CFOs need to partner with CIOs now more than ever

By Daniel Benad, group vice president and regional general manager, Oceania, Rimini Street

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the financial services sector to pivot, almost overnight; it became relied upon as the economic safety valve of the nation: deferring mortgages and repayments was just one aspect brought about by lockdowns over the past two years, for instance. But that’s hardly the only headwind the sector faces, with digital disruptions and deglobalisation forcing traditional financial firms to ramp up and keep up with the seemingly nimbler fintech start-ups of the world.

Take the rise of platforms such as Stake, which offer no-fee transactions on the ASX with no minimum investment often required. Traditional institutions as a result are looking at ways to innovate and “keep up”, with many often becoming early-stage venture capitalists through the likes of the NAB’s Ventures arm or Westpac’s Reinventure.

The financial services sector is looking to innovate, and it needs to keep doing so. Simply put, it’s vital to reprioritise digital strategies if they wish to continue to be seen as the backbone of Australia’s economy, regardless of continual volatility and shifts in the market.

To do that, it’s imperative that CFOs are in lockstep with CIOs and other technology leaders to keep innovation moving forward.

The Pandemic-Induced Reality

A recent PwC assessment of the industry laid out a series of macro trends brought on by the pandemic that financial services leaders need to grasp as they develop their plans for the future. Some of the key trends it has identified will ring true for most of our financial services organisations in Australia:

  • Low interest rates will continue wreaking havoc on margins and business models.
  • The COVID-19 recession will reduce the risk-bearing capacity for regulated industries – including financial services – to support the “real” economy as it enters a recovery stage over the next year.
  • Alternative providers of capital are set to become an even more important part of the global financial system.

In addition, the firm says de-globalisation will further link the size of financial institutions with the GDP of the countries they’re based in. That, PwC argues, will lead to continued offshoring, and increase operational risk across the industry.

Digital Innovation Could (and should) be a Higher Priority

Australian financial institutions have long been a leader in digital transformation efforts, yet relative to the rest of industry, research shows the global financial sector has let innovation fall down its list of priorities. According to a recent Dimensional Research survey of CFOs and senior finance leaders, 65 per cent  of respondents from financial services and insurance businesses view digital transformation investments as key to their business’ success. That may sound impressive, yet it was lower than any other industry examined in the survey; eighty-one per cent of manufacturing respondents said digital transformation investments are vital to their success, for example, as did 79 per cent in the tech industry, 75 per cent in retail and 73 per cent in construction. Financial services respondents instead identified optimising existing tech investments as the top IT initiative they would like to see more of from CIOs.

This is why a strong relationship between the CIO and CFO is key to innovation. The CIO can advise which digital initiatives can provide the most near-term value and ROI and which best align to wider business goals; the CFO can use this information to explain to other executives why driving digital innovation forward is important to the health of the business.

In many instances the safer bet, particularly amid the pandemic, is to focus on smaller initiatives that push the digital strategy forward incrementally, as opposed to a long and expensive infrastructure overhaul that may not lead to results for three to five years, or more in some cases. Quick, regular and cost-efficient wins highlight the benefits of digital transformation efforts more readily and visibly.

A Call for Leaders to Invest in Their Most Valuable Asset — Their Employees

The companies which have best navigated the pandemic are those which have invested – and continue to invest – in their staff. Many organisations, including those in financial services, are allowing employees to continue to work remotely in some way in the coming year.

However, a recent Gartner study on the digital future of finance noted that the pandemic proved that efficiency comes at the cost of flexibility, and that businesses need to fund the right investments to increase employee performance in what will likely be a hybrid workforce for the foreseeable future.

For CIOS and CFOs, this means they need to find ways to equip flexibly working staff with the tools necessary to remain productive, but also to make smart and efficient investments when it comes to organization-wide systems that the business runs on.

One way to do this is to not succumb to the vendors of ERPs and other types of business software by over-spending on the so-called “latest and greatest” updates. Most businesses can remain just as effective, productive and secure by maintaining the systems they already have in place. Instead, financial services organisations should take a more measured approach to its innovation agenda, invest around the edges, and find cost efficiencies wherever possible – the big outlay for a major ERP upgrade, particularly now, is a costly and for many an unnecessary exercise and does nothing to help employee growth, development or productivity.

Its decisions such as these where CFOs and CIOs can team up to deliver the most value and strategic advice for the betterment of the business. As CIOs identify strategic areas where bolstering technology supports the business’s digital transformation aspirations, CFOs can illustrate to other leaders why these initiatives make good business sense.