As companies innovate and transform in an increasingly digitised world, 'chief financial and technology officers' or 'CFTOs' are becoming a corporate necessity for some, according to a senior EMC executive.
"Whichever sector of the economy you look at, today IT is not just supporting the business, it is the business," Steve O'Neill, CFO of EMEA (Strategic Operations) at EMC, told CIO UK.
"Innovation and transformation probably are the buzzwords in this debate. Going back less than 20 years, I remember my time as finance professional when we were doing double entry bookkeeping in leather-bound ledgers.
"Then along came computers running spreadsheets and databases and more and more data could be captured and processed. Fast forward from there, to the last 10 years and you can't imagine a world without IT."
Given such a context, O'Neil feels that both CFOs and CIOs in today's companies are business professionals first and foremost. "Both are transforming themselves and are no longer "the stereotypical IT boffins and bean counters but are smart digital savvy C-suite executives," he adds.
Current market conjecture about a C-suite remit combining the finance and technology functions is the inevitable consequence. Recently, two accounting bodies Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) suggested that 2014 would see the numbers of CFTOs rise.
Lloyd's of London – the world's oldest insurance market – is one example among many that sees value in letting its finance chief manage the IT estate. Similarly, CIOs of Air New Zealand and Tesco have gone on to the top job of CEO, proving that overall business management was well within the IT chief's skillset.
While not delving into the affairs of specific organisations, O'Neill feels if harnessing the power of IT is the core objective, then convergence of tech and finance aspects under a CFTO role is hardly far-fetched. "More so, as these days the success or failure of a company is directly related to the incorporation of electronic platforms into the company's business model."
Furthermore, he reckons the rise of BPO has much to do with the CFTO idea moving on from being an academic hypothesis to a corporate reality.
"Most of the finance function is computerised, regardless of whether the processes themselves are in-house or outsourced. Both the CIO and CFO understand people, processes and computers, and the business aspects of profit and loss equations (P&Ls) and balance sheets.
"Where processes are outsourced, often the CIO has to manage the service while the CFO has to understand as well as sign-off on it. One executive who is numbers savvy, technologically astute and is a business person above anything else could be the CFTO for sure – and in the case of many companies – already is. Don't forget all IT spend [big or small] is on balance sheets or P&Ls from a one-off capex to recurring outsourcing contracts."
Yet, O'Neill is pragmatic enough to acknowledge it'll only happen at companies that think outside the box. Furthermore, corporate thinking won't change overnight.
"You have to ask what a company expects of its C-suite executives? If a company only sees the IT function as one that "keeps the system lights on" and the finance function as being only "about the books" – there won't be a CFTO in such a setting. Both functions will remain in their silos.
The EMC executive thinks it'll be a gradual but steady change driven by cost, IT innovation and operational convergence. CFTOs are likely to be more common in start-ups and small to medium companies rather than large blue chip companies, because the former often have the freedom of less legacy issues.
"I feel small caps are more adventurous in their thinking and even see cost benefits of combining the IT and finance leadership roles. The 2007-09 economic downturn, if anything, led sceptics to think along these lines too. Then there are those boards that see positive synergies between CFO and CIO roles and like the idea of joint stewardship of both functions."
It also depends on the type of company, its business model and the individuals in question. "For instance, some private equity-owned companies like efficient streamlined finance offices and IT estates and industry evidence suggests CFTOs are not that uncommon at such businesses.
"Given that IT now 'is' the business, I challenge the theory whether there would be a concern at board level [about merging CIO and CFO functions]. In fact, if anything, boards could see the benefits of merging both roles for the right candidate as a win-win situation from the standpoints of improved operational command of the business through to the cost saving benefits of rationalising the roles."
Both IT and finance functions are equally worried about many of the same things, including balancing the budget, running the operations, managing risk and all whilst supporting and encouraging innovation.
"Simply put, a CFTO could keep an eye on things bearing the concerns of both functions in mind," O'Neill concludes.