Tech, and the Future of Finance

Futurist James Canton offers predictions on how technology will impact CFOs in 2003 and beyond.
Marie LeoneDecember 23, 2002

While Gandalf and Dumbledore give moviegoers a spectacular dose of year-end wizardry and soothsaying, the editors of thought finance executives might want their own glimpse of the future. To that end, Senior Editor Marie Leone spoke with futurist and social scientist James Canton about emerging technologies — and how those systems will change corporate finance in the not-so-distant future.

For example, much of what the CIO knew last year, the CFO must know this year, opines Canton, who is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank and consultancy. Going forward, says Canton, CFOs will reinvent themselves and their career for the long run, and their success will be determined by what new things — outside of financial management — the finance chief is willing to learn.

Over the next few years, the CFO’s technology purview will grow to include management of real-time reporting; cross-border transactions without boundaries; fast bandwidth; nanotechnologies; software agents that clone CFO decision making; and location-based marketing tied to GPS satellites.

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Perhaps more interesting, executives will begin to see some of these technologies creep into their daily routine before King Aragon returns to Middle Earth or Harry Potter meets Sirus Black next holiday season. Would you give a quick assessment of the current business technology environment?

James Canton: We are in the Middle Ages when it comes to the mature deployment of technology. This is just the beginning of the transformation of business led by innovation. The real productivity and competitive advantages are just emerging now. Haven’t we at least made it to the Age of Enlightenment?

Canton: We are on our way. However, think of it this way: 75 percent of the world’s population has not made its first phone call; the Internet only reaches 500 million; less than 1 percent of all supply chains have been connected; and we don’t have the wireless Web. What’s more, half of all the products that will be sold in the next five years haven’t been invented yet. What will the ante be to stay in the game?

Canton: Over the next 3 to 5 years, senior executives will have to invest in smart information technology to establish a clear competitive advantage. Creating the real-time enterprise with a 360 degree view of all financial information, on-demand, is coming. My chief concern: whether companies will develop a capacity to anticipate future opportunities and risks. Which transformational technology will CFOs test-drive first?

Canton: CFOs will gain the most from building financial systems that have complete financial knowledge transparency. In practical terms, financial managers will close the books, get an accurate cash picture, and identify and locate assets all in real-time. In addition, CFOs will use artificial intelligence (AI) for decision-support once the technology is embedded in back-end software. AI agents will retrieve internal and external data on a daily basis, to send, for example, automatic messages to notify the CFO if a particular budget is incomplete, or if too much cash is being is moved from a particular account. Will these back-end systems be smart enough to sniff out accounting fraud?

Canton: If we program them that way. The software robots — fraud agents — will identify irregular accounting patterns. Whether the irregularity turns is intentional or just a mistake, is another matter. As more financial systems become connected in data warehouses, the use of agents will increase.

CFO: Won’t companies need access to more bandwidth to serve these corporate technology needs?

Canton: Fast bandwidth will be mission-critical for running the enterprise. As more functions move to the Internet, fast bandwidth will be essential. Workers will need broadband access for everything from Web-based collaboration on projects to checking their 401(k) account. If fast reliable communication links via the Internet are not available, ROI will suffer. Would you give an example of how technology might affect specific corporate finance functions?

Canton: They’ll be some changes to treasury operations over the next few years. For instance, CFOs and treasurers will migrate to systems and gateways that capture, report and manipulate real-time data. This will give them more control over investments, asset allocations, human and capital resources, arbitrage techniques, and more. Also, much of the decision-making complexity — such as when to move cash or assets or when to execute a payment of Euros into British pounds — will be handled by an automated agent programmed with rules that mirror the company’s risk tolerance and success parameters. Humans won’t disappear. They’ll do more, faster and effectively. When will AI-based decision support systems hit the mainstream?

Canton: Within five years we’ll witness the rise of the neural net, genetic algorithm, and expert systems that provide advice for CFOs and treasurers — such as what is the best play to make for an overnight investment. The systems will create “expert behavior” rules from massive databases that are filled with previous transaction data and outcomes. Eventually CFOs will use financial software agents to “clone” their expertise for true multi-tasking. Will wireless devices figure into the financial function?

Canton: Yes. Here’s one near-term example: A CFO is playing golf on a Sunday. An intelligent agent contacts the CFO’s wireless device and signals that within the next two hours there is an opportunity to buy 100,000 sheets of copper at a Japanese auction. The agent has already checked the supply chain data and reports that this would be a good acquisition. With an authorization code and a finger print ID, the CFO places a bid for the copper sheets, and taps into his handheld device a ceiling price and other parameters. The agent does the rest and signals the CFO when, and if, the deal goes through. So supply chain innovation is inevitable?

