Keeping CFOs happy

The corporate finance department may be one of the most demanding customers for the IT department. The requirements for speedy access to data, sophisticated analytics and flexible reporting capabilities seem insatiable.

Matt Townley, CEO of Toronto-based Longview Solutions, knows a lot about how chief financial officers think and what they want, because his company sells financial analytics software to CFOs. Townley explained to Computerworld in an interview how CIOs can keep CFOs happy.

Q: What do CFOs want from analytic software? And what do they want from the IT department?
A:
The CIO and IT group need to form a partnership with the CFO. The IT group can provide tools, technology and insulation from performance issues to allow the business people to really execute. The best companies tend to take an IT person and make them part of the finance team. Someone who will understand finance needs ... and know that it matters whether something is a balance sheet item or an income statement.

Finance is probably the one organization that has to work as a global team. Everybody else can do their own thing in their own sector of the world. But when you're reporting the company's numbers, they have to be fast, accurate and create one view. It has to be true, and it has to be timely.

That [finance/IT] partnership is the key thing that CIOs can do. The ones that don't do a good job are the ones that just set standards and say "Comply." If IT is just a purchasing agent, a gatekeeper who sets standards, then that's where I see a breakdown between CIOs and CFOs.

Q: What do you mean by "insulation from performance issues"?
A:
When the CEO comes out of a board meeting and asks the CFO for some information for analysis, they want rapid access to strategic information. The more strategic the data, the faster people expect to get it.

So by performance, I mean speed of access to the right information without having to be a technical wizard.

And, second, when you're talking about a global team, network performance has to be there. No matter where they are in the world, that network has to be up. So when that team is working together to consolidate numbers for quarterly reports or do the budget or a forecast, they need to be able to work as a team. Otherwise, their decisions are slower, and they lose competitive advantage.

Q: So financial reporting is all about speed?
A:
The software game used to be all about functionality, say 10 or 15 years ago. We had to have features. But I've come to believe that the two key drivers for analytics have become performance and reporting. If it's not fast, it doesn't matter how functional it is. And fast is in the eyes of the beholder.

We think performance can never be fast enough. If we have a transaction that takes a minute and take it to 20 seconds, all that does is set the next bar for performance improvement. Then we need to take it down to five seconds.

If you're a CFO, and you're deploying a strategic application, and the creature is fast, [end-user] acceptance is not a problem. But if someone logs in from Singapore, and they hit the key, and it takes three minutes [for a response], they're going to say it's too slow and have objections. But if they hit the key and -- boom -- [the response] is just like they're in the office, there's no objection to overcome.

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