Spending a day at the inagural Financial Director Technology Forum yesterday was an eye-opener. Like it or loathe it, the growing consensus is that finance directors are going to have to work more closely with their IT counterparts, and it is possible that they may have to cede some of their influence in doing so – perhaps not the surest footing on which to start for those individuals.
The relationship between these strange bedfellows has not always been as fractious as people now seem to regard it. At the last session of the day, a discussion of the CIO/FD relationship, the two chief information officers (CIOs) and FDs on the panel talked about how, because IT departments were typically born out of the finance function, many CIOs still report directly to the finance director – and that this hierarchy was causing the frosty friendship.
But the emphasis about which function is more important to the organisation is changing. I got the impression that people felt the FD, typically seen as the second-in-command after the chief executive, wants to preserve the status quo – while the IT department just wants to get on and roll out iPads and other new-fangled technologies that cost money. At the drinks reception afterwards, though, quite a few FDs thought that was not true: they don’t see themsleves as “no” men, but think that if IT can prove the business case for these things to them, they will gladly provide the cash.
Techies are no longer just geeks who roll out “solutions”, adopt “granular” approaches and look for “web-based synergies” that the finance department has to bankroll and sell to the board. Business success is heavily reliant on technology and you only have to have a day where your email doesn’t work or your internet won’t connect to know that IT holds more keys to business continuity and profit than we think. Just look at the travel industry as an example: people now buy their airline tickets online and purchase their insurance policies and book their hotels on the web – often on the same web site, the panel noted. So why do CIOs still report to the FD if their contribution is more visible and as important as finance?
One attendee highlighted the rise of the CIO perfectly by asking people to consider which would be more damaging to the business: if a company’s IT function stopped work for a week, or its finance department. The lack of any robust defence from the FDs in the room spoke volumes.
Yet no one is suggesting that the role of FDs needs to be toned down. More that both parties need to learn to speak each other’s language better, collaborate more closely and respect what each one brings to the organisation. FDs need to accept that the IT department is not just there to make sure that customer emails don’t bounce back. Conversely, CIOs must be aware that FDs have the ear of the chief executive, hold the purse strings, think strategically across the business and may need some education on the logic and value add behind the geek speak.
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