For a few years now, analysts have pointed to the evolution of chief financial officer (CFO) as a strategic member of the organization. The latest analysis from Grant Thornton suggests these professionals are finally realizing that new responsibility.

Grant Thornton released its 2017 CFO Survey this week to find that most of these executives said strategic planning is their top priority within the enterprise, surpassing other priorities like performance management or even increased cash flow. Analysts noted that this recognition of a CFO as a strategic aspect of a company has its tradeoffs and requires these executives to balance the traditional responsibilities of the role with more contemporary demands.

According to Graham Tasman, principal at Grant Thornton’s Business Consulting and Technology practice, this balancing act creates opportunity for service providers of the corporate finance function.

“Finding a solution to competing demands on the CFO presents an opportunity for innovation,” he said in a statement.

“The tension that the CFO is experiencing between priorities inside and outside of the finance function increases the need to streamline processes through technology, which, in turn, promotes more integration between finance, risk, treasury and operations.”

Researchers found that while 52 percent of CFOs said their top priority for the organization overall is strategic planning, just 40 percent said that was their top priority for the finance function. Instead, 45 percent of CFOs cited increasing cash flow as their top priority in the finance function.

There are other ways CFOs are being pulled in two directions, too. For instance, 29 percent of CFOs identified budgeting and account reconciliation as a priority in the finance department, but just 8 percent said that was a priority for the company overall.

“Another improvement focus is to consider core versus non-core finance activities, leveraging shared services for non-core processes, while leveraging technology and data analytics for core activities that help focus limited resources on delivering the highest value for the business,” Tasman added.

Data analytics technology, Grant Thornton concluded, has significant capacity to aid the CFO in her efforts to balance priorities for the finance function with those of the overall organization. One of the largest ways it can do so is for risk management.

Managing operational costs is a key priority for CFOs, with most citing this area as one that is not only in greatest need of risk management, but one that is most commonly targeted by data analytics tools in place (69 percent of CFOs say they are already using data analytics technology to manage operational costs, with an additional 18 percent saying they plan to implement analytics solutions in this area over the next two years).

The majority of CFOs also cite workforce management and vetting new growth opportunities as top targets for data analytics uses, though only 39 percent of CFOs say an analytics solution is already in place to manage the workforce.

While these professionals are looking at a wide array of areas in which data analytics can help to manage risk, Grant Thornton said there is not enough currently being done.

“The use of analytics could be much higher for some areas of top risk,” the report declared. But CFOs plan to invest more into IT for the purpose of gaining business intelligence and data analytics capabilities down the road. According to the report, staying on top of these investments and deploying the right data capabilities within the enterprise, can help the CFO balance varying needs both within the finance department and across the organization overall, from cash flow management to compliance, cost reduction to client relationship building.

“This could be a transformational year for CFOs,” declared Srikant Sastry, national managing principal of Advisory Services for Grant Thornton, in a statement. “There is no shortage of challenges, but optimism is high. Policy changes abound in Washington, D.C., while technology presents significant promise. In short: The role of the CFO is more important than ever.”

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