In my previous blogs, I’ve stated that CFOs need to play a strong, active role as an independent challenger for the business while assessing risks – balancing risk and opportunity for the business. I’ve also covered changes to our role as digitization begins to envelop our organizations. The digital economy will impact many things, that we can be sure of.

In the digital economy, collaboration is increasingly important, and the task of the CFO is to establish this collaboration role, and someone needs to establish collaborative digital finance processes and safeguard their effectiveness and efficiency. In many cases, CFOs have taken that role. Looking to next year, there’s a huge expectation that the technology known as “blockchain” will gain greater prominence in practical business applications, and I believe CFOs can and should enter the picture of this discussion early on. It’s not the realm of the technologists alone, and many are pointing towards blockchain as an underpinning of a digital economy.

The blockchain movement and its accompanying technological capabilities are incredibly intriguing, and a quick Google search delivers about 416,000 results, underscoring the interest. If we can build use cases and applications, blockchain can radically change the way we do business. As a CFO, I need to be mindful of risks, and some associated with this technology are difficult to comprehend upon first reflection. However, as I wrote previously, this is typical of the CFO in the digital economy. Both on the business and compliance sides, we are able to leverage traditional skill sets and our knowledge while stepping into unknown territory in both areas at the same time.

Singapore has announced the city state’s central bank will explore blockchain by launching a pilot project with the country’s stock exchange and eight local and foreign banks to use the technology for interbank payments. While blockchain technology, which emerged from bitcoin, is expected to draw interest by banks and other centralized institutions, it’s expected that companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google will be early adopters as well.

Being mindful of risks

Given that a lot of information is shared in a blockchain, I wonder what it would do to the system – beginning with fraud and going onward along the risk chain – if and how someone could break into it.  I’m sure there’s a good answer – maybe hackers could hardly or never access all of information, given its distributed ledgers. But my point here is that the role as a CFO is to assess the risk and benefit. The latter would include an analysis of the energy footprint of blockchain technology. Is the hardware used sufficiently and is it energy efficient? Are the algorithms computationally efficient in this regard?

Blockchain promises a huge benefit because it increases how we do business and the speed at which it can be conducted. It promises to eliminate the intermediaries and bring new life back to some professions. Some of the technology’s early adopters are public audit firms, and their perspective is in the public interest. I saw a presentation from a utilities company, and it was mind boggling what they’re exploring with blockchain. They can see a case extending collaboration and interaction all the way to the customer in a way they’ve been previously unable to achieve.

From the finance perspective, there’s a limit to optimizing processes and the number of people involved. Even with full robotics, oversight is needed, i.e., someone who watches the robot. When we reach those limits, we turn to technology to help increase volumes and transaction processes. I see a lot of potential for blockchain in this regard, with new, associated business models that have potential.

A hot topic in financial services

At I recent forum for financial services, I co-hosted a dinner where blockchain was the topic. It was amazing to see how people had picked up on the topic, and there were a lot of questions. Many had similar questions about exploring the risks and benefits, and I think it’s fair that everyone took away the sense that they need to keep their eyes on and learn more about it.

Consistently, I see a lot of people taking note, especially those close to the financial market or treasury. Predictably, IT departments are keenly curious, but I think CFOs need to step up their game and begin looking more closely, forming points of view to guide their businesses. It ties in with traditional CFO skills like business modeling, risk and compliance, and advising the business. This remains at the core of our role.

A great resource for CFOs is available now at the SAP finance content hub, specifically on topic of Enterprise Risk and Compliance Management.

To continue the discussion on the topic of governance, risk, and compliance (GRC), join the December 8, 2016 Webinar, A Case Study in Going Beyond Three Lines of Defense to Create Stakeholder Value – Embedding Integrated Thinking at Exxaro.

About Matthias Heiden

Matthias-HeidenDr. Matthias Heiden, senior vice president, regional CFO, Middle and Eastern Europe (MEE), is responsible for the field finance organization of MEE. In this role, he supports the organization in managing P&L, continuously driving strategic finance transformation initiatives initiated by Corporate Finance together with the other regional CFOs. This team helps improve business-related processes and supports the Market Unit CFOs in their role as business facilitator and transformation agent.