Lesson from the CFO: The People Aspect of Digital Transformation

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Digital transformation is never only a tech initiative because you need people to work with you along the journey. While people differ in their focus and concerns, they also by default don’t like changes.

Dan Gardner, CFO at Transfer To—an operator of a B2B cross-border mobile payments network that processes real-time transactions for money transfer providers, mobile operators, digital wallet providers, banks, NGOs, and merchants—shared with CFO Innovation the company’s digital transformation journey and how he as the CFO helps his team navigate the associated changes.

Before Transfer To, you worked for two fintech companies—Payscout and Transfast. Is it a coincidence or do you particularly like tech firms or fintech firms?

DG: I do like tech. I’ve been in fintech companies you mentioned for many years, so I’m comfortable dealing with high volume, 24/7 global businesses that move at the speed of light and transactions that occur constantly, non-stop, 365, and across the globe. This has become a part of my DNA after some time, and something I can’t live without I guess.

Transfer To started 11 years ago and isn’t a company with many legacy technologies. Did this make moving to cloud easier and faster?

DG: I joined Transfer To in November last year, so I am about the one-year mark.

To be sure, the company embarked on its cloud journey quite early and I’ve actively in my tenure here worked to introduce the cloud environment and move away from existing core accounting systems.

I think the idea of being a digital business has pluses as well as minuses. One of the major advantages of being a digital business is that we’re familiar and comfortable with change, but one of the disadvantages is that there is a constant sense of urgency to get things done quickly.

So that’s one of the challenges to manage. While yes, we certainly embrace change and have a culture of change, sometimes we need to pause for reflection to make sure we do the right things.

How did you work with the CIO in this process? Some CFOs I talked to in the past didn’t find it too easy to work with CIOs in their cloud journeys because they had different focus and concerns.

DG: In a sense, I’ve been fortunate. We have a CTO who’s very supportive of change. We’re in the business of providing airtime top-up, having 600 API connections to telcos that power real time transmission and tens of millions of transactions annually.

The CTO is at the vanguard when it comes to up-time, scalability, reliability of our network, and the continuous network enhancement needed to grow our business.

So it wasn’t about convincing him that cloud is the way to go but rather, what data sets we need, and how we properly feed transaction system data into the Oracle applications. It’s more about considerations of deployment, rather than convincing him that we should go down this road.

By moving the finance department away from enabling transaction processing to enabling data insight, we create the next generation of finance folks

What financial processes have been on the cloud already?

DG: General ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and cash management have already been on the Oracle ERP cloud.

Our balance sheet is liquid and large. We also have a very high degree of turnover within our balance sheet, our receivables, inventory, and our payables.

So we needed a basic set of accounting components that could help us manage and monitor the balance sheet. In addition, the speed of the cash conversion cycle is crucial.

A big part of what we’re trying to do with the cloud is to get that dashboard of data on an on-demand, real-time basis, as opposed to having to wait for the distribution of reports.

What benefits have you experienced with the cloud deployment?

DG: Now we don’t need to worry so much about where we’re in the close process or why it takes so long. For example, it took us up until early afternoon to get a cash position report before, as we had a large number of global bank accounts.

Compiling all the data in cash position was a manual process, which required us to go to each platform, track the data, to assemble it all in one spreadsheet.

Today, this is a real-time process. Getting data feeds directly from banking portals through bank messaging platforms, we’re able to collate all bank data, with a push-button functionality.

The result: we can start managing and ask how we can optimize balances and negotiate better supply rates.

Can you share with us your team’s demographics?

DG: I think it’s difficult to generalize as we’ve a mixed bag—some strong folks and some who are more comfortable with manual, labor-intensive processes.

What I’ve seen along this [cloud] journey is that some people gravitate toward and embrace change—they want to be a part of something interesting and challenging.

There’re also people who don’t necessarily want to embrace that kind of challenge. Change in itself can cause anxiety and fear, especially technologies such as robotics processing, AI, machine learning which can potentially threaten people’s livelihood.

So it’s important, culturally, to create a cohesive and strong team that embraces change.

People who can analyze and interpret data and work with business leaders to make sure finance has a seat at the table don't come cheap 

How do you help your team face these changes?

DG: Part of it is to make them part of the process, instead of having change forced upon them.

I’m a firm believer that if people are instrumental, and understand from the get-go why this is happening and that they have ownership in getting it done and individual pieces of the whole project, they will then rise to the challenge.

It’s important to have people who want to learn. I’m still learning every day.

Learning never stops as there’re always emerging technologies. Every time you think things are settled and sorted out, there’s something new coming along and requires you to re-engineer things all over again.

I think creating a team of people who challenge me, mentoring them, and giving them opportunities to learn, to fail, and to be challenged are part of what I feel CFOs and business leaders need to do.

Do you think helping people face change is the biggest challenge of CFOs today as a result of digital transformation and all those disruptive technologies?

DG:  Yes. As long as we want to automate, we need people to run these systems, to mine and codify them.

When I look at the systems we are building here, finance is going to sit on top of massive array of data, which will be created in real-time and across the business.

The question is going to be: what am I going to do with it?

I’ll need sophisticated folks to mine it. Whether you call them data scientists or whatever term, we’ll need people to own the data, interpret the data, analyse it and then push it back down to the business stakeholders and explain what the opportunities are and how we can make more money.

Cultivating staff is part of the job. By moving the finance department away from enabling transaction processing to enabling data insight, we create the next generation of finance folks.

What are the hidden costs of cloud deployment in your case? How can CFOs better estimate those hidden costs?

DG: One of them is associated with finding people who can run, analyze, and interpret data and work with business leaders so that finance has a seat at the table to drive the value-add decisions.

These people don’t come cheap. And there aren’t many. You either groom people internally or go out to the market to find them.

What’s next in your finance team’s cloud journey?

DG: The next big step is to integrate our treasury management solution to the Oracle ERP cloud. That’ll allow for greater connectivity to our banks and automated payment flows, and better treasury management capabilities.

Going forward, the tech team is likely to feed finance raw data while businesses will increasingly come to me asking for access to the database in order to do their analyses.

So I have to think through throughout this cloud journey how I am able to give them meaningful subsets of data and information.

Do you have any advice for CFOs who have just embarked on their cloud or digital transformation journey?

DG: I think ultimately you need to approach it with energy and optimism—there’s always going to be twists and turns in the journey especially if you haven’t moved quickly.

Selecting a partner is important: you are not going in it alone. You need someone behind you and point you to things before you trip up, or after you do, pick you up. It’s hard to be successful in these things without a software partner and an integration solution partner.

Since you can’t do it alone, communication is important as well. You need to get all stakeholders within and outside of finance group to understand why you are doing this, the business case, the benefits, and to make this a shared endeavor.

By communicating your strategy to everyone across the enterprise, you find it easier to get their support instead of criticism when you hit a snag.