When technology meets finance: how the CFO can become an innovation catalyst

In the last few years, CFOs across the globe have stepped out from the shadows to take a seat at the board, and work with business decision-makers to shape and deliver on strategy.

There can be no doubt that the skills required of a CFO have evolved, to fit with the changing face of the finance function itself.

Recent research from Intel Security into CFOs’ long-term outlook for the North American economy revealed that attracting and retaining the right finance talent is an ongoing issue – more than 70% of CFOs surveyed cited shortages of consultative, partnering, analytical and technical skills among staff.

Finance transformation – whereby the finance function adds proactive value to a business rather than representing a cost centre – is top of the agenda for many firms. This new finance team holds the key to the business intelligence and real-time insight that can support decision-making.

> See also: The digital agenda: a CFO's secret weapon in the boardroom

It also has a key role to play in commercialising ideas and ensuring that creativity translates to profit. As CFOs take the role of 'innovation catalyst' in their stride, there is an enormous opportunity for them to harness their deep understanding of the numbers that underpin the business to take a hands on approach to driving revenue and competitive edge.

We don’t have to look too far back in the news headlines to see this trend in action – Jockey International announced the hire of Dain Bussewitz to become both its CFO and chief information officer. PepsiCo then followed suit, announcing that its CFO would become vice chairman and take responsibility for the NY-based company’s IT systems.

So what traits does today’s CFO require to succeed? A recent report from Social Science Research Network, entitled CFO Narcissism and Financial Reporting Quality, looks at the effect of CFO narcissism (as measured by signature size), on financial reporting outcomes. It links this with less timely loss recognition, weaker internal controls and a higher probability of restatements.

Of course, this is to be taken with a big pinch of salt – the ability to deliver against promises, and establish a reputation that hinges on attention to detail, with a focus on quality and efficiency depends less on personality traits, and more in the IT and reporting systems on which the CFO relies.

Technology plays a crucial role in successful finance transformations, freeing staff from legacy processes and ways of thinking to open up the way for an improved, more strategic function.

CFOs are required to manage a variety of complex processes. The one that is likely to keep them awake at night most frequently, is the financial close. Whether monthly, quarterly, or on an annual basis, this task encompasses a vast range of elements and components which the CFO must effectively oversee to ensure a consistent, and timely close.

This must all be achieved with the utmost accuracy. CFOs face an inordinate amount of pressure to produce the numbers quickly, but data integrity is not simply a ‘nice to have’, and CFOs and their teams must strive for a quality close.

The amount of manual effort traditionally associated with this close process is of particular note. In the last few decades, corporate finance has put a great deal of effort into improving the financial close process, though this has typically stopped at the 'last mile of finance.'

So although we have seen improved speed and efficiency across group consolidation (the combination of financial statements for separate companies to produce a single documented group entity) and, more recently, disclosure (handling the production, publication and filing of financial regulatory statements and reports), there is still an 'Undiscovered Mile' of finance that’s ripe for improvement.

This phase of the close is well served by ERP systems, consolidation tools, and report distribution management systems. All these can give the illusion of automation, though effectively as ‘task management’ dashboards, collaborative tools which ease workflow, but disguise persistent levels of manual effort.

This stage can – and does – take up an enormous amount of time for finance professionals, who are caught in a constant and repetitive loop of reviewing and taking action on hundreds, or even thousands, of individual actions.

A typical end-to-end entity close process can take as much as two thirds of the time and effort associated with the entire close.

Research from Redwood Software shows that companies dedicate more than 8,300 full personnel days to the close each year, with the activity sprawling for days and even weeks around the actual close date.

> See also: How to become a data-driven company overnight – CFO, EAT

This endless and unnecessary repetition not only has major implications for the quality of information delivered, but also limits the amount of time that can be spend on the crucial analysis phase, once the numbers have been produced.

It is this analysis that allows CFOs to shine, adding their understanding of the business to the numbers, to give a contextual picture of the health of the organisation and opportunities for growth.

This consultative skill is crucial when translating and reporting this information back to business, and cannot be underestimated in the CFO’s skill set as they seek to cement their position as a strategic pillar of the leadership team.

There’s no denying the pressure on IT teams to deliver round-the-clock value with ever-diminishing budgets, but the piecemeal manual business and IT process that are all too familiar represent a worrying roadblock for CFOs seeking to cement a professional reputation for rigorous governance, accuracy, consistency and foresight.

CFOs and their finance teams should be working together to ensure that they can streamline processes and remove siloes to escape the ‘fragmented norm’ – only then will we see true transformation.

Sourced from Greg Fritsky, Director of Finance Transformation at Redwood Software

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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