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The critical role of the CFO in a post-pandemic world

At a recent Fortune CFO Collaborative event, leaders from a variety of industries came together to talk about the critical role of the CFO in a post-pandemic world. 

Sheryl Estrada, financial leadership writer, CFO Daily, Fortune, highlighted some of the key talking points, including the evolution of the CFO role and what can be a pain point— the explosion of data. What follows are excerpts from her article.

“Traditionally, finance was a back-office function,” said Aneel Bhusri, co-founder, co-CEO, and chairman at Workday, at the event. Today, the role of the CFO is “really to be the partner to the CEO and the business,” Bhusri said. Looking toward the future, being comfortable with technology like machine learning and also big data is essential to the role, he said.

“I think we’re in a world of constant learning,” Bhusri continued. “There are a lot of technologies out there that can add quite a bit of leverage to your business.” He advised experimenting in one division with a particular technology, then seeing if it makes sense to implement on a wider scope.

Harnessing data effectively

Having access to large amounts of data is beneficial, but it can be overwhelming if it’s not harnessed in an effective way, Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman told Fortune CEO Alan Murray. Prior to joining Nasdaq, Friedman was CFO at Carlyle Group.

At Carlyle, “the CIO reported into me, and it allowed us both to sit together and say, ‘OK, how are we going to modernize the technology to support an evolving CFO role?’” Friedman said. She spent a lot of time thinking through the corporate system.

“I think a lot of the skill sets that CFOs have are quite relevant to being the person who harnesses the data within an organization,” Friedman said. A CFO doesn’t necessarily need to be an expert in Java or SQL software, yet they might have people on their team who are experts, she said. But a CFO needs to know “how to kind of unpack a process and repack it up in a way that gets you a different conclusion,” she said.

Technology and data power the customer experience

Allen Parker, CFO at Zillow, and Christina Spade, executive vice president and CFO at AMC Networkstalked with Fortune Senior Editor Lee Clifford about how they approach technology and data.

As AMC is an entertainment media company, “we’d love for data to be able to predict all the hit programming out there before we invest in it,” Spade quipped. “But unfortunately, we have not cracked the code for that yet. But I keep trying.”

AMC is relying more and more heavily on data to help predict what we want to watch. “In the world of streaming, we actually learned quite a bit more about our viewership,” she said. “And so it’s opened up a whole new important world to us that we really are benefiting from.”

Technology continues to power customer experience at Zillow, Parker said.

“With the advent of machine learning and technology … there’s all this information that we’re now able to use that enhances that ability to value that house or value that location, or to improve the customer experience when they’re on our site,” Parker said.

Machine learning has the ability to “scale and iterate very quickly,” he said. “I think the next stage is going to be computer vision as more and more 3D home tours populate our site. We’re actually able to use computer vision to even be more accurate about the value of these various houses.”

By the way, we polled attendees with the following question: What is the top barrier you face as you look to democratize data access and accelerate decision readiness at your organization?

The top answer? Inflexible legacy technologies, which won by a landslide (61%).

Learn more about the CFO Collaborative events.

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