There are few things in life that really get a conference producer going more than a bit of controversy. So as I set about my research to put together the agenda for Financial Director’s first-ever event for finance directors and technology, for which I spent hours on the phone to a raft of FDs, it dawned on me that there was ample scope for controversy in dissecting the relationship between an FD and their head of IT, or their chief information officer (CIO).
I’d heard there was a fractious relationship there, but immediately I set about trying to get as many frontline perspectives as possible to understand the true extent and effect on business. I wasn’t really prepared for the strength of feeling that my rather innocent questions conjured up from FDs.
“To be honest, I don’t have a lot of time for CIOs, so count me out of a speaking position,” was the thanks-but-no-thanks reply from one well-known FD I approached to present at the event; to which a CIO I spoke to later that day retorted: “Well, the feeling is mutual”.
Ultimately, the genesis of the problem is in the fact that, as our panel on the topic acknowledged, the IT function originally grew out of finance. Finance used to be the only department that had a commercial use for expensive, all-seeing IT platforms that suck in data and spit out answers. And, in any case, it was only the finance people that could understand how to work these platforms - or that even wanted to understand. Which means IT owes something to finance and perhaps finance hasn’t let its tech friends forget that.
The standoff comes from IT departments and CIOs who have to report into their FD despite feeling as important as the finance function.
That said, the power dynamic has changed. The number of FDs I spoke to who complained that the way their latest SAP or Oracle rollout left them gasping for breath still concede that IT is their lifeblood.
Many CIOs report into the FD, and I can certainly see the rationale behind this. But given the importance of IT, is it not time that FDs let go of that reporting line and encouraged it to go into the CEO, as they do thermselves?
You only have to look at the pained expressions on FDs’ faces when you mention IT or the CIO to wonder why FDs still want to maintain their grip on IT. Yes, you need to know what they intend to buy and how much to spend, and to have sign off - but does that necessitate the reporting line coming to you? And the difficult relationship management work that can come with it?
When an FD manages the IT function reporting line, what I’ve seen from the tech side is a feeling of unease, stress and unhappiness. After all, it is a rare person with the time and the inclination these days to be an expert in finance and technology.
So what’s the harm in splitting out two critical business functions and having both sit on an even playing field?
The Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble dynamic I had in mind when I started talking to FDs and CIOs wasn’t quite what I found. But the panel we had discussing this relationship at the event hit on the fact that each spoke a different language - and that the onus is on finance to learn how to speak IT.
One of our delegates came up with the idea of the chief knowledge officer (CKO). It sounds like another acronym, I know, but the point was sound. As I put the issue to bed my thoughts turned to the matter of companies being “increasingly information rich, but knowledge poor”, as was pointed out by this delegate. Finance director or CIO - who would be the best person for the CKO role? There has to be contention there.
To see who spoke at the Financial Director Technology Forum, click here
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