Globalization, cost pressure, regulation: While finance departments once focused on producing reports and key figures, they are gradually assuming an increasingly strategic role in the enterprise. Markus Heinen is a partner at Ernst & Young and head of Management Consulting for Ernst & Young Advisory Services. Dr. Christoph Ernst is head of the Centre of Excellence for Finance at SAP. They gave us some insights into the way in which the role of the CFO has changed.
SAP.info: What will the CFO’s job consist of in 2015?
Markus Heinen: The CFO of the future will devote more and more time to strategic and development issues that affect the company. While still firmly in control of their “traditional” tasks of governance, operations, accounting, and controlling, today’s CFOs are already stepping up their influence on corporate strategy. They drive innovation and contribute actively to creating value by, for example, running highly detailed analyses that make it possible to identify potential savings in production, provide tips on optimizing inventories, and trigger a rethink of product pricing. They’re looking for targeted ways to cut costs; identifying areas, materials, and resources that lend themselves to being value drivers for the company. In many respects, the finance department will lay the groundwork for winning competitive edge and achieving profitable growth.
How will the structure of financial management change? Who will call the shots?
Heinen: There are already dedicated career development programs running in many areas of finance: CFOs are actively hiring talented personnel and ensuring that employees receive the ongoing training they need to keep pace with the paradigm shift that is underway. We will see a similar or even stronger development and dynamic than in HR or IT. And we’ll see a real business partnership emerging between finance and top management. It will be their joint responsibility to look at what makes up the core of the company and contributes to growing business value. They will identify areas that are already automated or that can be automated to such an extent that they can be “decoupled” to create a mixture of global shared service center structures, outsourcing, and elements that stay in the enterprise. In our view, hybrid models like these are on the increase and are enabling flexible, agile structures to emerge. In addition, finance departments will acquire greater operational expertise, thanks particularly to the exchange of talents between the various lines of business. And, as organizations become more and more global, we’ll see cross-functional management and team roles being established.
Mobile applications, tablets, and smartphones
Process automation, hybrid models, and shared services. How can IT support the transformation process?
Dr. Christoph Ernst: The possibilities offered by technology have broadened considerably, not least in the area of automation. Today, we can process much larger volumes of data in a wider range of formats than ever before. However, perhaps the most important element is that the reach of enterprise systems is growing: Decision-makers and their employees are turning increasingly to technological support for many of their operational tasks. Mobile applications, tablets, and smartphones are providing “anytime, anywhere” flexibility. And cloud solutions are opening up additional scope and opportunities for innovation. With their help, many tasks can be mapped faster in a shared service center or center of excellence.
Separately from operational tasks?
Ernst: At management level, technology makes it possible to hone in on details – whenever and wherever a decision is required. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every decision is easier to make: Just having a mass of information does not always help managers make the right choice. However, today’s IT makes it possible to access up-do-date, precise information from any location and leverage it to make predictions. This predictive quality is new and it will bring about many changes.
Heinen: That’s right. Information is available at breathtaking speed whenever you need it, either centrally or locally. You can use the processes, structures, and management elements you need wherever you happen to be – whether you’re in Poland, India, or China. And that’s the bottom line: If they want to see off their competitors and survive ever-shorter macroeconomic cycles, enterprises will have to respond faster and with greater agility in the future. They must adapt proactively to change – at a global level. They must grasp, enrich, pass on, and be rigorous in leveraging new ideas. In this respect, IT is a key driver of progress and innovation.
The euro crisis: Lessons learned
Can you explain how finance will impact operational success?
Ernst: Let’s look at the example of cash management. If a company’s cash balances are not transparent and it is not risk-aware, then it won’t be able to manage its operational business processes with the required degree of accuracy. Because, if exchange rates or commodity prices change, it will lose crucial time in reducing its cash balances or triggering hedging strategies. However, if the company has a real-time overview of the situation and can immediately run through predictive scenarios, it can respond almost instantly. Recent events show just how critical this ability is. When the euro crisis first struck, many businesses found themselves asking several key questions for the very first time. These included: How much cash are we holding in foreign currencies? What happens if the euro fails? Scenarios like the European debt crisis illustrate just how difficult it is for companies to maintain an overview of the situation and to create a reliable basis for decision-making.
Heinen: Even though they already have the technology to do so. In the future, CFOs will need to devote more and more of their time to keeping the company’s processes transparent and to setting up preventive scenarios and optimization options – especially since the markets are so volatile.
But don’t CFOs have other things to worry about? Reporting and closing requirements have become increasingly stringent in recent years.
Heinen: Finance departments constantly have to justify their actions. Because, ostensibly, they do not generate revenue. On the contrary. They appear at first glance merely to cost money. They must therefore constantly optimize their processes and functions. Many processes, such as invoice to cash and purchase to pay, have already been optimized and the transactional activities of the process shifted to shared services or even outsourced. As far as closing is concerned, there is certainly still room for improvement. A move away from manual processes toward greater automation is required: This is the only way to free up the necessary time and resources for the really important and innovative initiatives.
Optimizations like these require innovations. How do German companies compare with their counterparts around the world?
Ernst: Seen in the international context, German companies are certainly keeping up. But they are not leading the field. Financial statements for tax purposes remain an issue: the pressure to increase efficiency and to reduce time effort and costs is growing. You can only gain an edge if you simplify, automate, and streamline your processes – and opt for the right technology.
Finance departments increase IT competence
So the paradigm shift in finance requires technological support. Who is the driver? Finance or IT?
Ernst: Currently, it is the business departments who are placing more demands on IT. If their wishes are not met, they simply build up their own competencies and structures. And we are certainly encountering an increasing number of IT-savvy controllers. IT departments must therefore ensure that they do not end up acting as a brake to progress: They must preserve their power to innovate. Cloud solutions and mobile applications are opening up previously unimagined possibilities for business departments. After all, finance managers want and need the ability to manage their processes when they’re on the move. Here, IT departments have a central role to play in ensuring a standardized mobile strategy across the company. Ideally, the innovation path should be walked together: with business departments providing the impulses and IT driving their implementation.