Tapping the creative soul of the CFO


Are we using finance capabilities to best advantage? I don’t think so. Centuries old typecasting of the bean counter don’t serve us well. How about understanding what makes finance really tick? Here’s a primer.

bean counter 1As a former CFO, I understand why so many like to joke about the financial back office overseen by crusty bean counters. After all, nothing has changed in the fundamentals of running finance since Pacioli defined how ‘we’ keep our books in order. That was back around 1494, some 511 years ago to be (almost) precise. Debits on the left, credits on the right…or…when I was training…debits near the window, credits near the door. Right there you have the reasons why finance has the reputation it does: order, precision, balance.

Yet when you look at Pacioli’s published works, they were largely about the adjacencies of mathematics and art. Some, reflecting perhaps on Enron would say that reflects the artistic nature of some accounts! And it is true that if you give six accountants a balance sheet to analyze you’ll likely get seven different answers.

If you’re wondering what on earth any of this has to do with engaging finance in the social world think again. The artistic element involves a degree of imagination and forward thinking that is critical for finance to provide the help needed by other departments. That is always tinged with caution because conservatvism, another essential ingredient in the CFO makeup, kicks in to counterbalance too much artistic licence in forecasting. But it cannot happen in a vacuum. Today, that vacuum is being filled with social tools rather than the one-to-one (plus cc mechanism) of email.

Debbie Ashton, VP products at FinancialForce.com puts it this way:

It is not enough for CIOs and CMOs to jointly create a customer-centric business – CFOs hold the insight to what’s happening in the back-office, a critical piece of insight to creating a 360 view of the customer. To build a truly customer-centric organisation, finance must also be connected in real-time to the rest of the firm.

Successful CFOs don’t simply address immediate pain points such as reducing manual entries, automating operations, streamlining invoicing and expediting collections. CFOs need to build an operational foundation on which the company can easily scale and adapt, which is very different from the way that many are organised today.

Riffing on this, I argue that the finance people I’ve met over the years are far from ‘born dull.‘ It was for instance satisfying to see a financial controller win UK Masterchef this year. In the years when I was in business, other departments regularly called upon my people to provide insights so they could take better decisions.

Sure, no-one cared for my reading the accounts at board (or should that be bored?) meetings, but they sure cared about managing debtors while I cared about managing cash flow. They cared about product profit mix, where I cared about the blended gross margin. They wanted optimum headcount where I wanted the ‘right’ cost mix.

What’s more, I found that the more enlightened CFOs have an extraordinarily good grasp on what it takes to make a business work that in turn informed the numbers. Knowing for instance that a fourth lift on a house entailed the coordination of goods both in that process and beyond to ensure a smooth continuation of build makes an enormous difference to understanding the lumpiness of cost and cash flow in the construction industry.

My point is simple. Back office accounting may not be that sexy, it sure is essential if everyone wants to get paid, but it has the potential to be much more than that. I’m convinced that most finance managers enjoy the challenge of helping their co-workers. Enabling that help with collaborative technologies can only be a good thing.

However, that collaboration has to be contextual. Here I think we will start to see the emergence of self build (excuse the pun) applications that are situational and in that context, I rather like Sameer Patel’s prediction that:

By new thinking around networked-first business, transactions natively wrapped around it as needed, and extensible platforms that let customers built their own applications that surround the network.

Given that finance types are forever tinkering with ‘what-if’ based spreadsheets, that sounds like a good step forward. Agree?

Image credit – somewhat appropriately: The Inspiration Room