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Rethinking Finance: Creativity & The CFO

This article originally appeared in SAP Digitalist, as part of their CFOs Rethink Business series. 

The intelligent enterprise is where technology is taking us. As SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner shared at this year’s SAPPHIRE NOW: “The intelligent enterprise is not a marketing story thriving on buzzwords. It is a logical consequence of what is possible today using modern technology and enterprise applications.”

As Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine asked, what does technology want?

For many of us in business, it seems like technology wants us to improve experiences. The focus could be on improving the customer experience with fewer hassles, greater responsiveness, and predicting what customers want before they may even know it. It could also be on improving experiences at the highest possible level, helping the world run better and improving people’s lives.

Whatever the case, to arrive at the “logical consequence” of the technology available to us today, we need to put that technology to use. Big Data analytics, robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning―all of these technologies have the potential to transform business and achieve, as it were, what technology wants.

Soft Skills & the CFO

According to a recent white paper by the Aspen Institute, “Success in the modern workplace increasingly relies on ‘soft skills,’ like creative thinking, rather than trade skills.”

As a member of the executive leadership team at BlackLine, and as someone who has worked in finance leadership, I’m perfectly aware of the skills expected from finance. We’re the folks who sweat the details. We keep an eye on the bottom line. We provide clearheaded advice to the business. When you think of a CFO, words like “stewardship” and “compliance” are always top of mind.

To some extent, this is as it should be. Trade skills for managing budgets, securing funding, and complying with regulations remain at the core of what we do. But when it comes to business transformation, the soft skill of creative thinking―and creative doing―is paramount.

Operational Creativity

Perhaps I’m biased, but I take the position that the role of the CFO is one of the most creative functions in any business organization. A CFO may not invent the new product or come up with the new slogan, but she needs to be creative operationally.

CFOs are regularly called on to help evaluate strategic decisions like acquisitions or new lines of business. The most creative CFOs know how to imagine their way into potential business decisions and how they might fit into the broader enterprise. This imagination aids the analysis and helps organizations make better decisions.

But the finance function should not stop there. Not only should finance executives evaluate potential acquisitions, but they should also pursue their own digital transformation to pave a smoother, faster road for integrating newly acquired companies.

How is this done? By standardizing core services provided to the business (order-to-cash, procure-to-pay, and so on). And by leveraging technology and automation to ensure finance excellence while freeing critical finance resources to focus on such strategic initiatives. Instead of regional variations and idiosyncrasies for core finance processes, companies can leverage technology to standardize and streamline.

One result of transforming finance is that newly acquired organizations will have less of a learning curve coming into the acquiring organization. They can get up and running with core functions faster. What does this mean? It means faster growth without sacrificing excellence. And what’s more creative than growth?

At the Center of Innovation

“CFOs need to embrace their creativity and put it to work for business transformation,” says Mitch Paull, a partner at EY. “They’re often in one of the best positions to help the company see and do things in new ways.”

Indeed, when it comes to devising new business models, finance is often at the center of innovation. Take pricing, for example. From per-usage cloud computing subscriptions in the tech industry to bio-trackers that discount insurance premiums for healthy customers, the CFO has a role to play to help invent new business models and get them up and running smoothly.

CFOs that recognize their roles not only as financial stewards and advisors but as agents of change that play a core role in the strategic direction of their companies – these are the kinds of CFOs that companies need to avoid disruption and realize success in the digital economy.

Read the CFO Playbook: Solving the Finance Talent Dilemma to discover more about how you can retain and retrain finance talent.