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Africa's financial executives flustered by disruptive technology

Africa's financial executives flustered by disruptive technology

Financial executives across Africa have expressed anxiety as they grapple with the challenge brought about by disruptive technologies, as well as disruptive companies represent a threat to the sustainability of businesses they manage.

A panel discussion hosted today at Unisa's Graduate School of Business Leadership in Johannesburg emphasised that financial professionals still have an important role to play in a disrupted business environment.

According to Andre van der Poll, ICT Management Professor at Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership, CFOs (some of whom he has trained in the University's MBL programme) say the world is becoming very complex and complicated due to disruptive technology.

"The important thing is how the human fits into all of this and as a CFO you have to pick some of these technologies and trust that they will work for you. It is not like any other simple environment where you can try something that does not work and then try another because these things are all expensive. If you embark on say, the Microsoft arena, they sort of own you and if you want get out, then all your ERPs and customer relationship management etc. and all those systems have to change. You get yourself into a situation where you have components that you don't know whether you need and now you can't get rid of them because of the cost. It is an anxious time and in the software world it has been referred to as the software crisis where projects are started and are never finished or are late or by the time they finish new technology is already in place."

Van der Poll says this disruptive environment has also affected the CFO's job security because companies are quick to switch to new ideas and personnel whenever CFO-funded ideas in response to new technology fail.

Brett St Clair, Head of Digital Products at Barclays Africa says part of the solution to the challenge is greater integration as seen, for example, through the inclusion of transport services like Uber into Google maps.

"We are entering a very interesting time where the business is changing rapidly. If I take it from a bank or financial perspective where we want to be able to scale our business, we are actually having to deal with why people must choose our websites and other digital services in our environment. Why not provide the banking service plugged into Sage? Pre-plugged in as part of a hyperconnected environment that we are moving towards and in that way you are managing your finances the way you were, except it is integrated into a bank."

St Clair, who oversaw the rollout of banking through twitter earlier this year by Barclay Africa's South African subsidiary Absa, expanded on the need for CFOs to explore opportunities to collaborate with disruptors.

"We have never seen scale like this. We thought social networks exploded things but these chat platforms like WeChat, Messenger and Whatsapp have billions of active seven-day user communities at little or no cost. What could you do there for your business? The chat ecosystems are an incredibly exciting place. I think the challenge you have as a CFO is a scary one but the opportunities are major lesson learned in the corporate world is that the impact of innovation is driven around how we fund technology."

Ian Walsh, Senior Partner and Managing Director with the Boston Consulting Group's banking practice in London has cautioned that collaboration with disruptors including chat platforms is not a silver bullet.

"I think scraping through social media to engage with and understand what the flow of complaints are works but as far as using it as a channel to actively engage with customers is where we are in the experimentation mode. I think people still see a banking relationship as a relatively formal relationship and so if it interfers too much with their Facebook feed there may be some resistance there."

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