From a CFO in the Know: Getting the Most Out of Your IT Investment

Not too long ago, my company had a dilemma. We needed something to get to our data but didn’t really know what had to be done. It wasn’t until key managers gathered to discuss certain metrics that an answer started to appear.

We discovered that three managers were tracking the same problem metric in different ways and keeping the data in different locations. To top it off, all three figures these managers were coming up with were different.

This was our “aha” moment, when we realized we needed an integrated business intelligence system, one single source of truth for our organization. While the answer may sound fairly simple, the implementation was not. It never is.

As a CMA and CPA with an aptitude for information technology, I have been involved in more IT projects than I care to count over the past decade. Having worked for an IT services firm, I’ve not only helped clients choose the right system, I’ve also assisted with system implementation. Nearly every accounting department I have worked in engaged in some sort of systems implementation during my tenure. It’s not surprising though; in fact, most people will be involved in new technology roll-outs during their careers. With the short lifecycle of modern software, something better and faster is always on the horizon.

Still, while the implementation of a company-wide business intelligence system, which I drove, was a long journey, it was well worth the effort. Based on this experience and others, I have identified three rules critical for successfully choosing and implementing an IT project:

Rule 1: You should talk less, listen more.

One of the key success factors for my recent project was that I had to listen more to the users. This isn’t easy for a CFO to do, but it was imperative for getting the project off the ground. Listening to others accomplishes a couple of things: First, it allows you to really focus on the needs of others in the organization. It’s critical to understand everyone else’s requirements and not just yours. Second, you must include others early in the process. If they are involved in discussions from the start, they are more likely to buy into the project. Additionally, different perspectives provide alternative solutions you may not have otherwise discovered.

Rule 2: Those who have “patent patience” will succeed.

This is one of my personal goals. Patenting patience simply means making patience one of your trademark business skills. Patience isn’t usually a CFO’s first priority; you know what needs to be done, and you want to bulldoze your way through it.

With IT projects, that attitude is a sure-fire path to project failure for a few reasons. First, while schedules are important, getting it done right is paramount to all other factors. If a system is implemented on time but is not reliable, the project will most likely end in failure. You have to take your time.

Second, flexibility is critical during a long-term implementation project. As business needs change, so will the requirements of your IT project. Change is inevitable, and you must quickly adapt. I have seen companies hang on to an out-of-date idea simply because it was in the original project plan. They refused to adapt to the changing environment. As a result, the implemented system was outdated before it even got off the ground.

Rule 3: Leaders lead.

In the end, the CFO must do what’s best for the business. You must be a leader in organization-wide projects, including IT. You must be willing to make tough decisions, even those that may make others unhappy, including overriding someone else’s choices.

For example, one of the biggest mistakes I have seen companies make during implementation is creating too many customizations to the core program. Users could spend most of their time trying to customize the program to be like the old one rather than focusing on understanding the new programs, and how it will change their processes and procedures. Remember, there is a reason you chose the new system over the older one.

Spend your time and efforts optimizing the new rather than customizing it to feel like the old. People naturally like to avoid change; that is why the CFO must be a leader and override users when necessary. Not only are customizations expensive, they are also difficult to maintain. You must fully evaluate the costs with the benefits and make the best decision for the organization.

The “Operational CFO”

Increasingly, today’s CFOs are required to be deeply in touch with the company and its needs, including the technology development; this type of super-involved executive has even recently been dubbed the “Operational CFO.” But that level of immersion – particularly in choosing and implementing a new system – is critical for the success of the company.

Like many other important initiatives, most IT projects have one chance to get it right, before the new system gets used for the long term. System implementations that start in failure never get full buy-in and often end up being scrapped in the end, even after an attempted revival. So take your time, involve others, and be willing to invest in your company’s future.

Ben Mulling, CMA, CPA.CITP, is chief financial officer at TENTE Casters, Inc. and a member of the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) Global Board of Directors.

To help finance professionals sort through noise when starting a new IT project, Proformative created Proformative Exchange, a directory of over 4,500 products and services peer-reviewed by others working in corporate finance. Those who have already had to make the tough choices over an ERP system, budgeting and forecasting software, or other business solution have written about their experience or provided a review.