CFOs as future drivers of digitalisation
Executive Education / 28 January 2022
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Research Assistant & PhD Student
Nils Gimpl ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Centre for Performance Management & Controlling der Frankfurt School und Doktorand an der Universität des Saarlandes. Er interessiert sich für Themen, die sich mit der Digitalisierung des Controllings, Data Analytics und der strategischen (Personal)planung beschäftigen.

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Even though some two years have passed since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed, the coronavirus pandemic still has a pretty firm grip on our world and everyday lives. More often than not, it dominates discussions in the media, between private individuals, and in business. Hardly a day goes by without hearing about which governments are tightening or loosening their containment measures depending on upward or downward trending case numbers. Of course these measures all have an impact on our private lives, as well as on many businesses – and especially on their business models. According to recent studies, the coronavirus pandemic will result in the long-term digitalisation of many of our working models and collaborative practices.

The pressure of digitalisation on finance departments is growing due to COVID

The coronavirus crisis and the associated pressure to digitalise is also having an impact on many companies’ financial functions. This was recently confirmed by CFO Study 2021 “Beyond the Crisis – What is on the CFO-Agenda post-Corona?” published by independent management consultants Horváth & Partners, as well as the CFO Survey 2021 “Digital Investments and CO2 Management” conducted by auditing and consulting firm Deloitte. Of the CFOs who responded to the Horváth & Partners survey, 92% said they are currently challenged by the growing demand for virtual working methods involving fewer in-person meetings but increased support for remote work. Furthermore, 80% of respondents said that the transformative pressure exerted by ongoing digitalisation continues to be one of their major challenges. These findings were reinforced by the Deloitte survey, in which 84% of the CFOs who responded confirmed that they had increased their investment in digitalisation and digital technologies in response to the COVID crisis.

How CFOs can overcome the challenges of digital transformation

Respondents to both surveys were united in their belief that to effectively overcome the challenges confronting finance departments and CFOs, the financial function must increasingly play a role as the driver of digital transformation within the company and in its own sphere of activity. According to management consultancy Horváth & Partners, not only does this mean changing attitudes to embrace 100% digital working practices, it also – as the top priority – requires businesses to ensure that their processes continue to develop and mature. This means introducing state-of-the-art digital tools. As the CEO’s trusted partner, the task of the CFO is to provide clear, transparent updates on the company’s financial situation and all its business activities fast and flexibly enough for senior decision-makers to respond with alacrity. According to the Horváth study, suitable starting points would include, for example, harmonising, standardising and optimising financial processes (92%); improving predictive capabilities in planning, forecasting, and reporting processes (80%); systematically developing employees and acquiring new, digital skills (84%). All these strategic measures entail organisational changes in terms of both structure and culture. However, the survey findings suggest that embedding these changes in the organisation has not yet made it to the top of respondents’ agendas.

Respondents to Deloitte’s CFO Survey 2021 confirmed that a shortage of skilled workers is one of the key risk factors for businesses. While companies are very willing to buy in external specialists, the tight job market is having a tangible impact on their ability to do so. Greater emphasis on employees’ digital skills is seen as one of the recipes for making companies digitally competitive. In addition to demanding political action to boost the teaching of digital skills in, for example, schools and universities, the CFOs surveyed believe that companies must also take responsibility for reskilling and upskilling their workforces.

For controllers, the starting point is internal

As Frankfurt School sees it, the findings of these two studies also provide a clear mandate for the business school’s continuing education offerings for professionals and executives. The Digital Controlling Specialist course – which focuses on the digitalisation of financial functions – provides participants with the digital skills required to organise and run application-centric projects in a company’s in-house controlling department. The programme is based on a maturity model developed by specialists, which course participants can use to implement their own first prototypes for in-house digitalisation projects, and to work out the best approaches for initiating company-specific projects. This encourages participants to build up their own knowledge by direct implementation, and to evaluate their proposed digitalisation initiatives by discussing them with peers and specialists.