With economic conditions slowly improving, chief financial officers expect to spend more time driving business growth in the next few years, according to The CFO as a Catalyst for Change, a Longitude Research survey recently commissioned by Oracle and Accenture. They're keen to invest more in cloud, mobile and big data technology in light of this growth agenda, according to the survey of 930 CFOs around the world.
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But simply buying a cutting-edge system doesn't guarantee positive results. During a CFO Magazine webinar that reviewed the survey findings, panelists gave tips on how CFOs can successfully manage IT projects and work with the CIO on transformative IT initiatives.
CFOs warming to cloud financials, hot on analytics
IT infrastructure was the No. 1 technology investment the CFO survey respondents considered to be a current top priority, followed by mobile technology and IT security. With this in mind, the responses to the question "Which of the following aspects of your company's current technology assets and infrastructure cause you most concern?" make sense: The cost of maintenance was the most popular answer, receiving 30%, while the cost of integration received 29% and the lack of integration between systems received 28%.
However, when asked to consider which technology investments would be top priorities over the next three years, analytics/business intelligence and cloud computing rose in importance, from 32% to 37% and from 15% to 22% respectively, while IT infrastructure fell, from 45% to 38%. Mobile technology remained relatively steady around 40%. When the same question was posed to the webinar audience, 80% of attendees named analytics/business intelligence as a future top priority, and 34% named cloud computing.
Scott Brennan, executive director at Accenture, commented on CFOs' rising interest in cloud computing. "Finance has traditionally resisted putting financial data in the cloud but [the survey results] are very consistent with what I see my customers doing," he said. "We're getting a lot more interest in the topic of cloud computing, specifically around doing dimensional analytics and forecasting."
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The survey also showed that CFOs view big data and analytics as differentiating technologies: Slightly more than half the respondents agreed that investments in these areas would be a source of competitive advantage. But Stuart King, finance director for the food products division of Reckitt Benckiser, a consumer goods company based in the United Kingdom, was quick to point out that simply implementing a new system isn't a silver bullet.
"It's part of the solution, but the answer doesn't come from data. You can't stare at a page and the answer appears," King said in a separate interview. "There's no substitute for business understanding -- talking to people, going to stores, testing products. In the absence of that, [you] can't just hand over reports."
The CFO survey respondents agreed with King's sentiment. In terms of where respondents said they had skills gaps, industry knowledge was the No. 1 response, at 31%. Technology knowledge and strategic capabilities followed close behind.
Close CFO-CIO relationship necessary for IT success
With CFOs' enthusiasm for transformative IT projects on the rise, it follows that they'll be spending more time working with the chief information officer (CIO). Judging by the CFO survey results, the CFO-CIO bond has been getting stronger -- a whopping 84% of respondents said cooperation between the CFO and CIO had increased over the past three years. Henry Hon, a webinar panelist and CFO at the Telstra International Group, a telecommunications company headquartered in Australia, underscored the importance of maintaining this relationship. "I'm not a tech expert, so you want to have somebody by your side to give you guidance," he said. "If you don't have a good relationship with the CIO, you're going to be lost from Day 1."
Hon also gave tips for managing IT projects. He encouraged finance to seek input from all functions and levels of the company -- from top executives to non-managerial employees. Although he acknowledged that any implementation is bound to make some group unhappy, he stressed that making stakeholders feel like their voices were heard is crucial, as is properly explaining decisions that go against people's wishes. He also stressed the importance of keeping a project moving by continually making decisions. "The model that I have for right or for wrong is, it's a democracy until it's not," he said. "If you put all the requirements that everyone wants into a system, it won't be effective."
To that point, Hon explained that he is an advocate of minimal customization. "Customizing a system means [the implementation] takes longer, and then when the next release or the next technology comes out, you can't move and you're going to fall behind your competitors," he said.
The webinar closed with a question from the audience: How does a CFO begin a business transformation initiative? Hon listed a couple of steps to get started.
"Build a strong team. I don't mind having someone that's better than me if that makes me better," he said. "[And] don't forget that you have to have small wins -- they get the whole team energized."