It’s a Catch-22 typical of the conflicts businesses have faced amid the recession. They’re looking to information-technology departments for efficiency and productivity, to be sure. But their retrenched budgets may strain their ability to make the full investment needed to meet those goals.
In that environment, the divergent agendas of CFOs and chief information officers may contrast even more than usual. Finance chiefs, for instance, want to avoid major risks and know exactly what IT projects will cost, while CIOs are likely to push ambitious ideas they believe could transform the company.
It’s not surprising that CFOs would have strong feelings on the matter. Indeed, the rhetoric ran sharp at “CFO/CIO Straight Talk,” a conference held in New York Tuesday that was produced by CFO Conferences, an affiliate of CFO.com. In informal comments during a breakout discussion, one attendee — a finance vice president at a major financial institution who requested anonymity — captured the frustration.
If one trait of CIOs could be changed, the executive said bluntly, they would develop more appreciation for prudent risk-taking. “They’re always coming up with these very capital-intensive programs that are essentially faith-based initiatives. The projects are not well supported with metrics, the numbers don’t work, but they want to run off and take the risk.”
Similarly, one CFO at the table, who also asked not to be named, chimed in: “Stop saying that it’s going to produce 2,000% ROI. Nobody believes you.”
The first executive did allow, though, that there are two sides to the issue. Finance leaders, he acknowledged, often lose sight of the fact that “we have to have some vision, too.” Rather than being just numbers-driven, CFOs have to find room for belief in innovation and “understand the power of a better idea.”
Later, during a panel discussion, another CFO gave an example of a “better idea” that his IT department came up with. Frank Gatti, head of finance at Educational Testing Service, told of a new online product the company had developed for students to use in registering for admittance to business schools in India. The idea IT came up with was a video with two people talking users through the registration process. ETS posted it on YouTube and provided a link to the video at the registration site. At a cost of virtually nothing, the tactic pushed down call-center costs related to the new product by 20% from what had been expected.
“I feel I have to rely on people who are much more creative and understand how technology can connect to what customers are doing,” said Gatti.
Still, he too talked about rough spots in working with CIOs on big systems projects. One challenge, he said, is simply getting them to understand the importance of bringing in the project on time and on budget. But there’s another level to the problem. “The project may in fact be on time and budget, but they’ve taken out certain functionality that they saw as interesting but not essential [but that] we saw as critical,” said Gatti.
That comment spurred another panelist, Joseph Franzese, U.S. CFO of the Bank of Ireland, to quote E.M. Forster: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” In other words, any understandings between IT and finance should be thoroughly documented. Don’t leave anything to interpretation; write it all down in as much detail as possible. He further pointed out that IT strategies should be “made to be met.” Unrealistic goals delay revenue streams and lead to more wrong decisions, said Franzese.
The lone CIO on the panel, Stephen Bozzo of 1-800-Flowers.com, did not point a finger of blame back to the CFO side. He acknowledged that many finance executives, as well as business leaders in general, perceive IT as “a mystery.” And to the extent that is so, he said, it is IT’s responsibility to demystify itself. “We must take accountability. We do lunch-and-learns, or one-on-ones with whoever might be confused.”
Bozzo described a project under way right now to create a centralized customer database for all 16 of the online retailer’s brands. It’s a “very exciting” project, he said, but showing finance leaders the consolidated database is not enough: IT has to go a step further and say it will increase customer retention — “and that’s still not enough.” It also must point out that every 1% increase in customer retention translates to $10 million in revenue, based on the company’s annual topline of about $1 billion. “We need to demonstrate the benefits to the business, using the language of business,” he said.
Doing that creates stronger support for IT projects, and Bozzo said he’s “seen it time and time again — when you have strong business sponsorship, the project is successful every single time. If you don’t have that, it generally fails.”
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