CFOs need to rise above the financials

Jun 29 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Ambitious Chief Financial Officers who want to raise their profile and influence need to lift their eyes from their spreadsheets and P&Ls and look at the wider people-related issues facing their organisations.

Too often CFOs try to create an aura of authority simply by surrounding themselves with technical and financial information, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers has suggested.

But the best way for CFOs to assert their influence over other senior decision-makers is to show they also have a wider understanding of the drivers and brakes affecting the business, it stressed.

The survey of 193 finance executives at companies with annual revenues of £375 million or more set out to establish how finance executives viewed the quality of the management information they produced, collected and distributed and how well their organisations used management information to aid decision-making.

What it found was startling. While the majority said the financial information they received was overwhelmingly good or excellent (83 per cent), more than half felt much still needed to be done to improve the quality of other non-financial management information, for example sales, customer satisfaction and sustainability intelligence.

In other words, CFOs and finance executives still had a long way to go to improve the quality of their organisations' management information if they had any chance of fulfilling their ambition of updating their role.

Tom Gunson, partner, performance improvement consulting at PwC said: "The research suggests that CFOs who aim to become business partners should try to take the lead in influencing and shaping the performance management culture, extending their sights from the world of data and analysis to the world of people and behaviour Ė stepping up to the challenge of acting as agents of change within the organisation.

"Finance executives want to position themselves as providing the best possible basis for decision-making to business managers, therefore the finance function should try to become the guardian of the quality of all management information Ė both financial and non-financial Ė within their organisation," he added.

Fewer than half of those polled said they were satisfied with the quality of their management information.

As a result, more than eight out of 10 said they occasionally or frequently sought supporting information or ad hoc confirmation about the data they received, although more than half said they occasionally or frequently ignored the information.

There was a lack of clarity over the responsibility for providing non-financial information, with more than a quarter believing responsibility rested with the CFO and four out of 10 saying it did not lie with any one individual in their organisation.

Yet it is clear having command and control of such information is hugely valuable. Seven out of 10 said their companies' senior managers were paying more or significantly more attention to management information than two years ago.

The reasons cited for this were better technology, changing regulations, a tougher competitive environment and heightened stakeholder expectations.

Yet finance executives also did not feel they were getting sufficiently robust management information, which was hampering their ability to make business decisions or support the board.

As a result, they did not believe they were on track to meet their professed goal of spending more time on decision support and less time on compliance and transaction processing.

Tellingly, those executives that reported a better-than-expected financial performance over the past three years also had significantly higher quality management information than their under-performing peers, said PwC.

Moreover, the best-performing companies included financial and non-financial indicators in one management report.

Organisational complexity was the key barrier to producing useful management information, followed by insufficient resources and technology challenges.

"The survey shows that management information currently received by CFOs is not robust enough to support the in-depth analysis that their organisations' decision-makers are requesting and this is particularly the case when it comes to non-financial information," continued Gunson.

"Finance functions believe they still need to change the way they influence business decisions. As the breadth and complexity of what underpins corporate performance has expanded, so greater emphasis has been placed on non-financial information.

"Finance executives face significant challenges in collecting, aggregating and distributing the right information, and generating the insight needed, to ensure that it can be used appropriately and, when combined with the right behaviours, drives actions," he added.