For years, the informal “handle” for CFOs has been “bean counter,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as a disparaging term for someone who is “involved in corporate or government financial decisions and especially one reluctant to spend money,” and as “a person who helps to run a business and who only cares about money.” Merriam-Webster also provides an example sentence showing how “bean counter” would be used, for the benefit of English language learners: “He blames corporate bean counters for causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs.”
At first blush, those of us who made our careers in disciplines other than finance are likely to agree with those definitions. We remember the CFO as the hatchet man who killed an important project out of a need to meet corporate profitability goals or because they didn’t see enough ROI (return on investment) in the project to back it.
But all that is changing now for new CFOs–and even for veteran CFOs, who suddenly find themselves at a new crossroads. Just reviewing the numbers and saying “yay” or “nay” is no longer enough.
“Today, newly minted CFOs and those who have worn the CFO mantle for some time must take a different view of IT and of business strategy,” said Steve Cox, vice president of ERP and EPM go-to-market for Oracle. “When I talk with CFOs, they recognize this change. Today, in addition to the numbers, CFOs have to be aware of the business processes that will help their companies grow, the people they will need in order to propel corporate growth, and the role of technology and technology infrastructure to enable this growth.”
Cox’s mention of IT infrastructure wasn’t lost on me. As a former CIO, I recalled numerous battles over middleware, bandwidth, system and security software, and edge devices that fell upon deaf CFO ears–because they couldn’t connect the dots between deploying mobile devices and other tangible technologies and the foundational IT underpinnings that were needed to support them.
“This is no longer the case with CFOs,” Cox said, “because they understand that in today’s digital environment, IT is an enabler of company strategy, even when the discussion is about infrastructure.”
Another key element of IT that’s on CFOs’ minds is the agility that technology can enable.
“In less than a year, corporate CFOs have seen disruptive change around the world,” Cox said. “First, there was Brexit. Then, there was the US presidential election. Now, it looks like there could be major US policy changes. All of these impact business, which makes business agility and the digital technologies that facilitate it, such as the cloud, the Web, mobile computing, and analytics, critical to companies as they navigate their courses and even change them. In this environment, the CFO must be informationally advantaged through the use of IT so he or she can be in tune with where the business is going.”
This means that in addition to working with balance sheets, income statements, and industry ratios, CFOs must serve as co-pilots to their CEOs, performing what-if analyses on different business scenarios, with a sound understanding of what’s important to the business and what the business needs to succeed.
“I don’t think I could have said this in earlier years, but the CFO is now at the heart of the business,” said Cox. “This is a great place to be.”
For CIOs who work with CFOs, the CFO transformation is also welcome. It is facilitating a new partnership between CFOs and CIOs that is displacing years of adversity, and CEOs-and the C-suite in general, couldn’t be happier.