by Julian Goldsmith

Is the CFO the new CIO?

Feb 23, 20124 mins
IT Leadership

One of the perennial hot topics for IT leaders is what the future holds for them and their roles.

IT in business is certainly undergoing a transformation as an element of it becomes a utility consideration and fixed, predictable pricing models are introduced.

IT leaders themselves are finding their remit opening out to non-technical, operational responsibilities.

On the other side, non-technical business line managers are participating more in IT procurement as their familiarity with the technology their departments use increases.

In some cases, the IT department is headed by a non-technical director with a seat on the board, such as the COO, or CFO, and traditionally, the head of the IT department has reported to the finance lead, with a view that IT is a company asset, a cost centre to be controlled by someone with a head for numbers.

These are the issues I discussed with IT leaders at a recent round table, held by Getronics and attended by Patricio Colombo Head of IT & Systems at Jamie Oliver, Mark Cook, CEO at Getronics, Trevor Hanna, CIO at Associated British Foods (better known by its Primark retail chain); Claire Hossell, CFO; Karl Howarth CFO at P&O Ferries, Lukas Oberhuber, Head of IT at Simply Business, an online insurance provider to SMEs.

The round table was held to release research by Getronics of the views of over 200 finance professionals about their relationship with the IT department.

One in five said they thought that the CIO role would disappear in five years with over 40 per cent thinking the IT department would be merged with finance.

This has to be taken with a pinch of salt. If a similar survey was conducted with operations or marketing executives, what’s the betting the same amount of them think the IT department should be merged with their division?

However, Howarth made a useful point that many IT projects fail because they haven’t been properly embedded into the business and that having an executive who is more immersed in commercial concerns, such as a CFO, could help this.

Cook added that many IT projects are disclocated from the ongoing business strategy and his company is seeking to provide solutions roadmaps for his customers. This is something that vendors may have to do more often, as companies outsource more of their IT build. This takes something more away from the need for a strategic CIO to be part of the IT procurement process.

So far so bad for the CIO. But is a CFO really equipped to take on the IT responsibility?

Hanna commented that the head of IT role may look attractive to some CFOs but no job is what it looks like once you’ve taken it on and been forced to deal with the details.

His comments would seem to make sense. Essentially CIO’s most important skill is organising projects of scale. CFOs don’t typically deal with large teams and the finance department is often small compared with other teams in the company.

Hanna said it’s a job where you have to be prepared to lose friends, when stakeholders’ wishes can’t be fulfilled to their exacting satisfaction. Can a CFO afford to do that and be successful as the finance leader of the business as a whole?

On top of that, the CFO is concerned with the tangible measurement of the company’s performance. What is invested and what is returned.

Certainly one aspect of IT is about driving cost down and making exiting processes efficient, but it is also about managing business information so that it can be used to engage with customers better and open up new markets.

Is the CFO able to lead these tasks?

Ultimately, one of the CFOs on the panel, Howarth admitted that it’s not about what the CFO skillset can offer to enhance IT performance within the business.

It’s about how the CFO and the CIO can work more closely together to achieve that financial discipline without sacrificing the organisational expertise and drive for delivery that is the core of the CIO skill-base.

Happily, his more IT-focused colleagues agreed.