A new generation of tech-savvy CFOs is helping businesses better understand and integrate technology into their operations.
It’s another evolutionary step for CFOs. Finance chiefs were once more focused on back-office operations. Slowly, they began to take on more responsibility, such as oversight of information technology, which included systems and cybersecurity knowledge. Today’s top CFOs are thinking about technology in a more strategic, external sense.
“You can’t really separate the technology conversation from the business conversation today,” said David Axson, a managing director of Accenture Strategy’s CFO & Enterprise Value group. “In the old days, you could, because the software sat on mainframes in a data centre. You could draw a line between where the computers stopped and the business started. Now you can’t.”
CFOs see examples of technology all around them, Axson said. They use ride-hailing services on their phone to save time and money when travelling. They see traditional brick-and-mortar retailers focusing more on online sales – or they see those slower to react going out of business. They understand the value in not only keeping up but also staying ahead of the competition.
“If you’re a good CFO, you’re going to sit down [with management] and say, ‘Look, we’re behind where we need to be,’ ” Axson said. “‘And here’s why this is the case. Let me tell you what our peers are doing and what we’re doing.’”
CFOs are, to borrow a phrase from a recent Accenture report, becoming digital apostles. They’re seeing value in digital initiatives: 67% have improved their forecast accuracy, according to the report, and 66% report better decision-making.
Outside of finance, the digital transformation is critical for the CFO role itself and for corporate stakeholders seeking more insight.
Educating the board
Audit committees, for example, want a deeper understanding of how technology initiatives can fend off cyberattacks and move their companies forward. Audit committee members said that, outside of focusing on financial reporting and compliance risks, the top step that internal audit can take to maximise value is to expand audit plans into key risk areas such as technology.
Additionally, 31% of audit committee members in a global KPMG survey said they viewed additional expertise in technology and cybersecurity as critical to greater effectiveness, because such knowledge would strengthen their ability to oversee related risks.
So, in that sense, digital-savvy CFOs can be teachers to the board. CFOs also see value in digital initiatives as they relate to governance: 86% say technology helps them to better manage risk.
CFOs also push for technology improvements to help organisations maintain competitiveness: 37% of CFOs said they would pursue a significant upgrade in their company’s information, data, and communications systems in 2017, according to a US survey of midsize companies by the CFO Alliance. And 21% of companies with revenue below $50 million said that the top operational challenge they would face this year is implanting new technology.
Tech knowledge also helps CFOs differentiate themselves. An EY report in 2016 discussed some of that important digital know-how.
“They understand that their ability to be effective as a CFO is no longer defined by how well they close the books,” Axson said. “They’ll still have to do that. But the value is in their ability to glean insight from the marketplace and the internal operation that translates that into a financial story that makes it easier for the leadership team to make a decision.”
—Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.