Why CFOs Need to Improve Technical and People Skills

January 23, 2020 | 4 minute read
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By: Ash Noah, CPA, CGMA, Managing Director of CGMA Learning, Education and Development at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA & CIMA)

So much about finance is changing so quickly that ongoing learning has become essential. For example, in the past two years, I’ve seen CFOs advance from having a basic understanding of data science to creating and heading up data science teams and working alongside a data engineer.

But today’s CFOs also are facing polarized changes in their role, thanks to rampant automation. On one end, there’s pressure on CFOs to have more technology-related capabilities. At the other end, new business models are pushing CFOs to improve their understanding of the enterprise business model and the value of their products and services.  

Digital transformation is driving both, and it’s also attracting an unprecedented level of investment. CFOs now need to understand how technology can change the customer experience and enable new ways of serving the customer, and then reimagine their business models. They need the ability to guide decision-making around their organization’s digital strategy, including the risks and potential impact of existing and emerging technologies. This extends to the tactical (the IT resources themselves) but also to the strategic implications for new product and service development, partnerships, acquisitions, and other investments.

They also need to know how to collaborate, communicate, solve problems, think critically, and really engage and influence the whole organization. Advances in automation are behind this need, too. 

Finance has always assembled and reported information that’s vital to assessing and improving organizational health. In a digitally transformed organization, much of this data gathering and reporting is automated. So finance teams need to start using their skills to provide deeper insights that can spur action, influence decisions, and create value throughout the enterprise. This type of work requires collaboration with cross-functional teams and non-finance professionals—and at times, leadership. 

New skills for new business models

Last year, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the new global organization formed by members of the AICPA and CIMA) updated its curriculum for the CGMA Finance Leadership Program in response to these dramatic shifts in finance. We added the study of cyber risk, data analytics, emerging technologies, and new digital business models. We also added an emphasis on “how-to-learn” skills to help finance professionals be successful in agile business models. 

The feedback from participants has been enthusiastic. As emerging technologies and new business models continue to evolve, we’ll update the curriculum accordingly. We’re striving to stay aligned to the rapid uptake of advances, such as machine learning and data science. 

These advances are bringing entirely new roles, functions, and capabilities that are central to business strategy, and that’s why CFOs need to understand how these new concepts work, how to assign value, and how to evaluate them. 

Take cloud applications, for example. Cloud ERP and cloud SCM each offer specific benefits; but they add more value to an organization when they are connected to each other (and to other cloud applications). Data and processes, such as procure-to-pay, can flow automatically from end-to-end. Using an integrated capability like blockchain with cloud supply chain improves track-and-trace capabilities, and enterprise performance management (EPM) with cloud ERP helps finance teams improve data-driven decision-making.

Cloud becomes the delivery system for advanced technologies that can automate work—reducing cost and freeing up resources. Those benefits need to be quantified beyond the tactical value of cost reduction.

Always-on learning for CFOs and accountants

Learning new things is becoming an ongoing need because digital transformation never really ends. New ways to improve customer service, meet unmet demand, streamline processes, and improve quality are springing up—and becoming operational—much faster than in the recent past. It’s becoming easier to find opportunity because of technology, as opposed to investing in technology just to keep up. Opportunity is everywhere.

With cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT), advanced technologies can be delivered quickly, at scale, and at affordable price points.

This is why an always-on learning capability is a necessity for finance leaders today. New categories of value are being created every day. Understanding what it takes to execute and successfully operate using these new models will be essential. 

All of these opportunities make it a fantastic time to be in finance—to be on the ground floor of operationalizing new value streams—but it can also be challenging to keep up with the speed of change. Improving your technical knowledge, people skills, and understanding of the ins and outs of new digital business models and customers will help transform the office of the CFO to into a value engine. 

To learn the key traits of digital finance leaders, download the research report.

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