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The New Chief Financial Officer Thinks Like a Chief Data Officer

by Hendrik Vordenbaeumen

As finance managers look to become CFOs and current CFOs look to be change agents in their organization, here are four ways they can set themselves up for success.

©Artem Peretiatko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In the era of digital transformation, finance leaders are finding that their roles are evolving just as rapidly as the technology solutions surrounding them. Historically siloed from the business to oversee financial reporting and static forecasting, chief financial officers (CFOs) are now at the heart of their organization, tasked with integrating data across departments to draw real-time, actionable and predictable insights for the business. At the same time, CFOs are working more closely with CEOs than ever before to inform big-picture strategies due to the high volume of data they can use to connect the dots for a business strategy. The role is evolving and with that brings opportunity and growth for the budding CFO. 

As the workplace becomes more digitized, finance leaders are primed for success with tremendous business data at their fingertips. In fact, IDC predicts the amount of worldwide data produced from cloud applications and devices will grow 61 percent by 2025. The key is learning how to organize and manage this critical data because the best analytics and insights are worth nothing if they rely on poor foundations of data. 

Such a transition requires finance managers to hone a new set of technological, organizational, and personal skills, all of which take time to develop. It’s best to start early, meaning finance managers aspiring to be CFOs need to start developing these skills now before they reach the C-suite. They need to start thinking like a chief data officer (CDO). 

As finance managers look to become CFOs and current CFOs look to be change agents in their organization, here are four ways they can set themselves up for success:

1. Become a data steward. 

Data is growing exponentially in part because of the increasingly global economy. As competition grows, systems across an organization are put to the test as they collect every single piece of data to inform critical business insights. But what if these systems are not communicating properly? According to Gartner, CFOs need to update their financial data structure environment to get the right reporting to the business to help them make decisions. If finance departments – that determine a company’s overall health – have room for improvement, how can business leaders be sure the rest of the organization is up to snuff? 

Finance managers can lead the charge by establishing a data governance framework to set parameters for how common data like expense reports or invoices is entered and collected across the business. This ensures the data is trustworthy and consistent to help draw quick and comprehensive insights, respond to the rapid pace of change, and mitigate potential financial fraud. This also provides the opportunity to gain experience as a data steward, serving as a strategic liaison between IT and finance departments to support the framework’s policies and operations.

2. Develop a data culture. 

Successful data integration requires more than just process and technology – it requires collaboration. In fact, workplace culture can completely derail digital transformation initiatives if employees support siloed working relationships and outdated technology practices. To nip this in the bud, finance managers should work with department leads to determine where data must be integrated and set data standards for the business to comply with moving forward.

Changing workplace culture is no small feat, so start by holding in-person meetings with other departments to suggest new ideas for how to better integrate across functions. This will not only help forge relationships and demonstrate effective collaboration and leadership but hopefully troubleshoot better data integration along the way. 

 3. Learn the language of IT. 

Technology is critical in helping CFOs manage data, so it’s increasingly important that finance managers learn about their company’s IT systems to ensure proper data collection across an organization’s infrastructure. As they interface more frequently with IT to cut costs and drive efficiencies when purchasing new solutions and managing old ones, they should also prioritize learning the roles and responsibilities of their company’s IT department. CFO and CIO priorities tend to be at odds with each other, so developing an understanding and forging relationships early will pay dividends later on.

 4. Eliminate technology siloes.

Workplace collaboration can only go as far as the technology that supports it, and office solutions are often riddled with nuances that restrict true integration. For example, closed legacy solutions require hours of troubleshooting and manually combining and organizing information. This means employees are spending more time forcing consistent categorization of data than analyzing it. Finance managers should use their fluency with IT to identify cloud-based solutions that meet financial needs and connect seamlessly with an organization’s technology stack. Together they should look to integrate disparate data sets and provide a comprehensive view into financial data. For example, tying together expense, invoice, and procurement data to gain end-to-end visibility to spot patterns and drive savings. Adding customer experience and HR data will provide an even more powerful view of cost, spend, and savings across all departments.

As a result, the potential ROI in terms of time and money saved is huge. According to an AMI-Partners study, finance employees save 500 hours a year from integrated solutions, freeing up time to spot spend patterns and identify market opportunities. Another example is RED, a leading global staffing organization, that was able to increase savings on travel by 20 percent when employing intelligent data for total spend visibility.

Let’s face it – the traditional role of the CFO is long gone. As finance managers eye the C-suite, they’ll need to hone new skill sets to provide strategic value as the CEO’s right hand. By championing data best practices and emulating the role of a CDO, finance managers can help organizations get a leg up on the competition and make business decisions with confidence.

Hendrik Vordenbaeumen is Global VP, Product Management at Concur Expense.