How the office of the CFO is evolving in mid-market businesses

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 2, 2019
CFOs wear many hats these days yet they remain prudent about technology investment decisions says Brainyard, an Oracle NetSuite research unit.

Brainyard, Oracle NetSuite's research, and benchmarking arm recently delivered the results of a poll among 166 CFOs. Unsurprisingly, these CFOs wear multiple hats, but some of the answers were intriguing. On the question of advanced technologies, respondents said:

CFO results Brainyard adoption

Three years seems like forever in technology development terms, but Jason Maynard, SVP global field operations at NetSuite noted that he wasn't surprised. Technology is often talked about long before it becomes readily available to anyone other than the largest enterprises. 

CFOs in these businesses are practical and they recognize that (for example) artificial intelligence isn't going to be a mainstream reality. It's going to come in incremental stages in how we can leverage it. At a very high level no-one comes to work thinking I've got an IoT or blockchain problem. They come thinking about how to solve business problems like seamless contract payment and scheduling. But then if you're in certain European states you might not be keen on what is happening with cryptocurrencies. 

Maynard's answer was an expression of what I see among CFOs who are keenly aware that technology drives value but who are inherently cautious about experimentation without purpose. His response was also a useful lay up for an expanded discussion about the impact of geographical differences to a variety of regulations. 

We got some feedback on that issue but not really enough to get a good sense of differences. We will dig into that a little deeper next time but my sense in talking to customers is that there are periods where regulation becomes important. ASC606 - revrec - for instance a few years ago was a huge topic and I bet if we surveyed folks in the UK today, we'd get plenty of questions about how they handle changes in regulation in the wake of Brexit. And as is often the case, ti is the smaller businesses that bear the brunt of the regulatory hammer. 

Maynard is right. The volume of content on VAT changes related to trade with EU partners has ramped considerably in recent times. The problem as is often the case, is that information and advisories are not always correct at the point of impact. Some firms are receiving HMRC UK EORI notices that imply those same firms are trading goods when that's not the case. GDPR is central to many issues. The recent adoption by France of a European Directive concerning those firms that Google thinks are media businesses has the potential to be disruptive in an adverse manner for those who are not prepared. For its part, Google is playing hardball

As I said at the top of this story, CFOs wear several hats, and this has led to additional and, again, unsurprising finding:

CFO juggling

Maynard's response was interesting. As background, Maynard was an analyst with Wells Fargo and spent many years observing what CFOs are responding to.

Years ago it used to the be the case that the CFO was primarily viewed as the beancounter but over time, questions around capital and increasingly operational expense allocation mean that the CFO has to be your business partner. It ultimately comes down to tying strategy to your metrics and so it's no real surprise to find that they are stretched. In some cases we're seeing CFOs almost becoming like a COO. 

At this point, you might expect that Maynard's next remark was to say that the answer is more software. That may be the case, although I'd say that more automation of existing business processes is my first demand. Instead, Maynard noted that with Brainyard, NetSuite is trying to offer research as a way of putting NetSuite more into the shoes of its customers. SaaS vendors have to prove their worth on a near-continuous basis. And while surveys of this kind are often self-serving, the extent to which the Brainyard team is thinking beyond the quantitative results and applying context represents a value add to its customers.

My take

The Brainyard research results are much as you'd expect from CFOs in mid-market businesses to the extent that some things never, or rarely change. However, the context in which the CFO role is evolving has consequences for both the skills that CFOs need and the technology investments upon which they sign off. 

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