CFOs Beware: Don’t Get Caught Up In the Hype of New Technologies

In one of my articles, Finance Transformation: From Efficiency to Effectiveness, I recommended CFOs to first identify a business problem before investing in a new shiny piece of technology.  Today, there is so much talk about digital transformation and the immense potential of new technologies to drive business performance.

With a plethora of tools available on the market and all promising to deliver better results, one of the biggest challenges faced by many CFOs and finance executives  is identifying, evaluating and selecting the right tool for the business.

Compounding the problem are a myriad of  articles and blogs on finance digitization portraying messages such as,  “If you are not yet invested in digital, you have already missed the train or if  you are not using the cloud, be aware that everyone else is moving forward and moving faster than you are.”

For fear of missing out, some finance executives are leading their organizations on digital transformation initiatives without a clearly defined and articulated plan.

Too Many Unconnected Systems

Due to the lack of having a clearly mapped business strategy to address digitization, some finance executives are getting caught up in the hype that inevitably comes with every new piece of technology or software on the market. Instead of investing in technology or software that serves the business, they are investing in new tools that the consultants or software sellers recommend irrespective of whether the decision is rational or not. So often the end product is a disintegrated technological infrastructure.

New technology, combined with streamlined processes and talented people is supposed to transform finance from an inefficient function into an effective team player in the business. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Technology is acting as a hindrance. Businesses are superimposing automation on broken or marginally improved processes in turn expecting magical results. In other instances, finance teams are spending a significant amount of time reconciling and aggregating data from different systems.

Today there is an increasing call on finance to play the role of a strategic advisor to business teams yet when it comes to answering basic performance questions, most finance teams are hard pressed to do so.  One of the reasons being that the information required to answer such important questions is housed in different systems all over the organization.

Further, the individuals responsible for partnering with the business to support decision making lack access to some of the systems. They have to rely on information on spreadsheets or reports produced by those with access and most of the time this information is not readily available.

Imagine the frustration of having to wait on someone for days or weeks to send you information and when the information finally arrives you realize that it is not what you expected. For example, the report is not for the business unit you are reviewing or the period selected for the report is incorrect. Because you don’t have access to the system you have to go back to the report compiler and explain again your information requirements.

This back and forth process slows down decision making at a time when accuracy, speed and agility are increasingly important.

Looking at the same information

One of the keys to have meaningful performance conversations is have everyone look at the same information. For example, if the business wants to review the level and nature of capital investments for a given period it is imperative to ensure that the source of this information is common across the organization.

I have come across situations whereby more than one system is used to record capital expenditures often with major record differences between the systems in use. Time and resources are then redirected to focus on reconciling and resolving the reporting differences. It is therefore imperative for CFOs and finance executives to understand that technology alone will not drive transformation.

The data you input into a system will determine the output of that system. That’s why it is important to make sure that everyone is working from a central data repository. Having multiple copies of solutions is inefficient and counterproductive.

As an organization, you do not need too many systems to look at the same information. Thus, before acquiring that new piece of technology always ask yourself, “What is the problem that this new technology will resolve and also how will the investment enhance or strengthen your existing technological capabilities?” Many at times, we are quick to point out the limitations of the current system and use that as the reason for investing in an alternative solution.

Instead of taking a holistic view of the technological needs of the business, we take a piecemeal approach. For example, if AP is not happy with the current system we invest in another AP-focused system. If another team identifies system deficiencies, we look around on the market for a specific tool that addresses that function. This cycle continues over a period of time and ultimately the organization is left with a handful of siloed pieces of systems not completely integrated into the overall technological infrastructure of the business.

As the business and its information needs evolve, sometimes a reconfiguration of the current system(s) as compared to implementing a new one is what is needed. That is why it is important, from the onset, to evaluate the suitability of each piece of technology against the various growth phases of the business. Ask the software seller, “If our business continues to grow, will your product still be able to support our business needs and help us deliver our unique value proposition?”

Considering all the plausible scenarios and options available will help you determine if the technology will serve you for the short or long-term future.

Fear of missing out

Studies have revealed that as individuals we are prone to mimicking people’s actions and their product choices instead of applying our own independent assessment and best judgement. This not only happens at a personal level but also at a professional level.

For example, imagine as a CFO you recently attended an industry conference and the majority of finance executives you met spoke about investing in AI capabilities. Some have already implemented pilot projects and others are at an advanced planning stage. Since your organization hasn’t made plans yet, you make a hasty decision to invest in AI to avoid missing out and keep pace with what others are doing.

The problem with this simple approach is that rather than initially evaluate AI investment from an internal point of view and your business’s strategy perspective, you are now investing in AI from an external point of view based on what other businesses are doing.

I am not saying it is wrong to collaborate and get ideas from industry peers. In fact, this is one of the key reasons for attending conferences. To get informed about emerging trends and disruptive technologies and prepare for an uncertain future.

What is important is that you don’t allow competitor behaviours to drive technology investments in your business. Rather, clarify your business questions first, fix any broken processes before looking into technology and assess how the investment aligns with your overall business strategy.

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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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