It’s never been more important for CFOs to understand and embrace technologies with the potential to transform the finance function—particularly as the impact of AI becomes more apparent every day.

“If you look at the role of the CFO today, which in many ways is a core component—if not the strategic architect—of an institution, you have to look at the opportunities around technology,” said Eric Kutcher, senior partner and CFO at McKinsey & Company. “If we’re going to drive growth and productivity … technology probably becomes the number one source of that productivity.”

Finance leaders must familiarize themselves with technologies in a way that helps them not only see firsthand the possibilities for enterprise value, but also understand how younger generations have come to experience technology, Kutcher said. That’s particularly important with generative AI, he added. “It’s hard to be leading an organization of the size and scale we all do if we’re not at the forefront.”

The CFO Role in Innovation

CFOs have largely fulfilled a financial controller function within organizations, protecting value by evaluating ROI. While that remains a core function for finance leaders, the future of finance is built on value creation.

That shift necessitates CFOs to think about significant enterprise expenditures on technology as investments, which requires CFOs to establish greater partnerships with CIOs and CTOs.

Part of that journey, Kutcher added, involves shifting to a mindset that asks: “How do we evolve our firm or institution to enable us to do the things that are strategically important—much of which has an innovation component to it—and how do we create the economic model to do that?”

That’s how CFOs can go from someone whose purpose appears to be cost containment to being an enabler of innovation.

Finance leaders are positioned to have a broadly informed and valuable perspective, Kutcher said. “You have this unique vantage so you can ask those questions and can invite yourself into some meetings, and as long as you do it in a way that is uplifting and moving forward.”

For his part, Kutcher said he makes telephone calls to his peers on McKinsey’s leadership team on at least a weekly basis. “I’m actually just curious what they’re doing, both personally and professionally.”

“As CFOs you should be encouraged to work closely in partnership with technology—a practice that can help leaders identify shared opportunities, whether it’s around AI or other advances in technology.”

Zane RoweChief Financial OfficerWorkday

AI’s Potential: ‘The Biggest Sea Change’

When it comes to AI in finance, Kutcher said he’s bullish: “With the limited experiments we’ve already done with AI, it has created real opportunities for us to have better insight and be able to synthesize much faster.”

Kutcher added that he only expects the technology’s speed and quality to improve over time, enhancing strategic thinking and allowing for deeper questions.

“We’re just at the beginning, but I think this is the biggest sea change we will see not just in finance but in business at large.”

Why Relationships and Trust Matter

Building trust with technology leaders is important for Sindy Wilson, CFO at Kickstarter.

“Gaining an understanding of our capabilities and challenges has really helped to build trust and have less friction-filled interactions with our technology leaders as we try to solve for innovative solutions we want to develop together,” she said.

Wilson added that one of her goals for herself and her team is learning. “I want them to be a student of the functions that we support,” she said.

Finally, Wilson values transparency about how she makes decisions. “I’m an incrementalist,” she said. “I like to make sure that we test and learn. I want to pilot a kind of proof before making big investments, and the team understanding how I think about how we make investments is important as well.”

People and learning are also an important part of technology strategy for Zane Rowe, CFO at Workday.

“As CFOs you should be encouraged to work closely in partnership with technology—a practice that can help leaders identify shared opportunities, whether it’s around AI or other advances in technology,” he said.

Rowe said he spends plenty of time with colleagues on the business technology side “to think about how we do things better not only in finance but across the organization, to become more efficient and then invest in other parts of the business.”

“With the limited experiments we’ve already done with AI, it has created real opportunities for us to have better insight and be able to synthesize much faster.”

Eric KutcherSenior Partner and CFOMcKinsey & Co.

Technology as ‘Co-Pilot’

As AI plays a larger role in finance, Rowe emphasized the importance of CFOs recognizing the technology’s capabilities.

“It’s incumbent upon you to learn and to understand it’s not necessarily learning in conventional ways,” he said. “To really understand what is the art of the possible doesn’t mean you have to become a coder. Spending enough time and being influenced by people in technology will help you understand what those opportunities are.”

Acknowledging the increase in “consumerization”—or low-code, no-code interfaces—of business technology, Kutcher said he views technology as a “co-pilot” to assist people. “At some level, it is less about understanding that technology, and more about understanding the application of that technology.”

Rowe described how that works in practice: At Workday, the finance organization conducted brainstorming sessions in partnership with the technology group to come up with ideas for real-life use cases where AI and other technologies could increase productivity and efficiency.

“It was an opportunity to have real-time results and have teams go out and try different things,” Rowe said. “The speed and the consumerization of it is really impressive.”

“We realized we needed to get smarter about how we can leverage the power of our manufacturing footprint to improve things like on-time delivery for customers and as a go-to-market as one sales team.”

Sindy WilsonChief Financial OfficerKickstarter

Using Data to Achieve Efficiencies at Scale

Wilson recounted her previous experience at a multibillion-dollar construction materials company that grew via acquisitions to more than 200 manufacturing locations. The fragmented structure of the company’s components meant multiple customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

“The challenging part was integrating those,” she said. “We realized we needed to get smarter about how we can leverage the power of our manufacturing footprint to improve things like on-time delivery for customers and as a go-to-market as one sales team.”

Wilson said her team worked with Kickstarter’s technology organization to conceptualize what kind of architecture, tools, and systems they needed—including ERP and CRM systems—as well as the processes they needed to put in place “to make sure we have the right policies and practices around clean data.”

The Path Forward

Kutcher also had a bright view about what AI can do with quality inputs.

“I’m actually remarkably optimistic about the path forward, in part because one of the things we are learning is: You can pull an awful lot out of existing systems and find ways to make great use out of it,” he said. “What we’re doing with generative AI already is a great demonstration of that—and, by the way, that’s only going to get better as we go.”

Rowe said the growth of AI has put pressure on companies to think more strategically about investing, as well as how to analyze data to generate insights with far greater speed than was possible before.

“It’s an exciting time to be part of finance as well as part of IT, and we both need each other just as much.”

This blog was originally published on the Workday Blog.