Published: 17 April 2020
Analyst(s): Nisha Bhandare
Prior to COVID-19, CFOs were investing millions of dollars in transformation. With the severe business and personal challenges brought on by the pandemic, CFOs are considering pausing spend. CFOs should use this research to revisit their transformation and define actions for the short and long term.
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn it has triggered have shifted the focus of finance transformation activities from growth, efficiency and business partnership to business continuity.
CFOs are urgently prioritizing actions to increase their cash position, reduce functional cost and enable remote working for their employees in response to lower consumer demand, supply chain disruptions and social distancing measures.
This significant shift in priorities and remaining uncertainty about the duration of the crisis are leaving finance leaders unsure of the right actions to take specific to their in-progress transformation programs: pause completely, pivot or push forward as is.
To optimize your finance transformation program:
Prioritize any transformation initiatives that enhance cash generation, reduce operating costs and improve remote working conditions.
Pause any transformation initiatives that require big change management efforts.
Carefully weigh any initiative that would result in large operational efficiency gains against the potential disruption of change it could cause.
Pivot the focus of the transformation team to data governance and process standardization across the finance function, given their ability to drive short-term impact and act as foundational enablers for the function.
Evaluate cost optimization opportunities for all remaining prioritized initiatives through the consolidation of functional spend and reduction of assets and external vendor spend.
In the longer term, reimagine the transformation program by revisiting core assumptions that the pandemic challenged and incorporating critical objectives that the pandemic highlighted.
As CFOs are largely focused on preserving the immediate financial health of their organizations, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a risk of losing sight of long-term transformational goals for the function.Leading CFOs are viewing this time as a critical moment to refocus, versus entirely abandon, their transformation initiatives. They are acting now to assess the impact of this pandemic on their existing transformation initiatives and determining what changes they should make to smoothly steer their organizations through and after COVID-19 in a cost-effective manner.
Prior to the pandemic, most finance organizations were engaged in transforming their function through technology and new organization models, to enhance business partnership and drive efficiency. Now, most finance organizations’ focus has narrowed — targeting actions directed at cutting costs and preserving cash across the enterprise — in large part due to the recent and additional anticipated disruptions to global supply chains’ customer demand. In this environment, a natural response for CFOs may be to put their finance transformations on hold or cancel them entirely.
According to Gartner research, companies that act decisively and continue to invest while having a cost optimization approach outperform their peers as a market stabilizes. Finance leaders should approach their transformation programs with this same viewpoint. The current period of disruption has also introduced the importance of revisiting transformation plans. Some assumptions that drove the transformation are no longer valid such as those around supporting growth investments through predictive analytics, which may no longer be a priority for some organizations. New priority areas are emerging, like enabling process execution remotely. CFOs should incorporate these recent shifts in priority as they take a fresh look at their planned transformation programs.
Making informed decisions about how to evolve their transformation programs requires evaluating individual transformation initiatives (see Figure 1).To determine the next steps for their ongoing transformation, CFOs should take three actions:
Once the immediate actions are set:
Recent surveys from Gartner show organizations have shifted their focus post-COVID-19 from growth and expansion to cost management (24%), cash preservation (24%) and remote working enablement (22%). Given the change in focus, CFOs need to revisit their portfolio of initiatives and make hard decisions on what to accelerate, pause or pivot in the immediate term.
COVID-19has elevated the importance of three particular functional priorities: cost reduction, cash generation and remote working. To enable faster recovery for their organizations after COVID-19, CFOs should keep three things in mind when driving decisions on what to accelerate:
Functional cost reduction: Does this initiative enable reduction in the company’s operating cost?
Cash generation: Does this initiative improve the organization’s cash position?
Remote work enablement: Will this initiative enable the organization to conduct remote business more effectively?
Prioritize those initiatives that enable at least one, if not more, of these benefits (see Figure 2). Use the ROI or benefits estimation numbers developed at the start of the program to identify how much cash and cost savings each initiative is expected to deliver for the current year to help in further prioritization.
The example in Figure 2 demonstrates how CFOs can prioritize their existing finance transformation initiatives in the order to cash (OTC) space by first prioritizing those initiatives that will provide cost, cash and remote working benefits. They can then rank them based on current year cost and cash projections. CFOs should conduct a similar exercise in the record to report (R2R), procure to pay (P2P), and finance planning and analysis (FP&A) workstreams to drive decisions on what to accelerate.
The pandemic has also showcased the value of digital tools and technology in supporting remote working, while also driving efficiencies and cash. If CFOs already have invested in technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA), they don’t necessarily need to pause the entire program. Alternatively, they can leverage the guidelines in the figure to prioritize use cases that will allow the organization to harness these benefits more quickly.
Prioritize AI programs that are focused on predictive analytics delivering better working capital and cash scenarios.
Leverage the existing RPA tools to deliver more solutions to enable effective remote working and drive cost optimization in the OTCcycle.
Prioritize reporting solutions that enable real-time visibility into the organization’s cash flow.
