EXCLUSIVE: TCS CFO explains how the role of a finance head has been changed by the pandemic

EXCLUSIVE: TCS CFO explains how the role of a finance head has been changed by the pandemic
V. Ramakrishnan Chief Financial Officer, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)TCS
  • A strong CEO-CFO partnership can determine the success or failure in digital transformation – especially in uncertain times like a pandemic.
  • With the right approaches, CFOs can help CEOs drive growth, manage risks, and boost organisational performance – starting with transforming the finance function.
  • Building a digital finance function will streamline financial reporting and accelerate and deepen a company’s ability to pinpoint both opportunities and threats.
The Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) have been heavily involved in their companies’ digital transformations. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, global spending on digitising business practices, products and services is expected to grow by more than 10% to reach $1.3 trillion in 2020. Now CFOs must work closely with chief executives to steer their enterprises through the worst economic crisis in a generation. This CEO-CFO partnership — whether it is effective or not — will determine whether enterprises can withstand the financial impact of this crisis and move their organisations forward.

Recent TCS research sheds new light on the unprecedented pressure that the pandemic has unleashed on organisations and particularly on their finance functions. A global survey of 287 companies, in July, with more than $1 billion in revenue found that 68% of them saw revenues decline. Moreover:
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  • Fewer than one-third of companies surveyed had implemented essential digital capabilities that enable them to pivot quickly in response to the crisis.
  • Only 23% have strong automation of core business processes
For finance organisations with a mission to mitigate risks, shore up liquidity, understand how performance is changing and know precisely where the company and its customers stand. Lacking such capabilities is a wakeup call. Not having a sufficiently digital finance function means lacking accurate real-time data, and therefore navigating the crisis without a reliable compass.

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These organisations are now racing to catch up. Most are maintaining or accelerating their digital investments despite revenue pressures and the need to operate remotely. Companies have realised that such investment is critical to resilience and competitiveness during the pandemic and beyond. The investment also enables the CFO to better manage the organisation’s finances and support the CEO.

The CFO’s unique role during a crisis

A successful CFO generally sees herself as a strategic partner to the CEO. But during uncertain times, the CFO’s role typically changes. Risks and responsibilities rise. In some cases, crises also pose strategic opportunities. Some key matters that the CFO needs to address during a crisis include:

  • External business risks: During uncertain times, litigation is likely to rise. Contracts that protect commercial and legal interests help the organisation stay focused and avoid unnecessary distractions. At the same time, having measures in place that help the company access what is rightfully due — such as contract clause monitoring, and early warning indicators — can assist with revenue growth and profitability.
  • Talent: As crisis-related anxiety levels soar, small steps can reinforce employee morale, loyalty and engagement. The CFO should ensure that payroll is processed on time, particularly if employees are concerned about the company’s stability. Additionally, the CFO should support empathetic policies for workers affected by the crisis. Especially in a services company or any organisation with a sizeable resource pool, it is beneficial in the short term to carry, as necessary, excess staffing capacity that will get absorbed once growth returns. This can help morale while boosting productivity when it is most needed. And the organisation can manage other costs to pay for the investment.
  • Driving growth: Uncertain times also present an opportunity to take a fresh look at the business and consider deploying different processes or frameworks. The finance function can help plan for such initiatives, building scenario analyses of how proposed changes will impact efficiency or optimisation. The function is also a key player in executing finalised plans.
The CFO should also look at market penetration to assess opportunities for expanding the organisation’s horizons. Embarking on such projects demands not only investment capabilities but also the long-term conviction needed to make big moves despite economic turmoil. A wise decision during a crisis often delivers the best returns.

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A final consideration on growth involves the volatile currency and financial markets. It is critical for the treasury team to manage the enterprise’s currency and interest-rate exposures and continually take appropriate measures. This will help the CEO and business teams focus on business response, recovery and revival.

