The CFO as IT evangelist? Top CFOs share their thoughts at CFO SA dinner

How are CFOs and their departments dealing with the digital winds of change inspired by technological advancement and disruptive start-ups? How is the role of the modern CFO adapting to this new environment and what skills are necessary to make these adjustments? These were some of the questions posed at the CFO South Africa dinner and round table event at the Four Seasons Westcliff hotel in Johannesburg on 15 April 2015.

"The CFO is well-placed, as a custodian of corporate values, a catalyst of change and a strategic leader, to drive the transition of organisations from being governance to guidance-orientated."

Special guest Enzo Tolino, Oracle's Vice President of Finance Oracle for the Eastern Central Europe, Middle East, Africa region, kicked things off in his welcome address by emphasising the profound impact digital disruption was having on big business. "Digital technology is both enhancing profits and destroying outdated business models. The CFO is well-placed, as a custodian of corporate values, a catalyst of change and a strategic leader, to drive the transition of organisations from being governance to guidance-orientated."

He later drew attention to the fact that "Africa is a continent with great opportunities because it is unencumbered by the legacies and traditions of the US and Western Europe. This is a fantastic head-start".

While enjoying a sumptuous four-course dinner, the guests were asked by moderator and CFO South Africa Director Melle Eijckelhoff how they would spend R1 billion on their businesses. CFOs Brett Tromp (Discovery Health), Arshad Hassim (MAN Truck & Bus), Jan van den Handel (Business Connexion Africa) and Thobeka Ntshiza (Aveng) each flagged different issues, including targeting the "plumbing", the underlying IT systems of companies. The general consensus was that enterprise resource planning systems were in need of investment.

On the subject of education, the guests felt that while the traditional CA(SA) qualification is rigorous enough to produce technically competent accountants, more needs to be done to ensure that graduates were equipped with IT and soft skills and an understanding of business as a whole. JSE CFO Aarti Takoordeen explained that she sends her staff on training courses on IT and soft skills training specifically for this purpose. "There is a knowledge gap in the country that will be perpetuated if we do not focus on mentorship."

Nevertheless, Standard Chartered CFO Jo-Ann Pohl said she believes that South Africa often underestimates its own professionals and intellectual property. "We underestimate what we have. There is so much creativity and innovation, but we don't 'connect the dots' and there aren't enough forums available for networking."

The discussion turned to the pay-only-for-what-you-use revolution of cloud computing and while there were lingering concerns over data security and sovereignty, the Finance executives were largely convinced that cloud is the way of the future. Many questions were raised for CFO South Africa debates at a later date and the guests relished the opportunity to network, share knowledge and engage in intellectual discussion with their peers on significant issues. After all, CFOs operate in a rarefied and often lonely space.

See the pictures of the event here.