4 ways for CFOs to navigate the changing tech-finance relationshipCFOs should take the lead in collaborating with IT teams and allow finance to take on more tech responsibilities.
Finance teams are embracing new technology, from automation to analytics, but they can’t do it without help. As they undertake broad digital transformations, they’re working closely with their companies’ IT teams to connect data sources, streamline processes, secure digital information, and more.
This collaboration has spurred a change in the relationship between finance and technology teams — one that could determine both groups’ success or failure in the age of innovation.
“I think the relationship between finance and IT has always been a very productive relationship. However, [the two functions have] always been very separate,” said Todd Bialick, CPA, a partner with PwC overseeing digital assurance and transparency in the US.
In the past, Bialick said, technology departments were often viewed as service organisations that would respond to finance’s problems in a “transactional” fashion. “Today, it’s much different,” he said.
Finance and their tech colleagues are now working together far more frequently to plan and execute significant new projects, especially those based on data extraction and analysis. In some cases, finance is taking on new responsibilities for managing cloud-based tech tools. And some organisations have even unified their technology and finance teams under a single leader, Bialick said.
To make the most of this changing relationship, finance leaders provided these four tips:
Develop a relationship with tech leaders
The capacity of finance to implement new technologies begins with the CFO’s relationship with the company’s technology leader.
This has been true in some form since the days of mainframes and punch cards. But the scope and frequency of today’s projects — such as implementing cloud services or pulling in new data sources — requires closer collaboration.
“Today, if you look at any major transformation project, it does involve technology,” said Keren Stephen, FCMA, CGMA, CPA (Canada), the vice-president of finance and decision support for the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Canada and a board member for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “The head of technology is often tasked with the technology strategy for the organisation. So, if finance plays a big part of that overall transformation strategy, it’s just so logical that you need to work very closely with the head of technology.”
It’s incumbent on the CFO to take the initiative in developing these relationships, Stephen said.
When she began her current job at HRPA, Stephen knew she wanted to work with the chief information officer on the organisation’s transformation effort. But she also knew that the CIO was “exceptionally busy” with the HRPA’s core infrastructure and security needs.
She made a point of meeting with him and understanding his world. She also did her own research on potential approaches to the challenges ahead, bringing ideas and suggestions about vendors to the CIO. That helped cement the relationship because it showed finance’s initiative and interest while still respecting the CIO’s authority, she said.
“Evaluate the situation, understand the challenges of the CIO, and then come up with the best way you can build a win-win partnership,” Stephen said. “Get to know IT, get to know how they work, get to know how their processes work.”
For example, she said, if a company’s IT department has a very structured planning process, the CFO must learn what’s expected at each stage, especially when making the business case for a project.
Keep an open mind and win IT’s trust
Another important factor in making IT a business partner is to bring the department in early when working on a major project, according to Helen MacPhee, a UK-based chartered accountant and senior vice-president for finance at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
For any tech-heavy project, she suggested bringing “a sense of direction but not a defined path” to the technology department and asking for their advice on how to complete those goals.
“It’s always an insult to the intelligence of whoever you’re talking to to assume you know better,” MacPhee said. “Keep an open-minded outlook on how the project gets done. Start with a big hopper [of ideas] and narrow it down.”
Stephen described the approach of asking for help on achieving specific goals.
“We have to show that finance is very vested in the project,” she said. “We are not saying, ‘You do the job.’ We are saying, ‘We want to do it, and we need your help.’”
The relationship should extend through the lifecycle of a project, MacPhee and Stephen said. In some companies, finance and IT leaders are paired on steering committees for major projects, making decisions together all along the way.
“Both sides need to be involved — not just to make the final decisions, but they need to be involved the entire way,” Bialick said.
And when projects succeed, the relationship grows stronger.
“They’re beginning to see the success, which is reflected on them as well,” Stephen said. At her previous job, she said, finance’s good track record on tech projects ensured support for a later pilot project in robotic process automation.
Bring teams together
The relationship between finance and technology teams isn’t just about the executives. At AstraZeneca, MacPhee has ensured that employees at all levels of the organisation can work directly with their peers on the technology team.
“If you’re working on a particular activity, what you want is for the teams to come together and divide the responsibilities between them,” she said. One way to encourage that is by ensuring finance and technology team members are meeting regularly. Leaders should model a culture of cross-team collaboration.
“It’s got to come from the top down,” Bialick said, with executives pushing for their employees to collaborate directly. A stream of constant communication during project planning and execution can ensure that the project is designed and implemented efficiently.
And it’s not just communication about specific projects, he added. Each team should teach the other about their respective worlds and workstreams. “I think it can be informal, and it could just be lunch-and-learns,” Bialick said. “Have the finance people tell the IT people what they do on a daily basis.”
As the departments build mutual understanding, it becomes easier to meet each team’s goals, according to Jazmin Ribeiro, ACMA, CGMA, who previously worked as an Oracle enterprise planning consultant for IT services at UK consulting firm Brovanture.
On one project, the IT team was seen as a roadblock to implementation, Ribeiro said, but the biggest delays were due to the team’s well-justified insistence on reviewing access and data security at each step. Finance team members at the client company eventually learned to speed up the process by helping track down crucial information required by IT.
“Finance can make it easier by supplying relevant documentation to IT that details the security protocols in place for the systems being implemented,” Ribeiro said. She added that the vendors of cloud-based systems can also provide this information.
Allow finance to take on more tech responsibilities
In some companies, finance is taking on more tech-related responsibilities as technological change accelerates. That’s especially evident with cloud-based platforms, said Ribeiro, who now works as a UK-based blockchain technical communications manager for Minima, a global decentralised, mobile-native blockchain network.
Cloud-based apps can make it easier for finance teams to take on basic system administration roles, she said. At her previous job, she said, many clients wanted to “take on as much [responsibility] as they could in the finance department and reduce the responsibility that IT was to take on”.
Finance teams might even turn to a dedicated system administrator for tasks such as adding new users and managing permissions. System administrators could be new hires or trained from within the team, Ribeiro said.
“They would need to be a bit technically minded so that they could pick up these new cloud systems, which generally have a good user interface,” she said. “They don’t need to know coding, but they need to be able to quickly understand the inner workings of new systems so they can manage things like data integration, creating new rules and reports.”
Finance executives are hiring for technological skills throughout their teams. MacPhee said she recruited engineers and mathematicians who can “think logically through the development of the finance function”. And many new hires have an aptitude for lower-level coding, as well as data aggregation and visualisation tools, Bialick said.
But he and others had a warning: While finance may be taking on a more active role in planning and managing projects, IT should retain authority and expertise in the domain. Instead of duplicating the efforts and skills of IT, Bialick said, “what you need is better alignment between the two groups.”
Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.
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