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The rise of the technological CFO

By Gavin Fallon, General Manager, UK Nordics & South Africa, Board International

Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) have traditionally been seen as behind the technological curve – the luddite of the boardroom, too attached to their Excel spreadsheets to move with the times. But the role of the CFO is now shifting and becoming more strategically significant to the business, putting them in the ideal situation to make much needed changes in the boardroom.

Despite many business functions being transformed by data, the boardroom remains a place where paper presentations are annotated around the table and, when it comes to finance, the focus is placed on the traditional statutory profit and loss structure. This may remain useful for reviewing historical performance but provides no insight into what may happen in the future. As global events – from political upheaval to health crises – have an impact on organisations, the ability to react in real-time becomes more important than ever. It is here that CFOs have the opportunity to make seismic changes in their business.

Unique position of CFOs

Gavin Fallon
Gavin Fallon

CFOs now sit in a unique position, where the traditional responsibility of keeping an eye on the bottom line is wrapped with analytical and operational knowledge to create a far more strategic role. It is by sitting at this unique crossroads and holding a huge amount of knowledge about every area of the organisation that CFOs have the potential to change many aspects of how the boardroom operates. However, in order to fully realise the potential, CFOs must be empowered to take a digital lead.

A lot of the CFO’s most important work takes place on Excel and Essbase, systems that remain rife with risk. In fact, 56 percent of finance professionals believe the spreadsheets they use in their reporting processes are well-controlled and error free, which may well be why 40 percent also believe their reporting is based on potentially inaccurate information (FSN 2018). Not only prone to human error, spreadsheets are also static and do not allow for real-time forecasting or modelling. While CFOs are well aware of this challenge, the fact they have for too long been tied to legacy systems has led to an unintentional knowledge gap about the technology available to enable them to move away from making decisions based on what happened last year, quarter or week.

Full visibility

With a greater understanding of the technology available comes an evolution and expansion of the CFO’s role within a business. It is no longer enough to make decisions based on static reporting, focusing on the traditional statutory profit and loss structure. Instead they need to use the tools available to play a strategic role with a keener eye on the future, seeing the bigger picture, anticipating what is next, and having the correct contingency plans in place to mitigate risk.

Technology can provide CFOs with full visibility of the entire company at a single glance, with data at their fingertips enabling them to take into account everything from KPIs to operations, distilling instant insights. This offers a level of clarify that means the answer to ‘what happened’ is obvious, allowing for more attention to be placed on ‘what will happen?’

Consider a board meeting that is discussing headcount requirements based on the launch of a new product. Using traditional methods, a business may well make presumptions based on experiences when previous launches took place. But since that time, there is likely to have been a whole host of changes, both within the company itself as well as in the wider market – from market conditions for the product to the salary expectations of potential recruits.

The use of such technology, however, does not solely require the buy-in from the CFO, or even the finance function. To fully realise its potential in fundamentally changing how an organisation operates, the value will need to be seen by the entire board to, in effect, create a digital boardroom. While such technology has an impact on all areas of the business, allowing senior leadership to understand the impact of a factory in the supply chain closing, for example, it is the finance function that is best placed to show the value and drive adoption.

Primed to integrate the business like never before

The CFO is becoming more strategically important, combining analytical, operational and strategic value into a single role. They are primed to integrate the business like never before, acting as the central thread that ties all aspects of decison-making together in a single, unified process. To do so, requires a radical transformation of their role, as the pioneers of new technology. Already a trusted advisor, CFOs can now elevate their role with the ability to effectively forecast and help spearhead the organisational culture change that is required for the shift in mindset that comes with such digital transformation. To maximise the potential of this unique position, the CFO must be equipped with the technology that provides them with the full visibility of the company and clarity in decision making they require.