On Collaboration Technologies
At StrataFusion, we are always working to understand the impact that emerging technologies will have on business. And I have spent a large part of my career working with financial executives, who as a group are legendary tree-huggers, generally looking to avoid change whenever and wherever possible.
These days I am looking closely at the broad category of tools that are grouped together as “collaboration” technologies. I see these being used many different ways, and by different functional groups. I put this word in quotation marks because there is also the question of what sectors these tools most aptly serve. I’ve seen them used in engineering, marketing, supply chain/operations, system integration, and more. But I don’t see a lot of adoption in finance functions—and I am seeking to understand why. I don’t see anything inherently different in the finance function. Quite the opposite – almost everything they do can be characterized as a “project” (preparing a budget, closing the books, preparing the reports and filings, etc.) And most of the collaboration tools are explicitly designed to help teams plan and manage projects.
So what gives?
I was running this question by a good friend and very successful public company CFO who has run both mid-size and very large companies. And I asked him: “If you (the CFO) leave suddenly, things usually move forward without too much of a hiccup. But if your Controller leaves suddenly, it’s a train wreck. Why is that? And why aren’t you using collaboration tools to broaden everybody’s knowledge base and share more information about the important processes and key decisions that flow across that one person’s desk?” And my friend replied: “You just told me why we aren’t using those tools…the knowledge my Controller has is an essential part of the value he or she provides to the organization. Maybe democratizing that information is actually a threat vs. an aid to their productivity.”
As we talked this over, I was struck by how some knowledge workers create value by how they disseminate and process team knowledge in order to coordinate team efforts – like the marketing team using Basecamp, the system integration team using Smartsheet, the software development team using Slack. But if my CFO friend is right, maybe there is a inherent cultural tendency in finance to “hoard” that knowledge. Over lunch, we sketched out the following picture of what we thought was going on:
There is no value judgement implied in where we put the Controller in the chart above. The job has evolved over decades, with limited tools. A whole lot of what a controller knows and does for their company is in their head, and in their email. Good luck finding either when he or she leaves.
But there is an interesting implication. In an environment where accumulated knowledge has value, the introduction of collaboration tools is assuming a large shift in culture and shared values…and maybe it is much harder to be successful trying to force changes in work methods that aren’t aligned with those.
Which leaves me – exactly where I started. I see great opportunities for improving corporate financial processes and allowing more people in the organization to make meaningful contributions by leveraging collaboration tools, and establishing a new paradigm of continuously adapting and changing. But it is much clearer to me why there is so much institutional (and subconscious) resistance.
Reed Kingston is a managing director at StrataFusion. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Reed at twitter.com/reedkingston.