7 ways CFOs can keep up with rapid changes in technology

By Jeff Drew

Rapid change in technology has become the biggest source of pressure on company finance and accounting teams.

That’s the leading opinion of more than 2,200 U.S. CFOs interviewed for a new Robert Half Management Resources survey.

The CFOs, who represent companies of all sizes in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan markets, were asked in a telephone interview: “In general, what would you say is the single greatest pressure facing your accounting and finance function?"

Given the choice of five answers, 41% of the CFOs cited “keeping pace with changing technology” as the biggest stressor on their financial operations. Second was “meeting regulatory compliance mandates” at 24%, followed by “harnessing/managing Big Data” at 17% and “finding and keeping skilled staff” at 16%. Only 1% chose “don’t know” (note: the percentages do not total 100% due to rounding, according to a news release from Robert Half Management Resources, which provides staffing services in the accounting, finance, and business systems space).

The selection of technology as the top CFO pressure point did not surprise Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half. As he said in a telephone interview, technology has become a capstone for virtually everything CFOs and their teams must handle.

“You meet regulatory requirements and compliance mandates with technology,” he said. “You achieve strong internal control objectives with technology. You harness Big Data by having strong technology and investing in technology on an ongoing basis.”

Adding to the pressure on CFOs are the scope and sheer number of technologies the finance function must handle: enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, data-mining tools, business intelligence software, and data security platforms. CFOs and their teams need to know about everything from Microsoft Excel and Access to business intelligence tools such as IBM’s Cognos and Oracle’s Hyperion and general accounting software including Intuit’s QuickBooks, among many others.

Exacerbating the challenge are the growing number of cybersecurity threats and the increasing menu of technology choices and challenges created by cloud-based hosting and software-as-a-service options.

Tips for keeping up with technology changes

What can CFOs do to mitigate the risks and maximize the rewards associated with rapid changes in technology? CFOs should at least consider doing the following:

Hire financial staff with strong technology knowledge. “All of the people need to have IT skills of various levels: from Excel macros to Microsoft Dynamics implementation,” McDonald said.

Interact with in-house IT staff and/or outside consultants who are trusted technology experts. CFOs must understand what technologies really do—not necessarily from a user perspective but certainly how the technology affects the financial function and the business overall, McDonald said. CFOs also need to learn about other technologies so they know what potential options are. In addition, CFOs should connect strongly with internal IT staff and/or outside subject matter experts to continually evaluate technology-related risks, which can change rapidly. “Don’t just be the one who signs the checks,” McDonald said.

Attend conferences featuring sessions on current and emerging technologies. The AICPA and state CPA societies provide good options in this area, said James C. Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, a partner in charge of firm technology for WithumSmith+Brown, a 550-employee CPA firm based in New Jersey. “There’s no better place” to go to learn about accounting-related technologies, according to Bourke, who is a former AICPA board member and former chair of the AICPA Tech+ Conference.

Set up RSS feeds with specific technologies as keywords. This is particularly effective with industry-specific software, according to Bourke, who cited a CFO with a manufacturing company who subscribes to nine RSS feeds that deliver daily or weekly updates on software used in his sector.

Join and become active in technology user groups. These groups discuss problems and solutions with specific technologies. For example, a CFO might join a group focused on Microsoft Dynamics, Bourke said. CFOs can pose specific questions to the group and often receive answers very quickly from counterparts who already have dealt with the same issues.

Collaborate with CFOs at other companies that use the same technologies. CFOs seeking answers to technology problems specific to their industry may find help with other CFOs in their industry, Bourke said. Other CFOs often can provide answers even when vendors cannot.

Meet with fellow CFOs to discuss technology issues. These CFOs don’t have to be in the same industry or use the same technologies, Bourke said. Instead, the goal with these interactions is to share and gain exposure to different kinds of technologies and strategies. “It helps them get out of their world,” Bourke said. 

Jeff Drew (jdrew@aicpa.org) is a JofA senior editor.


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