors, finance directors, operations directors, and business owners.

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About this article

By Derarca Dennis

EY Ireland Assurance Partner and Sustainability Services Lead

Experience advising both global and local companies across financial and non-financial reporting with a particular focus on CSRD, ISSB standards and other non-financial advisory support.