  • Accurate forecasting: Always important, and it becomes even more consequential in times of uncertainty and disruption, when forecasts are more difficult. Of course, maintaining transparency and avoiding surprises is also important for investors and market participants.
  • Mergers and Acquisitions: There is usually a distinct ramp-up in M&A activities during a crisis. The pandemic could present opportunities at attractive valuations. Companies often look to divest their non-core activities, which could constitute core businesses for another company. Having deployable funds and a long-term vision assists in such decisions. The CFO can play an important role by keeping the organisation in a state of readiness.
Establishing the CFO as a strategic partner to the CEO
TCS has observed that companies with highly digital finance functions have performed better over time, and particularly during the crisis. A CFO can be an effective partner to the CEO by seizing the opportunity to deploy digital capabilities that can improve efficiency and inform the executive team’s strategic decisions.

In brief, a highly digital finance function helps a company and its CEO in several key ways. It is able to close the books and report financial results publicly on time and without extra manual effort. Digitisation ensures that team members can produce financial statements regardless of where they are working, and a timely release of financial results helps to reassure stakeholders that the company is operating smoothly despite crisis-related disruptions.

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Additionally, a digital finance function can more easily identify troublesome business areas and offer helpful ideas for addressing their challenges. For instance, the department can help determine which costs are strategic and should not be cut, and which costs can be delayed or reduced. Finally, the digital CFO can keep a close watch on collections, liquidity and any delinquency and take proactive steps to mitigate risks. These capabilities are always advantageous but given the sudden and intense disruption that many companies are experiencing during the pandemic, they are more important than ever.

TCS’ finance department’s digital transformation
Our observations about the effectiveness of highly digital finance offices are based not only on research and client experience, but also on the TCS finance department’s digital transformation. This experience offers instructive lessons for CFOs across industries, particularly during the current crisis.

The pandemic hit TCS at perhaps the worst possible time for the finance function, just a few short weeks before the fiscal year ended (March 31, 2020). Even though all members of our finance team and auditors were working remotely from their homes, we were the first Indian public company to announce our fully audited results of operations from more than 50 countries where we do business. Results were released on schedule in April. This, at a time when, for instance, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had issued a 45-day earnings extension and a number of companies in the S&P 500 were delaying their quarterly earnings releases.

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Moreover, TCS was the first company in India to hold a virtual annual shareholder meeting. This occurred on June 11, 2020, the same date that had been scheduled months before the pandemic hit. This was only possible because we had extensively digitised our finance function over nearly two decades.

TCS is a $22 billion company with 470,000 employees and more than a thousand large customers. Such a business cannot run efficiently or effectively without an integrated, enterprise-wide, single-instance financial accounting and reporting system. We undertake so many transactions that no one person — or even a team of people — in finance can see patterns rapidly or with the needed microscopic granularity. Technology is the lynchpin, the enabler.

Capitalising on the digital transformation of the finance unit
As the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear, every enterprise needs a digitally sophisticated finance function. Such a function is a means by which the CFO can be an indispensable partner to the CEO in running an organisation that is resilient and financially stable.

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Digitisation also enables the CFO and C-suite colleague to ensure that the organisation maintains adequate liquidity, generates strong cash flow, reduces the working capital cycle, and mitigates enterprise risks. A digitally transformed finance function also empowers the CFO to prioritise strategic investments and interventions that let the enterprise realise its core purpose.

Of course, digital transformation cannot be achieved overnight. The initiatives and investments need to be made over time. Teams must be trained and oriented toward working in a highly digitised environment with a culture of adaptability tied to the organisation’s purpose.

For the journey to succeed, having the right team is essential. Digital finance teams are content to let technology serve as bean counters while they focus on the company’s goals. They form an organisation that enables business unit leaders to understand what is happening based on key metrics and help implement interventions to deliver better results. This way the CFO can fulfill their role as an effective partner to the CEO and help the organisation thrive.

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The article has been exclusively curated for TCS Perspectives - TCS' Management Journal (by TCS Thought Leadership Institute).

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