Canton: Every CFO — whether from a service or product company — must become savvy about supply chain innovation. In five years, everyone will be using end-to-end, Web-centric technology to accelerate the supply chain. However, the Web-based supply chain is not a breakthrough, it is simply a new commodity. The innovation will be next generation supply chains that are proactive, not reactive. Will manufacturing economics change?

Canton: Yes, and real-time innovation and the advent of nanotechnology will change the economics of the day. Nanotech is a fundamental design science that manipulates matter at the atomic level. That’s 100,000 times smaller then the head of a pin. This revolution will make Internet advances seem small. Applications are just emerging in the business sector. Look for an impact on energy, manufacturing and biotech. But eventually, manufacturing facilities that incorporate different small technologies will produce on-demand products in an inexpensive, flexible and rapid process. This is going to be big over the next decade. How will nanotechnology alter manufacturing economics?

Canton: Imagine a nanochip that delivers over 50 gigahertz of speed with the processing power of 10 supercomputers that can be placed in a device that is smaller than a key chain — and is priced less than a quartz watch; or a super strong and inexpensive construction material that has the strength off steel yet the properties of plastic. Certain nanotechnologies will reduce the fabrication cost of computers by 50 percent, and decrease drug development costs by 70 percent. When real cost reductions for essential goods and services drop, it affects the quality of life. Development of new energy sources, driven by nanotech, could wean us off of oil in our lifetime. In a work world filled with nanotechnology, real-time supply chains, and cross-border deals with no boundaries, what is the prognosis of the talent pool?

Canton: Human talent will be in demand. Currently, there are one million high-tech jobs in the U.S., and companies are unable to fill the vacancies. In five years, there will be two million high-tech jobs in the U.S. By 2010 the U.S. will have a shortfall of over ten million jobs, and not just high-tech. The talent wars of the 21st century have just begun. Every CFO should be concerned about this growing issue. What effects will the shortage have on corporations?

Canton: As expected, salaries will rise as executives aim to acquire and retain experienced high-tech workers. The key question, however, will be how to do that. Do you move some operations off shore, to places like India where the talent pool is bigger? Do you set up a more flexible workplace to entice candidates? In a post September 11 environment, it is likely that an agreeable, flexible work place will become more important than money. Are there any other human resources trends that CFOs should keep an eye on?

Canton: Biotech. New drugs and medical procedures will enhance human performance and longevity over the next five years. That means that the 78 million baby boomers — the company veterans — won’t be retiring as planned. These older workers are the most experienced, and they will be the most coveted. As a result, staffing policies and procedures will be reworked to accommodate the 65-year-old-plus employees that are capable and willing to work much longer. We will need the aging boomers expertise in a world where the workforce is shrinking. Let’s jump to the future of corporate security. What do CFOs need to know about systems security?

Canton: The more things “get connected” the more potential there is for security risks. My advice is for CFOs to invest more in encryption, firewall, and other security technologies in 2003. Also, CFOs should understand the new definition of risk management, and redefine technology’s role in making the enterprise secure. Too few CFOs understand this. Not enough money is being spent here. Terrorism that targets corporate financial infrastructure is next. Beware.

Another big issue will be to protect consumer privacy or risk losing their loyalty. Something companies cannot afford in a weak economy. I tell CFOs to outsource corporate security audits and plans. This is a very specialized area. Don’t let the in-house IT team turn security into a life long project. What are your views on the future of physical security?

Canton: CFOs should take a hard look at installing security that uses biometrics. At least 90 percent of the companies I work with are unprepared to upgrade physical security measure — too many CFOs are in denial about security precautions, even in light of September 11. Will the CFO’s role change over the next five years?

Canton: There will be a dramatic shift in the role of the CFO. The finance chief will emerge as the business forecaster — or futurist. In addition, more CFOs will step into the CEO role because of their holistic, yet anchored, view of the enterprise. Technology will enable this future, making the new-era CFO a key leader. Any words of advice for CFOs about the new year?

Canton: If they haven’t already, create a plan to monetize the value of information technology, rethink your role, create a future plan that is tech-enabled, learn to secure the enterprise, embrace the real-time enterprise, and get to know the blue-haired, body-pierced set that runs the IT department. It will make a difference.