Masters of Change: The CFO Transformed

In this article, originally published in the first edition of SmarterCFO, Tim Wakeford, Vice President of Product Strategy, gave his perspective on  transforming the finance function and offered advice on shifting from the traditional role of business partner to the value partner the C-suite needs.

Masters of Change: The CFO Transformed

How has the role of the CFO changed and what does that mean for finance leaders looking to create long term value for their organisations? 

CEOs, boards and businesses are demanding more from their finance departments. Deloitte's Finance 2025 Revisited study, found that there’s great promise for finance organisations to create more value for their companies. The role of finance is going beyond the numbers and embracing the shift from business partner to value partner.

From a tech perspective, in the past, ERP systems were built to track value and not to handle the value drivers that we see today. Ninety percent of the value that's being created now comes from intangible assets – an organisation's people, brand names, customer relationships and social and intellectual capital. According to Ocean Tomo, in their market value study, intangible asset value has dramatically risen from 17% in 1975, to 90% in 2020. The pandemic further accelerated the rise and the trend towards the growth of intangible assets as a percentage of total assets is now more than 90% of the S&P 500 Index.

What’s holding finance leaders back and what should they be prioritising to help them become value creators for their organisations?  

Experienced financial professionals already know that change is needed. They also know that the shift from traditional finance steward to value creator can be hard to achieve – providing strategic insights for value creation with fragmented, poorly integrated data can be almost impossible. CFOs aren’t able to support changes in their businesses or industry because their systems are rigid and their processes are calcified. They also need to be confident they have the right team in place with the necessary skills to take the business forward. 

We’re now living in a world where finance can track value and have the insights to predict where you're going and to enable you to respond to changes proactively. With the right tool, finance has the adaptability to pivot quickly so you can capitalise on emerging opportunities in your markets. Finance employs the talent needed to execute its mandate to support strategic business objectives and drive value creation.

The good news is there’s a real appetite for change. Research shows that digitising and transforming ERP is now a high priority for CFOs and CIOs. According to Gartner, 82% of CFOs report their investments in digital are accelerating. And in 2021, CIOs said ERP was one of the top three software spending priorities, coming second only to analytics. 

“With the right tool, finance has the adaptability to pivot quickly so you can capitalise on emerging opportunities in your markets.”

What role does data play in helping finance leaders become value creators for their organisations?

It goes without saying that you need access to your data, so you can make the best decisions for your organisation and impact business outcomes.

Your data can tell you basic things, like which products and services are the most profitable or your areas of discretionary spend outside of budget. Having the ability to drive commercial banking data really starts with high quality and clean data, and that's something that most organisations really struggle with. They can find coping with the sheer volume of data that's generated and the need to reconcile data across different systems challenging. Businesses that are overwhelmed by their data can find large parts of their team’s resources consumed by low-value activity. But data is fundamental to tell a cohesive business story.

It's estimated that by 2025 there will be over 180 zettabytes of data being generated. Can you imagine a data volume that vast? And it’s predicted that less than 5% of that data will ever be analysed. Imagine how valuable it would be if you could bring in high volumes of data from external systems. You could reconcile, clean, transform and enhance that data. You could even generate accounting of that third-party data and analyse it at scale. If you could do all that, and you could do it in one place that's connected to your core financial system, that would be powerful. It would enable you, as finance leaders in your organisations, to make faster and more accurate decisions to drive business outcomes.

How important is agility and how can the CFO make the finance function more flexible and adaptable? 

Agility is fundamental to how effectively finance can support operations and drive value. Flexible and secure processes that are underpinned by an architecture purpose-built for change are key. 

You shouldn't need to purchase a new solution or start an IT project to undertake basic tasks, like adding new reported dimensions, adding new complexities, or changing the organisational hierarchies to the standard business processes. You should be able to easily accommodate corporate strategy and business transformation activities. But at the minute that's hard for many companies to achieve.

Most organisations are bound by legacy systems and outdated processes. All of those things prevent them from quickly capitalising on new opportunities. Investors want companies that can pivot when times are tough and can do that without compromising their ability to seize opportunities when they come up. 

One thing that enables you to futureproof your business is a system that's adapting to those business changes, that supports configurable dimensions of business processes, that enables you to do things like meet new regulatory requirements or track long-term sustainability predictors across your suppliers or your employees.

“You need to attract top talent to build your next-generation finance team, develop, retain and empower your talent and then get out of the way and let them deliver value for your organisation.”

How does the CFO ensure they can attract and retain the right talent to create a high-performing team? 

In today's fast-paced, volatile environment you've got to do a few fundamental things as a leader. You need to attract top talent to build your next-generation finance team, develop, retain and empower your talent and then get out of the way and let them deliver value for your organisation.   

Students graduating from college this year were six years old when the smartphone was introduced. That means they likely don't remember a time when they couldn't Google or make purchases from the palm of their hand. Your finance system has to echo their experience and be the backbone of the modern experience, using natural language to surface information and workspaces that enable employees to perform their functions wherever they choose, in whichever applications that they want to be able to work in. Does your finance system incorporate machine learning to identify employees? Does it make recommendations that would suggest steps in your business process to improve the efficiency of your organisations? 

Finance leaders should be trying to unlock the potential of their employees. How can you, as a leader, create specially curated experiences that have been designed specifically for your people, where anomalies are surfaced so they don't have to go digging for them? When it happens automatically, your people are left with more time to spend on strategic work that adds value. Employees should be empowered to access the information they need, when they need it and be given the tools to efficiently do their jobs. All of this helps you attract and retain the next generation of finance professionals. 

Read more about the changing role of the CFO and the latest insights for finance leaders in Vol. 1 of SmarterCFO.

More Reading