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The CFO Imperative: How to rethink the finance and reporting operating model for the future

A more open future, requiring collaboration with strategic providers, demands leaders rethink the finance operating model.

In brief

  • Finance should work as part of an extended ecosystem, with deeper collaboration both within the organization and externally.
  • Transforming the finance operating model could be essential to provide this ambition and meet the range of challenges.
  • An innovative provider and managed services strategy could be an important element in the operating model transformation.

In the digital era, new virtual markets are emerging as platform-based giants that connect buyers and sellers in a more seamless way. In these “superfluid” markets (where traditional market frictions are reduced or even eliminated), everything can be connected to everyone, with machines transacting autonomously with other machines, as well as directly with people. And almost everything can be rentable as a service, with excess capacity likely to fade away. CFOs should look to reframe finance and reporting for this new, hyperconnected reality. This means taking a fresh look at the target operating model.

To design the right finance and reporting operating model, CFOs should seek to balance a number of requirements, including their priorities around cost-efficiency, how to add value and how to manage risk. With a thorough understanding of their priorities, they can build a clear view of any gaps in their current target operating model and its ability to thrive in the future. The CFO Imperative series examines the changing nature of the finance leaders’ role, identifying critical answers and actions to help leaders reframe the future of their organizations.

The 2020 EY Global Financial Accounting Advisory Services (FAAS) corporate reporting survey shows that finance leaders anticipate this shift to a smarter, more open finance operating model. They were asked to look ahead to the next three years and say how likely a range of different scenarios are. For example, as shown below, 53% of respondents think it is “likely” that more than half of the finance and reporting tasks currently performed by people will be performed by robotic process automation (RPA) or “bots,” with close to a quarter of respondents (24%) thinking it is “very likely.”

For Dana Bober, EY Americas FAAS Leader, the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic should not divert finance leaders from the requirement to focus on the long-term future, including taking a more strategic and fresh look at their reporting and forecasting capability. “Areas like automation of manual finance processes have moved forward during the pandemic, but organizations are now at the point where they recognize they should start focusing on the most strategic transformation goals,” she says. “The future of forecasting is a really important area, and organizations have to ask themselves whether their management reporting is good enough. Some are struggling to build a view of the future, and recognize that they should use data differently and involve different technology solutions than what they have today.”

Changes of this magnitude will likely require new capabilities – not only an innovation culture but also the right ecosystem strategy to access and stimulate new ideas. However, the survey shows that finance teams could perhaps do more to open themselves up to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Finance leaders were asked to choose one statement that most accurately described how they intend to approach innovation in the coming years, and just 37% of respondents said they plan to primarily use an open approach. Of the other finance leaders:

  • 17% of respondents said they will primarily drive innovation from within the finance function itself.
  • 44% of respondents said they will primarily drive innovation in partnership with other in-house company teams, such as IT.
  • 37% of respondents said they will take an open approach to innovation, generating and developing creative ideas with external providers.1

To build an innovation capability, leaders should define their vision, help to align it with the wider enterprise strategy, and put KPIs in place to measure progress and achievements. As examined in the 2019 EY Global FAAS corporate reporting survey, finance culture change will also be an important factor. In terms of open innovation, leaders should also look to map out how important players – finance itself as well as in-house functions such as IT – collaborate with the broader innovation ecosystem, including external providers.

Defining a provider and managed services strategy to achieve transformational goals

Finance and reporting are facing significant pressures. These can range from highly demanding stakeholders requesting different types of financial and nonfinancial insight to an increased expectation for finance to play a central role in the organization’s long-term value strategy. However, finance teams could struggle to meet new challenges because of the distraction and weight of legacy responsibilities and complexity, the likely requirement to rewire finance technology, and the challenges of finding the proper talent to provide the new mandates.

“CFOs face significant challenges when it comes to their finance function,” says Dave Helmer, EY Global Tax and Finance Operate Leader. “The first is talent – getting the people they require, with the right skills, and giving them a career path so that you retain them. Second, staying on top of the constantly changing legislative and regulatory environment. The third is the requirement to have a sustainable plan around data and technology. The fourth and final issue is a perennial one for CFOs – not only reducing costs, but doing so dramatically.”

Meeting these challenges is why many CFOs are examining their target operating model. And, in today’s interconnected world, managed services can be a smart weapon in the finance leader’s provider strategy. “This is more than just taking low-value, commoditized finance processes off CFOs’ hands,” explains Paul Clark, EY Global Leader – Managed Services. “It’s about looking at finance leaders using today’s digitized, connected world to ‘consume’ higher-value finance services. It allows finance leaders to unlock value and drive innovation because they are not consumed simply by ‘running finance.’ It offers deep domain experience in finance, regulatory understanding and credibility, global reach and the potential for a state-of-the-art technology stack that leverages both new technologies and common data sets. The CFO can then be more focused on the smaller group of leading finance capabilities that they want to build in-house.”

The importance of an innovative provider strategy is reinforced by the 2020 EY DNA of the CFO survey, which explores the perspectives of more than 800 CFOs and senior finance leaders around the world. In this survey, more than three-quarters of respondents (76%) said that finance will increasingly partner with external parties to provide finance processes or activities requiring specialized knowledge or technology.

Cloud computing and data analytics are likely to be an important factor in providing this strategy. In essence, cloud computing is a set of distributed on-demand technology services that can be scaled up or down to support an organization’s requirements. The technology can provide the environment for finance digital transformation and the collaborative architecture to connect a range of ecosystems, including providers, employees and customers. There is also significant investment by cloud providers to maintain the security of cloud-based data and apps, which is increasingly important in a world where cybercriminals are ever more sophisticated. Embracing these data ecosystems could prove important as organizations look to share business information across internal boundaries, requiring the establishment of governance and sharing protocols with providers in order to manage possible risks.

As finance leaders look to rethink the finance operating model, a more open approach – including the use of innovative provider strategies and technology – could be important to success.


New technologies are creating superfluid markets and disrupting companies. Finance leaders should provide confidence that their finance operating model is fit for this more open and connected future. This will be important in thriving as part of an extended ecosystem, succeeding in a world where technology is constantly moving, and focusing finance talent on major priorities by drawing on the domain experience and services of strategic providers.

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