One month ago, CFOs surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers said that, despite concerns over a recession, they felt largely confident and well-prepared going into the coronavirus crisis, thanks to strong finances and robust digital enterprises.
In the four long weeks since, the tide has changed tremendously. Last week, a Gartner survey found 62% of CFOs are planning to cut selling, general and administrative budgets this year just to keep their companies afloat. Another survey found 84% of small business CFOs are forced to negotiate their rent payments.
It's difficult to say just how much of these financial impacts CFOs could have abated; they likely were no better positioned to predict the crisis than their c-suite colleagues and contemporaries.
Sanjay Srivastava, chief digital officer at Genpact, thought differently. He shared a handful of 2020 predictions that have proven eerily prescient. "Many large corporations [will] realize they need to fundamentally transform major operations and processes," he wrote. "Both B2B and B2C business leaders recognize that soon there will be two types of companies: those who do customer experience (CX) well, and those who go out of business."
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Srivastava spoke with CFO Dive about the consequences of ill-preparedness, especially since mitigation tools — particularly artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud adoption — already exist. This preparedness, vital for the finance department, foreshadows what the CFO job can look like in a post-COVID world.
"As it relates to data and digital transformation, this is a time like no other," Srivastava told CFO Dive. "Everyone is waking up to a dashboard ... the old days of going into the office and walking over to a colleague’s desk [to obtain information] is over," he said. "Old ways of disseminating information are now no longer even possible. As we get more used to the ways of working, it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to the same environment."
Aside from the exploding demand for reliable data and insights, Srivastava finds the planning and future-oriented thinking coming out of the office of the CFO to be equally vital.
"[CFOs must provide] basic data to the supply side, demand side, and to their revenue projects," Srivastava said. "I know CFOs have learned lessons from Spain and Italy, and are applying many of those commercial analytics to their U.S. operations."
A CFO’s ability to transport data and knowledge across the globe fuels a need for more investigative insights, Srivastava believes. "It drives a need for scenario planning and outcome modeling at an almost unprecedented level. Once you have the data, your colleagues' need for insights and modeling capabilities will grow exponentially."
True test of digitization efforts
In some ways, Srivastava argues, this pandemic has been the first real, honest test of the state of digitization in the finance function.
"You can say, 'yeah, we have ERPs, and people who are good with AI analytics,'" he said. "There have always been these 'tests' and 'benchmarks' we identify for ourselves. But as people move into a work from home environment, what's happened to the level of productivity?"
Srivastava works with many CFOs who report productivity levels have declined to a 60-80% range following the shift to remote work amid the pandemic. "They will tell you, in their mind, this is their first test of digitization. All the older stuff was just feel-good."
Most CFOs, for instance, thought the cloud was cool and interesting, but were hesitant to adopt it because they were concerned about investment, privacy, security and change management. "Those same executives are now telling me, as their employees work from home, their connections to the ERP are jamming up. Some of the on-premises stuff isn't really working."
Srivastava’s team at Genpact uses cloud-based technologies, "and so we're experiencing the benefits of the cloud we didn’t previously, because we’re forced to," he said.
"I think the finance department’s move to cloud, which was happening in any case, is going to get massively accelerated," Srivastava said. "It’s really unclear that we'll ever go back to our old ways of working. As all of us work in a more dispersed fashion, we'll need an IT capability that can accommodate us, and that capability will come from being in an elastic infrastructure."
Preparing for next time
It is incumbent upon the CFO to rely on his or her data to provide the company with the best possible vision for the future, and to provide the requisite tools. In Srivastava's mind, the complete utilization of every available service or software is an integral first step to stave off pandemic-like business interruptions.
Srivastava’s message to CFOs is that the tech they're now relying on to keep their businesses afloat was always there.
"For most of our large clients at Genpact, asking how to quickly move to a work from home environment really means asking how to give employees access to key applications," Srivastava said. "Most of those applications were previously designed for a world where they weren't necessary. Now they have to retrofit for the environment we live in."
Srivastava says it took a lot for his digital team at Genpact to get to 100% productivity via working from home, and his clients are similarly looking to revamp their permanent structures. "As the world changes, the way we conduct business is going to change," he said.
"What makes this kind of technology relevant is the contextual knowledge and understanding of how it can help the finance function," he said. "This is the opportunity for CFOs to embrace, and get involved, and define the shape of digital technology."