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CFO Magazine conference explores CFO role as IT user, manager

CFO Rising East 2013 highlights best practices for CFOs as technology users and -- increasingly -- as managers of IT organizations.

ORLANDO -- Technology and the many ways finance executives interact with it was a central topic on the second day of CFO Rising East 2013, hosted by CFO Magazine in Orlando. Speakers showed how CFOs can excel as technology users, as managers of CIOs and the IT organization, and as forward-thinking business leaders.

Analytics and data visualization help CFOs spot opportunity

Ed Goldfinger, CFO of Zipcar, a car-sharing company based in Boston, presented a session on how his organization uses data visualization. The theme of the 2013 conference was "finding paths to growth," and Goldfinger explained that data visualization has helped Zipcar do just that. Since implementing the data visualization tool Spotfire, the company's executives have expanded service and adjusted pricing based on usage data.

For example, executives learned through data analysis that many of the clients renting cars on weekdays, traditionally Zipcar's slowest days, were small-business workers. The discovery prompted them to introduce a "Zipcar for business" program.

"These businesses now are representing twice the growth rate of our consumers … and they're bringing up that middle-of-the-week utilization," Goldfinger said.

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Goldfinger's tips for success with data visualization included getting executive buy-in, working with business leaders and IT to organize and scrub foundational data and using a specialized tool for the task -- not Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint. While similar results could be achieved with Excel, he said it would be much more difficult to set up, and he testified to Spotfire's ease of use. Responding to an audience question about whether the organization has to employ data visualization experts, Goldfinger said he uses the tool himself. "It's like visual Excel -- it's a lot easier than you think," he said.

Wrangling big data was also a theme of a workshop on how CFOs are leveraging cloud, mobile, social and big data, which was given by two representatives from Grant Thornton LLP, a corporate finance and management consultancy based in Orlando.

"The message I'd like you all to take away is a mindset that says it doesn't matter how much data you can have," said Paul Kanneman, a partner at the consultancy. "It's not the company that has the most data that wins; it's the company that has the right data." Building on that idea, Kanneman urged CFOs to put strategy before systems, rather than getting lured in by new technology and then finding a way to apply it.

CFOs should encourage IT to become outcomes-focused

Kanneman also addressed the changing role of the IT organization in the wake of cloud computing, a pertinent topic for the more than half of session attendees who indicated they were responsible for their organization's IT department. He advised CFOs to guide two shifts in the IT organization: changing the perspective to an outcomes-focused model, and ensuring that IT and procurement work closely together to monitor software deployment. "With a lot of this new technology, all it takes is a credit card, and all of a sudden you find one of your business units has deployed new technology because there are no servers or software to be installed," he said.

As for how decentralized cloud-based software deployments affect the CFO, Kanneman pointed to governance. "It's defining explicitly up front what the roles are for procuring, deploying, controlling and securing data within your company because the model has changed."

Attendees heard an endorsement of cloud computing from an IT professional at a presentation on recurring revenue models. Bob Harden, software director of global corporate systems at Experian, a credit reporting, information and analytics services company headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, said the new role of IT is to act as the middleman between business leaders and cloud vendors.

"There are fewer IT resources now, [and] for me that's a good and a bad thing because at the director level, I'd like to build my empire, but that's not what you need from us," said Harden, a user of cloud-based billing software from Aria Systems. "You need us providing outcomes for your business, and the outcome here is we manage the vendors, the vendors manage the technology, and you dedicate more resources to run your business, or you reduce your cost and improve your bottom line."

Harden also encouraged CFOs to try to reduce system customization as much as possible, since "every time you do a customization, you're setting up a future risk." He cautioned that in the realm of cloud computing, CFOs should expect vendors to push back on customization.

Effective gamification can increase customer and employee motivation                                     

Gamification was the topic of the final session of the day, and speaker Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, began by painting a picture of a future where people earn points for performing everyday tasks like brushing their teeth or riding the bus. But gamification -- or what Schell said could be more accurately described as fostering motivation among customers and employees -- can be useful today if deployed in small ways, the approach taken by companies that are successfully using gamification. As an example, he mentioned LinkedIn's profile completion progress bar.

According to Schell, for systems that aim to improve motivational design to be effective, they have to be "appealing, engaging, effortless, uncheatable and not embarrassing" to use. He also said business leaders shouldn't think that gamification functions as a silver bullet or will have a positive effect everywhere it is applied. He stressed the importance of "gamified" design and offered a frame of reference for business leaders to embark on gamification initiatives.

"[Pleasure] really is the key to design in the 21st century," he said. "You can make experiences better whether they're business processes or consumer experiences. All you have to do is ask yourself two simple questions: given what I know about my guests, 'Why will they like this experience,' and 'How can I get them to like it more?'"

Emma Snider is associate site editor of Follow her on Twitter: @emmajs24.

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