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Accounting for change: The CFO as chief future officer

Posted August 30, 2023
Illustration of a person on top of a mountain with a telescope, symbolizing a person looking to the future

The role of the chief financial officer (CFO) has been well-defined for some time.

Ensure balance sheets are balanced and cashflows are flowing. Set up the organization to weather whatever the financial forecasts foretell. Lead a cohesive and first-rate finance department aligned with the rest of the organization.

The expectations placed on CFOs are expanding, however. Citing the need for today's financial leaders to embrace change, automation, business and process transformation and emerging technologies, Microsoft offered a new interpretation of the term CFO: chief future officer.

In today's difficult economic climate and uncertain conditions, the idea of a CFO as "chief future officer" is certainly fitting. Increasingly, this C-suite position is being asked to take on an active role in identifying and adopting decisive technologies that set the finance practice — and the organization as a whole — up for success.

According to TELUS International's Chief Financial Officer, Vanessa Kanu, "While it may be tempting to pull back on spending for internal technology during an economic downturn, it's actually a critical time to invest in your people and the technologies and spaces at their disposal."

Let's take a closer look at the role of a chief future officer.

Chief financial officers are turning to tech

CFOs have a reputation for being analytical, disciplined and, above all else, prudent — qualities that lead some to call them "CF-Nos," notes Deloitte in its paper, Unlocking Creativity: How CFOs Can Help Cultivate a Creative Mindset.

With the push for business transformation, however, more and more CFOs are saying 'yes' to the automation tech investments. Many are encouraging their organizations to invest in digital tools, like generative artificial intelligence, in the pursuit of greater efficiency and sustainability, while remaining vigilant about short-term trends. They're also using analytics and modeling tools to make projections and play out possible scenarios — with the goal of future-proofing their organizations.

"The role of the financial leader is evolving to include heightened creative thinking skills that help companies visualize the big-picture impact of emerging technologies on finances, talent and the customer experience," says Kanu.

How CFOs are future-proofing their organizations

In partnering with global and disruptive brands, TELUS International dialogues with countless forward-thinking companies keen on future-proofing their organizations in a cost-effective manner. We've noticed that those looking to take proactive steps to strengthen or solidify their organizations' position, even amid an economic downturn, advocate for the following practices.

Leveraging automation

PwC's pulse survey notes that 53% of CFOs are counting on data analytics, AI, automation and cloud solutions to accelerate digital transformation, automate manual processes and drive standardization. They're looking to strategic partnerships with third-party providers to help drive application and adoption of these technologies across their organizations — to save money, to overcome talent shortages, to dilute risk and to immediately introduce expertise and new competencies.

The spinoff value of automation is significant: greater organizational efficiency improves both the customer experience and the employee experience.

Failing to automate tasks comes with significant risks, explains Kanu in an interview for Forbes. "If we have really smart people spending all of their time putting together information manually, we're not actually leveraging them as much as we can and should be," she says. "It's important to make sure that your teams are working on things that add value and that they're not spending their days doing a bunch of manual work."

Encouraging prudent experimentation

Being able to visualize the potential of an unproven tool or process is essential to keeping an organization on the leading edge.

In reference to generative AI technologies and their applications in finance, Kanu offered tips in a recent panel discussion hosted by Fortune. "Start small. Focus on the most relevant use cases for your business and your industry. And then build your knowledge gradually over time. That's what we're doing internally."

During the panel discussion Kanu goes on to describe a deepening partnership between internal finance and IT teams to identify and test opportunities for automation. It's an important example that illustrates just how much the role of the finance department has changed, and the CFO's role in ushering in that new future.

Indeed, the mark of a modern CFO is not a reluctance, but rather an eagerness to allocate the resources, both in terms of budgets and hours, that facilitate experimental solutions.

Embracing change

CFOs may not be responsible for creating sophisticated technologies, but the best ones create cultures in which those "innovative ideas are identified, financed and delivered," writes Deloitte.

After all, the status quo may be good for maintenance, but perhaps not for growth. The modern CFO puts little stock in the way things have been done before.

For instance, in a world increasingly concerned with sustainability and ethics, CFOs are taking up the mantle of integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices into their organizations. PwC's latest pulse survey found that 40% of CFOs are establishing policies, procedures and controls for climate data collection.

At TELUS International, we instinctively know that 'doing good' in the communities where we live, work and serve is the right thing for business. We see the results of long-standing and meaningful commitment to our ESG priorities, as outlined in our Sustainability Report, through increased employee loyalty, deeper relationships with our customers who share the same values we do and stronger local communities.

That's without doubt, according to Kanu. "Our ESG initiatives create meaningful opportunities for our team members, clients and shareholders, which deepen our relationships and create a collaborative environment that yields results."

Take bold steps into the future

In their new role as chief future officers, CFOs are stepping out from behind the calculator to exert a wider influence on their organizations. They're bringing strategic partnerships, smart investments and the kind of creative mindset that helps companies grow even in uncertain economic times.

Looking to take bold steps into the future? A partner, with the global scale and the latest technology can better your chances for success. Contact our team of experts today.

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