Chief Financial Officer

CFO of Microsoft Americas on the Evolving Role of Finance

Jack Ryder, Chief Financial Officer for Microsoft Americas, discussed how technology can help employees move into the modern financial world.

At the outset of his keynote presentation at the 2019 Finance Leadership Forum: The Evolving Role of the CFO, held in Chicago on May 16, Ryder remarked, “There are three primary challenges facing finance today—the first is surging data, legacy systems, and static reporting; the second is inadequate tools to anticipate growing business complexity and manual, inefficient, and error-prone processes; and the third is increasing regulations, rules, and threats,” he said.

Ryder talked about Microsoft’s finance journey. “Our finance organization started out as an accounting shop. We weren’t driving the business. Over time, we’ve moved further up the value chain by doing things like shifting low-value tasks to third parties. Our business has increased dramatically—and the complexity has increased even more—but the number of people in finance at Microsoft has remained essentially flat as has the operating expense envelope,” stated Ryder. 

“We all have to deal with this wall of data that’s coming in. How do you get from data to insight and insight to action? We try to think of our tools and process elements on a continuum. First, we try to spend as little time as possible on static reports. We try to push things down into interactive dashboards to get single versions of the truth, and now we’re getting into machine learning and predictive analytics, which is a fun thing. You have to understand the entire business process and be able to engage with folks like data scientists to create environments where you can do interesting things around what to do next,” said Ryder.

“At Microsoft, we have four main focus areas in finance—analysis and reporting, strategy and forecasting, business process automation, and risk management. In reporting, the challenge is to summarize your business on one pane of glass. This is the most complicated task, but you can consolidate the complexity of your business into one place using digital tools. The tools are easier to use than they used to be, and you can proceed more quickly to achieve robust solutions,” he explained.

“In the forecasting process, we utilize machine learning to take some of the load off our teams and be more effective in doing revenue forecasts. We now forecast less frequently—to eliminate the cycles—and take advantage of the tools available in machine learning to create algorithms and processes that allow forecasting. Our forecast error rate has diminished from 3.0% to 1.6% over time, and we’ve eliminated a lot of work in the process. All of our revenue at Microsoft is forecasted using machine learning. You can set up something like this in less than a quarter. We also use machine-learning models to create risk heat maps on the control and compliance side,” stated Ryder.

Today, the vast majority of what we do and where we’re focused in our internal recruitment, retention, and career development is on how to get people to be good business partners and drive the business with the right margins and the right controls and compliance. As well as having business acumen and being trusted advisors who are growth-minded, we really need our folks to know how to utilize new tools, be data-driven storytellers, be willing to offer their point of view, and be customer-obsessed,” he said.

Ryder offered the following lessons learned on the automation side:

  • Grow tech insights across all career stages.
  • Reimagine the ideal process before automating.
  • Automation and compliance go hand in hand.
  • Create and own your automation roadmap.

Lessons learned on the people and management side include:

  • There are no data shortcuts.
  • Partnering with the CIO is essential.
  • Early wins matter.
  • Celebrate the risktakers and showcase their work.
  • Leadership must prioritize.
  • Focus on compliance.
  • Try, fail, learn, and improve.

In summary, Ryder said, “If your two most important concerns are, first, how to attract, retain, and develop talent and, second, IT systems and processes, using digital transformation to give your folks a modern experience is a great way to address both of those problems.”

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