Covid-19 has catapulted CFOs to the digital leaders of business

Workday's Fred Portal unpacks how Covid-19 has forced organisations to accelerate their digital transformation strategies.

Fred Portal, Workday’s OCFO solution marketing director for financials says pre-pandemic, some organisations felt there wasn’t enough time and money to transform, and those who resisted were on the backfoot as crisis ensued. Fred’s view is that finance transformation is no longer a choice because organisations that hold back won’t be able to withstand the requirements of the digital marketplace or maintain a competitive edge.

The constraints of operating businesses during the pandemic caused many to change tactics and pivot to utilising technology to stay in business. The impact was that accounting structures had to change and for CFOs, that entailed calculating costs and profit differently while figuring out where the smartest most lucrative investments lie. Making these decisions is very difficult when your system is not agile.

Fred says the value of digital transformation became clear when organisations that were already on the journey at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated the benefits of being more agile. Transformed organisations saw a drop in processing costs and had healthier margins than non-digital competitors and Fred says this is why finance transformation is now a must-have.

Strategic imperative of steering through a crisis
The pandemic forced finance leaders to put more robust plans in place as their organisations tried to navigate an uncertain future. As organisations rushed to replan and reforecast in the new environment, the pressure on finance to deliver more analysis and insight became heavier, and finance’s ability to generate data across the organization from HR, sales and operation and turn it into intelligence the enterprise can use to make strategic decisions became of immense value.

To be a full business partner, finance has to be able to automate processes and deploy cloud solutions so that their company can process increasing volumes of data with optimal efficiency. Taking on this added function will require a mindset shift from predominantly dealing with core accounting, to moving to a co-piloting role and guiding the C-suite on digital initiatives that need to happen in the organisation.

Enabling new capabilities
“Pre-pandemic, we didn’t think we could close books remotely. Proof that we can work differently has changed the way the function is working within organisations. Finance was previously behind the scenes, now its role has expanded to be a more business facing role,” says Fred. He asserts that in that context, finance leaders need to be able to adopt the perspective of those across the table from them, collaborate with the rest of the business, communicate financial forecasting and work with the c-suite to make fast decisions.

It was very hard to have a clear vision of numbers before, but now technology has advanced and with new data tools finance leaders can analyse insights and make decisions timeously. With Cloud and ML in play and delivering a new level of agility and ease of adoption, finance can be up to date with every aspect of the business.

The future-ready CFO
Fred notes that today’s environment demands a shift from finance leaders as gatekeepers to business partners. He says in addition to keeping an eye on the inner workings of their organisations, CFOs need to watch global markets and the dynamic socio-political environment we live in closely, then go a step further and share their findings with the broader organisation.

He emphasised that it’s important to consider the people change management element in the organisation when transforming, so people understand the vision and buy in as active participants. He says leaders need to invest time in that process and skipping that step risks slow momentum and can create fiction.

Fred says, “We have been used to speaking to auditors, shareholders, regulators. The new finance role has a broader audience, one that requires moving to be closer to the business, to support it, listen and communicate back numbers and offer guidance.”

Tomorrow’s CFO must therefore have strong interpersonal skills to not just collaborate with the rest of the business, but to implement data-driven change and get buy-in across the organisation

He adds that the pandemic has given people time to pause and think about what they want to do with their lives, resulting in a lot of mobility between organisations and within finance. Keeping and retaining talent in finance is also a question of finance leaders promoting the value they deliver to the organization, what he calls a ‘rebranding of finance.’

He says that companies need to bring in and keep talent in finance through modern tools, train those teams and keep them evolving because that is what is now required. He says new entrants are digital natives and expect the workplace to be strongly digital and because of that, finance has to be more open and agile.