Keeping up with the evolving role of the CFO

Accounting

The role of the chief financial officer has evolved more in the last year than in the past five years, due to the massive digital transformation that took place in response to the pandemic. While numbers — from those associated with performance metrics to the bottom line — continue to be a primary focus, CFOs today are now being asked to play a key role in driving the organization’s broader strategic agenda.

Those agendas increasingly feature digital transformation as companies seek to leverage artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other technologies to gain a competitive advantage in a continually changing business environment. And it’s not uncommon to find CFOs at the forefront of these efforts.

A PWC US Pulse survey in August reported that 68% of the finance leaders surveyed plan to invest in digital transformation over the next 12 months. That’s in line with a 2021 Gartner CEO Survey: The CFO Perspective in which 82% of the respondents said there was intent to increase investment in digital capabilities in fiscal year 2021 compared to FY2020.

CFOs are creating and executing insight-driven strategies that drive and support technology-powered change throughout the organization, and creating cultures open to new ways of working. Furthermore, CFOs are employing a more holistic view of the business, and championing data-driven decision making, to future-proof the organization and make teams more agile and resilient.

Let’s examine why and how these specific changes to the CFO role came to fruition.

Pandemic-influenced acceleration

While the CFO role has been evolving for years, its expansion into the realm of digital transformation ramped up throughout the pandemic. As COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed, many organizations digitized processes to support remote work operations.

Investments in digital technologies and the supporting information technology infrastructure were essential in enabling these organizations to adapt and thrive amid unprecedented disruptions, and CFOs prioritized the budget for this enablement.

The pandemic also provided a strong proving ground for the value of advanced data analytics. Armed with data, CFOs and finance teams were able to generate insights that enabled the organization to pivot to alternative markets and suppliers and adapt to new ways of working in response to sudden business and market shifts.

The success of those efforts, which includes positive ROI on digital investments, has encouraged many CFOs to advocate for faster and increased digital transformation due to the favorable short-term performance outcomes. CFOs also see the potential for long-term value creation and are making more investments.

The digital transformation of finance functions

Digital technologies aren’t just changing business operations and customer experiences. These technologies are reshaping finance and support functions — and the CFO role.

Automation, AI, machine learning, process analytics and other technologies are being used to streamline workflows and eliminate many tedious, repetitive tasks. That includes manual workflows associated with areas like accounts payable, compliance, and risk management. The results of this evolution are plentiful: increased productivity, less human error, reduced costs, and higher-quality outputs.

The technologies are also freeing CFOs up from the many manual processes that typically take up time, like signing and sending back checks, so the focus can be reassigned to higher-level, more strategic endeavors. It allows for better use of the CFO’s expertise and experience, and allows for the ability to provide greater value to the organization.

In addition, the elimination of manual processes provides CFOs with more bandwidth to create meaningful roles for the finance team. That enables team members to devote more time to high-value activities as well and move past paper pushing, essentially creating a trickle-down effect. It also contributes to greater career satisfaction which can improve employee morale.

Harnessing the power of data

Data analytics have long been used by CFOs and the finance team to help manage business activities. Through digital transformation, CFOs can do much more — and do it all faster and more cost-effectively.

CFOs can easily gather data from numerous disparate sources, clean it, label it, organize it, store it and ensure it meets compliance requirements. With just a click or two, finance leaders can access the data needed, drill down, slice and dice, and perform ad-hoc analyses. This access allows for real-time delivery of insights and the ability to create easy-to-understand visualizations for human resources, sales, procurement, operating divisions, business units and other internal customers throughout the organization.

This data-driven information can be used to develop process improvements, ensure compliance, and enhance employee and customer satisfaction. It can be used to identify new market and profit opportunities, measure and manage business performance, and run simulations. It can help organizations hedge against volatility and respond faster to changes.

Ultimately, the result is that CFOs are becoming data scientists as much as finance professionals. With the ability to interpret data and connect data points, these leaders are also becoming storytellers — including the hows and whys. With this information, CFOs can walk through the steps that are informing decision making behind specific objectives, strategies, and success definitions.

Seeking resilience and readiness

With technology and customer expectations constantly changing and the amount of data growing exponentially, digital transformation is considered an ongoing journey. CFOs are steering efforts to keep forward momentum. Doing so requires continuous innovation and the ability to anticipate, respond and adapt to changes, challenges and opportunities as they arise.

It’s not enough for CFOs to employ the latest technologies or drive company-wide technology adoption. It’s now about striving for digital resilience. Digital resilience enables organizations — and CFOs — to rapidly adapt to business disruptions and capitalize on changing conditions, two factors that should be included in every business continuity plan moving forward.

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