Global Finance Leader Study: Finance Leaders Share the Top Risks that Matter Most

CFOs operate in an increasingly volatile business environment, from geopolitical uncertainty to the universal threat of cybercrime. These and other risks are exacerbated by the rapid rate of change in the world today, making them increasingly difficult to navigate and manage.

“I see more change happening today in the political, economic, and regulatory landscape than ever before in my 30-plus years in finance,” says Robynne Sisco, chief financial officer at Workday. “As a result, now more than ever, CFOs and their teams must be able to quickly adapt and respond to change as it happens.”

What risks weigh most heavily on the minds of finance leaders? In our global “Finance Redefined” study, which surveyed over 670 CFOs and senior finance leaders worldwide and across multiple sectors, the research shows that growing regulatory scrutiny tops the risk landscapes, with the top seven risks being:

  1. Growing regulatory scrutiny
  2. Pace of technology change/digital disruption
  3. Political risk and uncertainty
  4. Cybersecurity risk
  5. Uncertain economic conditions/weak demand
  6. Data privacy risk
  7. Volatility in financial markets

Let’s take a closer look.

Risk #1: Growing Regulatory Scrutiny

In an increasingly complex regulatory environment, it should come as no surprise that finance leaders identified regulatory scrutiny as the foremost risk across all of the regions surveyed. Regulatory change continues to affect corporations around the world, from tax reform in the United States to the greater focus on cybersecurity regulation in Asia, such as the Singapore Cybersecurity Bill aimed at information infrastructure. Other developments include Europe’s PSD2 and MiFID II as well as the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May. As regulatory scrutiny continues to increase, finance leaders must understand the impact of these risks on their organizations and ensure their processes and technologies are agile, allowing them to adjust quickly to change.

Risk #2: Pace of Technology Change/Digital Disruption

The second most pressing area of risk was the pace of technology change/digital disruption. For finance leaders, this risk can be manifested in two ways.

First, not keeping pace with technology change creates risks to the wider business. For example, the business may lack the speed and efficiency needed to make decisions quickly and stay ahead of competitors, thereby putting the business model and value of the enterprise under threat. It’s important that CFOs collaborate with other parts of the business, both to understand how the technology landscape is changing and to make decisions about what investments are needed in order to drive innovation and growth in the business.

Second, the finance function itself faces risks if it doesn’t keep pace with new technologies such as automation and data analytics. These technologies enable finance leaders to improve operational performance, build confidence and trust in the numbers, and drive innovations such as advanced analytics. Looking ahead, innovation in areas including artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) could result in considerable reductions in manual work, as well as enable finance leaders to make more effective decisions.

There is a greater need for advanced risk analytics to glean insights from data and support rapid decision-making.

For finance leaders to keep pace with change, they need to build their own understanding of the latest technologies. They also need to build their team’s digital skills, both in terms of bringing in fresh talent and also developing their existing workforce.

Risk #3: Political Risk and Uncertainty

While CFOs are not expected to be political, there is no doubt that geopolitics is an increasingly important topic for the C-suite agenda. As a recent KPMG report, “The CEO as Chief Geopolitical Officer,” noted: “Today’s geopolitical environment is nothing like what we’ve seen in the past. CEOs are beholden to the outputs of an increasingly complex geopolitical system that moves at an accelerated pace, with few guardrails.”

There are certainly plenty of developments to monitor in the current market, including the threat of increasing territorialism by national governments. For example, with one year to go before Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU is looming large: Deloitte’s Q4 2017 “CFO Survey” identified the effects of Brexit as the foremost risk affecting UK CFOs. Almost three quarters (73 percent) predicted that the overall business environment will be worse if the UK leaves the EU—up from 60 percent at the beginning of 2017.

Risk #4: Cybersecurity Risk

Respondents to the Workday survey cited cybersecurity risk as the fourth most pressing risk. There has been no shortage of headline-grabbing attacks in recent years. These range from the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist, which resulted in the loss of $81 million, to last year’s WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected over 200,000 computers across 150 countries.

For businesses, falling victim to a cyber attack can bring major disruption, huge costs, and reputational damage. Last year, several large multinationals incurred costs running to hundreds of millions of dollars following a series of attacks involving NotPetya malware. Accenture’s 2017 “Cost of Cybercrime Study” found that the global average cost of cybercrime was $11.7 million in 2017, a 27.4 percent increase from the previous year.

However, managing the impact of a potential attack is not always straightforward. A report by BAE Systems, “The Intelligence Disconnect,” revealed an intriguing disconnect when it comes to who is deemed responsible for security breaches: 35 percent of C-Suite respondents said responsibility lay with the IT team, compared to 19 percent of IT decision-makers who felt the same way. As the report points out, “It’s vital that organizations work to narrow these gaps in understanding, intelligence, and responsibility.”

Risk #5: Uncertain Economic Conditions/Weak Demand

Overall, global economic conditions have improved in recent years, with global economic growth reaching 3 percent last year—the highest rate since 2011. Nevertheless, stability and market conditions vary and are more uncertain in some regions than in others.

ACCA and IMA’s “Q4 2017 Global Economic Conditions Survey” found that, at a global level, the picture is mixed, with confidence levels highest in Central and South America, followed by North America and South Asia, and lowest in the Caribbean and the Middle East. The report also noted a drop in confidence in China—although confidence there remains high by historic standards—against a backdrop of slower expansion, with growth recorded at just below 7 percent in 2017.

Risk #6: Data Privacy Risk

Related to the cyberthreat is the risk that sensitive or confidential data will be breached. The BAE Systems report found that the theft of customer information or personal data in the event of a cyber attack was the biggest concern for IT decision-makers, and the second biggest for C-suite respondents. Meanwhile, companies face greater challenges as a result of increasingly stringent data protection laws, including those we have previously mentioned, such as GDPR.

Risk #7: Volatility in Financial Markets

Volatility in financial markets was the lowest-ranked risk, reflecting the lower levels of volatility seen in recent years. For CFOs, however, having access to data and information on volatility is still essential as they seek to make provide support for critical corporate investment decisions.

Resilience is Lacking

While CFOs are managing greater risks than ever, only 39 percent of finance leaders described themselves as “highly confident” in their ability to manage their top risks according to the Workday survey. To address this lack of resilience, finance leaders need to ensure that risk assessments are part and parcel of business planning discussions. Consequently, there is a greater need for advanced risk analytics to glean insights from data and support rapid decision-making. Having the right technology—as well as the right skill sets—will be key.

For the full research findings behind the “Finance Redefined” global study, read the report here.

About the Workday Global Finance Leader Study
We surveyed more than 670 finance leaders across the Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific, and South Africa covering 10 main sectors from September 2017 to January 2018. Over one-third (38 percent) came from large organizations of more than $1 billion annual revenues, with 35 percent between $500 million and $1 billion, and 27 percent between $250 million and $500 million. Over one-third of respondents were CFOs, finance directors, or chief accounting officers/controllers, and the remaining were drawn from senior finance roles, such as head of financial planning and analysis or vice president of financial operations.