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Advice and Information for Finance Professionals

What it Takes to Be a Great CFO in the Digital Age

Guest Author

By Satyanarayanan Sundararajan, ERP Advisory Lead, Oracle Cloud ERP, Cognizant

When I was in accounting school about 25 years ago, I was told that the CFO was the most important C-level executive from an accounting standpoint. After all, he or she was the gatekeeper for the business’s financial records. 

Today, that’s still true; the CFO has the last word on accounting matters. But almost everything else about the CFO’s job has changed. They are no longer just book-balancers. In a very real sense, CFOs are guiding their organizations towards greatness by successfully leveraging the strategic intelligence they garner from across the company and beyond.

The data bears this out. Earlier this year, the Association for International Certified Professional Accountants and Oracle released a report looking at the key traits of finance leaders in the digital age. Organizations with digitally savvy finance teams were significantly more likely to have reported positive revenue growth over the past 12 months (Agile Finance Unleashed: The Key Traits of Digital Finance Leaders, 2019). 

The research found that leading finance teams are built upon three pillars: operational excellence, digital intelligence, and business influence. To thrive, the new CFO needs to master this new set of skills. They used to be spreadsheet experts, but today they need to show they are equipped to help the company overcome challenges during a crisis, identify new investment opportunities, and help it grow and prosper in the face of intensifying competition.

Forces of change

There are powerful forces, both internal and external, driving the metamorphosis of the CFO. Inside the business, the role of the finance organization has changed. No longer just a cost center, finance must now show that it’s bringing value to the broader business. 

That’s why CFOs are looking critically at their existing systems with an eye to replacing those that are dragging down the organization. And they are making sure that any new technologies have what it takes to turn the business into a effective market disruptor. Usually that means providing data and insights faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Externally, relentless competition is compelling finance organizations to adopt the latest technologies to keep up with the cutting edge. Time and again we’ve seen customers (often having just returned from leadership summits and peer conferences) express shock at how far behind their organization has fallen in areas ranging from cost competitiveness to innovations like real-time analytics and data-visualization dashboards. For these organizations, staying put is no longer an option.  

We regularly witness first-hand how new technology can take finance organizations beyond their traditional roles. A few years ago, for example, we helped one of the country’s biggest restaurant chains move from a 20-year-old ERP system to Oracle ERP Cloud. The move was a strategic decision specifically designed to beat the competition. The company wanted to go digital—years before any other restaurant chain even thought about the idea.

The decision paid off in multiple ways. The company cut costs significantly because it no longer needed a sprawling team to manage its on-premise finance system. Meanwhile it replaced a mix of complex approval workflows with standard best practices, helping streamline operations. Best of all, finance professionals could leverage out-of-the-box dashboards to make faster decisions with real-time analytics. 

For the CFO and his team, the shift to cloud ERP also drove a cultural change. Suddenly finance became more independent and empowered. By exploiting next-gen cloud capabilities, finance staff no longer needed to call on IT every time they wanted to build a basic report. Now they can do it themselves in a fraction of the time (from days to minutes, in many cases) and tap data generated across the breadth of the business, providing uniquely valuable insights. Even better: for the first time, the finance team can accelerate certain steps—some of them embedded in the cloud solution out of the box—to automatically execute tasks, such as emailing, that used to bog down staff.

Upleveling skills

And while cloud-based efficiencies and automation are sparing finance professionals a lot of repetitive manual work, it’s also forcing them to uplevel their skills. To stay relevant, they need to gain proficiency in areas ranging from predictive analytics and machine learning to IoT and blockchain. The best CFOs I’ve had the pleasure of working with are seeking cloud applications with these advanced technologies already built in, saving them the work of building it themselves.  

Among other things, the new CFO and his or her team will need to master the art of retrieving and merging data from specialized business systems and creating insights that leaders can use to make better decisions. This requires being “situationally aware” of what data is likely to make a difference to the business. Data is everywhere today, but its usefulness still depends on humans making intelligent judgments about its value and relevance.

To do that, the next generation of CFOs and finance pros will need to become deeply knowledgable about the business they work for, the competive landscape it operates in, and the non-financial drivers of growth and profitability. Gaining this acumen will help them sharpen their queries so that the insights they’re teasing out of the data are more dynamic and useful. In my view, 90-95% of a finance team’s work should be spent doing analysis, not data entry. 

What’s my advice for the CFO who wants to thrive in the finance organization of the future? First and foremost: stay on top of what’s happening in the world and the latest trends in finance, technology, and all things digital. Adopt a mindset of constant learning and education. 

Then don’t forget to put what you learn into practice. If you read something about automation, for example, think about how you can put that idea to work in your current environment, perhaps by simplifying a routine or deploying an intelligent agent to save time.  

Put another way, you should always strive to stay one step ahead of your competion. In the cloud era, change is continuous. So it pays to be constantly evolving. Attending conferences like Oracle OpenWorld or Modern Business Experience, for example, can help you learn what’s being released in the next quarter (or the next year) so you can plan ahead to embrace the newest capabilities.  

Does your finance organization have the skills it needs to compete in the digital age? Learn how Cognizant and Oracle can help.

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