How can the CFO create a context for technology?

Johannesburg, 16 Sep 2020
Read time 4min 50sec
Gerhard Hartman, Vice President: Medium Business - Africa & Middle East, Sage.
Gerhard Hartman, Vice President: Medium Business - Africa & Middle East, Sage.

The recent CFO 3.0 survey from Sage South Africa makes for eye-opening reading. Modern digital technology's emergence in companies has been a difficult trend. It was characterised as a standoff between those who want the latest digital tools and those who question its value given the inevitable disruption and cost.

Cloud-driven, consumption IT started removing the barriers represented by monolithic and expensive systems. Technology became more of a business imperative, and new research has revealed its tipping point.

According to the South Africa CFO 3.0 report, produced by World Wide Worx, 87% of CFOs now play a role in digital transformation, and 15% of local CFOs are driving the digital agenda. That last number is very significant – 15% may seem like a little, but in context of the above history, it's a revolution.

A fresh look at the business-technology relationship

Why did this shift happen? Platforms and software as a service (SaaS) have helped strip away the jargon and technicalities that used to obscure a service's value. In other words, it's much easier for non-technologists to see the forest for the trees.

Yet we were looking for a spark – that was the pandemic. The survey was conducted during the pandemic months and reflects a renewed focus among decision-makers, said Sage's Vice-President for Medium Business in Africa & Middle East, Gerhard Hartman: "People's minds changed dramatically in the past four months. We're forced to relook our business and to say, 'How can I be more efficient? How can I add more value even though we're not sitting next to one another?', and the answer is technology. And what we've seen specifically to technology is the adoption of cloud technology."

CFOs should ask four questions to aid their decisions, Hartman added: What business problem are they trying to solve? What specific technology do they need? Do they have technology that can be leveraged right now? And are there any new technologies available that can help them solve their challenges and accomplish their goals?

Why are CFOs well-positioned to ask these questions? The most obvious reason is that they don't have a choice. If companies are increasingly reliant on technology and the CFO is often the person who approves that project through funding, the onus is on them to know more about what they are approving (or not). Beyond that, CFOs have an intuitive appreciation for information as well as process efficiencies, which tie to technology services such as data analytics and software automation.

The emergence of consumption technologies connected the dots between appreciation and technology. The pandemic has also brought the technology mountain to them – the survey reveals that more than a quarter of CFOs now manage remote teams. Now CFOs need to climb it.

So, how do they do that?

Creating a context for technology

"This is a chance to ask: Was my strategy correct? Was my strategy solid and executable in the long run? People are focused on the now, but you need to force yourself to ask, 'Beyond this, how am I going to end up?'" said Hartman.

The pandemic is an opportunity to check your organisation's resilience, relevancy and agility. CFOs should take the three questions mentioned above and align those with their most pressing requirements.

"Break it up in chunks. Go in and say, 'I've got a problem to solve. Maybe I've got two or three problems to solve. But this is my main problem. I want to solve it in a very short time and focus on implementation and execution.' That's the beauty. If you want to purchase technology, you don't need to do everything in one go. You can phase it and focus on burning issues."

This attitude naturally speaks to working more closely with the CIO, who should be glad to have an ally such as the CFO willing to take some of the technology reins. As much as CIOs are the technology leaders, they have been overburdened to define the business context for those technologies. Few leaders in the business have the clout, access and business savvy of the CFO. This role doesn't stop at finances, but often overlaps into operational, compliance and risk functions.

In turn, CFOs must realise that not only can leaders agree more readily on priorities, but there is a surge of engagement and interest among employees. The pandemic has shaken up everyone's priorities and weaved a golden thread for technology through the organisation: "Employees are unsure about what the future will hold for themselves as well. Let me rethink my own job. If I am not comfortable with technology, will I still be relevant? It's an up and down conversation."

If CFOs leverage this newfound dynamic of collaboration and prioritisation, they can make a lot of hay. They should focus on what business problem are they trying to solve, what specific technology do they need, do they have technology that can be leveraged right now and are there any new technologies available that can help them solve their challenges and accomplish their goals? Then tackle the most pressing priorities first, leaning on technology leaders as well as service providers. 

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