In addition to pausing initiatives that are not aligned to cost, cash or remote working, CFOs should suspend initiatives planned within the current (and potentially next) quarter that require large organizational change management (OCM). Finance teams across the globe are currently going through personal change, distress and uncertainty while coping with their local shutdowns in addition to learning new ways of remote working.Major planned finance reorganization — for example, centers of excellence (COEs) for finance analytics and moving activity to corporate or business units — should be paused, reevaluated to see if the assumptions still hold and pushed to a later date. Restructuring the finance function requires significant communication, training and process monitoring, which organizations may not have the capability to execute in a remote setting. If done incorrectly, or rushed without proper tools to support employees remotely, this can cause further distress and chaos in an already strained system and organization.
Restructuring may have been planned to enable functional cost benefits for the organization, such as outsourcing back-office functions to a low-cost provider. If so, CFOs need to evaluate the trade-offs in getting immediate cost benefits with potential operations disruption if the transition cannot be executed in a remote setting or if the outsourcing partner isn’t equipped for remote working. In such cases, CFOs should work with the outsourcing partner or transformation leader before making decisions on whether to proceed with or pause the reorganization. Together, they should:
Similarly, rolling out large-scale technologies that impact multiple functions or groups (e.g., a new ERP rollout or new operational and financial forecasting tools) and require substantial change management to be successful should be paused. The timing of the launch should be changed to when the organization has the capability to drive change management and training in a remote setting.
The pandemic causes uncertainty for finance teams that were dedicated to working on the transformation (e.g., process leaders, data scientists, ERP leaders, RPA leaders). They are now unsure of their priorities and whether there will be a shift in focus or cancellation of programs. For initiatives like reorganizations or new system launches that have been paused, CFOs need to pivot those transformation team members to foundational activities like process and data rigor within their workstream that will still be applicable when the project restarts or in the interim to help the organization navigate this period.
As an example, when a decision is made to pause an ERP program, instead of disbanding the ERP team, CFOs should task the team to focus on process simplification, standardization and data governance. These are foundational elements for the program that can be implemented quickly while operations are still remote. Similar process and data focus should continue for the FP&A, controllership and shared services transformation initiatives that are paused due to the pandemic.
Transformation leaders should partner with finance leaders to conduct a review after the first quarter to get insights on what worked well for each workstream, what processes can be standardized and what can be eliminated. The last few weeks of remote working would have exposed some critical flaws in finance processes. Leverage this opportunity to remove waste from the financial processes, enforce standards and simplify the way people work.
Examples of process standardization and data governance that transformation teams can pivot their focus toward while keeping cash, cost and remote working in mind include:
To prepare the teams for the next quarter remote close, controllers should review their manual journal entry policy to simplify the approval process, reduce the categories requiring journal entries, improve the estimation process or adjust to a higher materiality threshold.
Shared services leaders should prioritize process initiatives like standardizing AR and AP policies across the business that drive indirect cost savings for the organization.
Business unit finance teams should evaluate whether any data cleanup or governance initiatives like customer master data cleanup and invoice template standardization can drive better cash generation through reduction in errors during invoicing, collections and cash receipts.
To help guide your teams on how to standardize and simplify processes, see
Once the decision is made to accelerate, pause or pivot the transformation initiatives, CFOs should conduct a cost review to identify opportunities for cost savings and drive actions to conserve cost within the program. For each initiative:
CFOs should task their transformation teams to categorize the program costs as internal full-time equivalents (FTEs) (e.g., business and IT), internal asset cost (e.g., licensing, servers, application fees) and external consulting cost.
Finance leaders should work with their business and IT counterparts to identify drivers for each cost and opportunities to consolidate and/or reduce costs within each line item.
CFOs should prioritize cost actions that will drive immediate savings and start building a clear execution plan with detailed steps andowners that is transparent to the broader organization.
Below are examples of actions CFOs can take to reduce the costs in a finance technology transformation:
Once the transformation team is clear on what projects to accelerate and pivot for the remainder of the year, CFOs need to reevaluate whether their transformation program, which was defined prior to the pandemic, is still valid. While the priority of CFOs is to get business back on track, they should not lose focus on repositioning their transformation program and their functions in light of the new developments.
Below are some questions CFOs and their staff need to answer as they reimagine their transformation.
What are the assumptions that drove our transformation? Were they around business partnership to support growth and expansion to new markets? Are they still valid post-COVID-19?
Are there new drivers, assumptions or outcomes that should be included?
Do we need a renewed focus on cost, working capital and cash across all our finance functions?
Finance service models:
How effective was our business partnership during the pandemic? Do we need a tighter link with our commercial supply chain functions to better forecast and predict financials?
Are there new finance service models or offerings that we uncovered that should be included in our transformation?
Finance talent and culture:
How can we build a continuous culture of cost optimization and cash generation as we rebuild growth?
Do we need to change how we engage employees given our “new normal” post-COVID-19?
Future of work for finance:
What is the new “future of work?” Does our organization have the capability to work during a pandemic, or do we need to invest here?
What “touchless” capabilities and ways of working do we need to accelerate?
Resetting finance transformation in light of the lessons of the past few weeks may give rise to new objectives (like digital collaboration and business continuity) or emphasize initiatives that were previously not prioritized (like working capital optimization) by the business.
COVID-19 has presented a new set of challenges to CFOs in an already dynamic world. As CFOs navigate this crisis, it is time for introspection, to agree on how to build operational resiliency in the finance processes and ensure the organization is better prepared to overcome future disruptions. The future of work is changing, and CFOs can stay ahead in defining the role of finance in supporting the business through the crisis.
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