Our survey reveals CFOs have struggled more than other executives to consistently meet business demands. At the same time, CFOs are increasingly aware they need more reliable, accessible data to be able to decisively lead their organizations forward.
CFOs have faced unprecedented challenges over the past two years. They have had to keep their companies steady throughout extreme economic disruption, while balancing myriad stakeholder demands and safeguarding against new risks. As if that wasn’t enough, there has also been a slew of regulatory changes and new environmental, social, and governance (ESG) requirements.
"Closing the Acceleration Gap: Toward Sustainable Digital Transformation," our global survey of 1,150 senior business executives—295 of whom were finance leaders—reveals that CFOs have struggled the most to consistently meet business demands. The research shows finance transformation lagging that of other functional areas of the business. However, in a world where such transformation is continuous and business-critical, CFOs are increasingly aware that they need new skills within their function and the ability to lead their organizations forward decisively.
Why is finance facing that transformation gap? And what technologies and investments are CFOs prioritizing to close it?
The Added Value of Today’s CFO
CFOs play an increasingly critical role in organizational transformation. More than ever, CEOs want to partner with their finance leaders to drive value creation within the business, and finance leaders are aware that they need to expand their remits. For Ally Financial CFO Jennifer LaClair, digital transformation has been all about modernizing the company’s financial tools.
About one-third of finance leaders (34%) have little or no confidence in their teams’ ability to meet the demands of the business.
“We’re going back to the building blocks of accounting and finance, cleaning them up, modernizing them, putting them in what we call the ‘finance data hub,’ and then building consumption on top of that,” she explains. “It’s extremely agile, easier for our employees to use, and significantly reduces manual processes.”
LaClair noted that there is also a wider rationale. “I can see my workforce changing dramatically over the next 24-plus months,” she says. “As we’re introducing new tools, it’s going to allow our employees to be much more analytical, quicker, and thoughtful about business implications and, ultimately, to drive greater strategic value for the company.”
Our research shows CFOs—compared to their C-suite peers—are most concerned that they don’t currently have the skills they need on their teams. When asked about the skills their teams require to continually meet the needs of the business, 71% of finance leaders said their teams currently lack all or some of the skills they identified. This was higher than CIOs (46%) and CHROs (59%).
Design a Digital Infrastructure to Meet Demand
For many CFOs, the pandemic underlined the crucial role of accurate and accessible data across key business applications—and just how much their business function lacked it.
Our research reveals that about one-third of finance leaders (34%) have little or no confidence in their teams’ ability to meet the demands of the business, and only 49% have confidence in the speed of their planning, execution, and analysis cycles. As technology becomes a more prominent driver of company value, much of this confidence shortfall can be attributed to data. Many organizations’ data is too low quality, and they struggle to analyse it and use it strategically.
Pete Schlampp, Chief Strategy Officer, Workday: “CFOs are coming out of the pandemic and saying: ‘We can’t go forward like this anymore, we know that we need to transform.’”
The COVID-19 crisis has seen global businesses scramble to digitalize customer-facing elements of their operations, but many CFOs have had to rely on disparate legacy systems. This has forced them to put up with rigid processes and multiple data sources—neither of which make it easy to pivot. In our research, just 31% of finance leaders say their digital strategies allow them to keep pace with or exceed the demands on the business.
Digital Skills Are Make or Break
These digital shortfalls show that for CFOs to move their businesses forward, they will need to democratize data across the business—and ensure their teams can make the most of it.
“Access to data is the crux of most technology issues in any company,” says Ally Financial’s LaClair. “Data needs to be the responsibility of everyone in an organization, and that’s the approach we’ve taken at Ally—every leader and every employee is a tech leader.”
But that data is only as strong as the thinking that a business can apply to it and the insights derived from it. And, with finance leaders’ most sought-after skill being the ability to develop and embed new revenue streams, getting this right is critical.
“There is pressure for faster financial analysis to determine, ‘Should we do this instead of that?’ [or] ‘What is the impact?’ We are now constantly re-evaluating strategic initiatives,” says Denise Chamberlain, executive vice president and CFO at integrated health system EE Health. “Operations and leadership need financial analysis and information quicker than they’ve ever needed it before.”
This need to know faster is a challenge that Wojtek Wieronski, general manager, finance, at consumer electronics company MediaMarktSaturn in Poland, also experienced during the pandemic. “As finance, we had to step up and demonstrate that these new operations or restrictions meant XYZ for the business, and this is how we should respond,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges was that we had to respond very efficiently and very quickly.”
For Wieronski, automation of the accounting function has been a priority because it simultaneously helps the company streamline processes and ensures the finance team can continue to meet the needs of the business as it evolves.
Almost a quarter (24%) of the finance leaders in our survey agree that technology to better integrate data between disparate systems, or to break down data silos, is most important for enabling faster planning, execution, and analysis cycles, and improving decision-making among finance leaders.
Time for CFOs and CIOs to Work Together
Crucially, this transformation also has the power to recalibrate the CFO-CIO relationship, enabling closer collaboration and continuous innovation between finance and IT, and freeing up leaders across both functions to focus on more strategic initiatives.
As it stands, the two groups' views differ on the importance of digital to the future of their businesses: 69% of CIOs think half or more of their organization’s revenue will be digital in three years’ time, compared with just 27% of CFOs.
When asked about the skills their teams require to continually meet the needs of the business, 71% of finance leaders said their teams currently lack all or some of the skills they identified.
But they do seem to agree about the biggest opportunities for digital growth in the next 12 to 18 months. About one-third (32%) of both groups say that greater investment in the cloud is the biggest opportunity, and a similar number point to the faster acquisition and deployment of new skills and teams. Are CIOs and CFOs starting to develop shared strategic views?
The CFO Is Now Leading the Digital Transformation Agenda
Workday Chief Strategy Officer Pete Schlampp is optimistic about the pace of change for CFOs and suggests that transformation initiatives originally slated for 2025 are likely to be brought forward.
“The office of the CFO has not transformed as much as [those of] other leaders within the organization,” he says. “Typically, it’s been: ‘Three years from now, we’re going to transform, we’re going to digitize.’ Now, those projects are coming back in and, instead of calendar year ’25, they’re moving into calendar years ’22, ’23, and ’24. CFOs are coming out of the pandemic and saying: ‘We can’t go forward like this anymore, we know that we need to transform.’”
Download the full report, “Closing the Acceleration Gap: Toward Sustainable Digital Transformation,” for more findings from the office of the CFO, CIO, and CHRO