"China", my chief financial officer said to me at the start of what I thought was a casual chat as we both packed up to leave for the day, "can close a quarter in a fortnight." "I'm sorry?" was all I got out as a reply.
"China can calculate the entire output of its entire economy and calculate its rate of growth about two weeks after the end of a quarter," he replied, by way of explanation.
"That's a lot of data to crunch in a couple of weeks and I wonder why we, with rather fewer than the 1.4 billion people who dwell within China's borders and considerably less than its $10 trillion turnover, also require two working weeks to close a quarter."
"Well," I stammered, "there's a fair bit of conjecture that China's numbers are sometimes a bit on the rubbery side."
"But that's not my point," my CFO retorted. "It's impressive that China can get it done so fast, but it is also lovely given the importance of the Chinese economy to the global rebound from the global financial crisis. We could use that kind of speed."
This sounded like the real topic of the conversation, so I asked what kind of speed our CFO felt was beneficial.
"Would it be possible to knock a couple of days off the time it takes us to close a month or a quarter?" was his reply.
This kind of vague utterance, I have long since learned, represents danger. So I decided to get more of a brief and possibly even nail down an actual metric I would eventually be measured against.
"You passed on the last point upgrade of our financials suite and I've not had a request for specific business process improvements from you," I said. "So there's nothing in my plans or my budget that addresses it directly."
"I know," the CFO said. "But since the GFC, the higher-ups are asking me for all sorts of things. They're keener than ever for things to be done quickly."
"And?" I queried.
"And they've also decided the fiscal discipline we all exercised last year is worth continuing," he said. "So I'm being asked to do things faster, without being able to invest more, even though our finances are getting more complex.
"But you guys in IT have this sorted. You know that the price of everything you need, except labour, will fall every year. Yet you still manage to keep your budgets at least steady. How do you do it?"
I sighed, which caused a raised eyebrow that I knew needed calming.
"I thought you were going to give me the talk about IT being a cost centre that's expected to stay in its cage but spin its exercise wheel faster," I said, relief pathetically obvious in my voice.
"Actually, I was," the CFO said. "Bullying you into this was an option that the guys in human resources recommended.
"But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
Which it was, so I decided to be frank.
"IT's been lucky lately," I confessed.
"I tried to explain virtualisation to you in small words last year and I know you didn't get it.
"But suffice to say it's what we spent last year doing because we had no money for new stuff and it was a once-in-a-generation cost-saving gift that made me and most other CIOs look good.
"I can probably say the same thing about a technology called data deduplication that let me stop issuing such alarming purchase orders for storage last year.
"The fact that the technology industry is getting quite mature these days helps, too: we've got processes like ITIL [information technology infrastructure library] that work and we're not afraid to use them and I couldn't have said that with a straight face in 2005.
"From time to time, CIOs get these gifts. But the rest of the time, we try our best to hang on for dear life and hope that when things get bad, they don't get career-threateningly bad."
My CFO's reaction to this was a kind of resigned agreement.
"So how does that help me match China's 10-day close?" he asked.
"My guess is that before long China will have us all so busy you won't need to worry about it," I replied, which provoked a wave of happiness on the CFO's face.
"So what you're saying is that in the wake of the GFC, things are just picking up for me, but you've already had your bolt-from-the-blue, undeserved, uncontrollable gift of a stimulus," the CFO replied.
"So how much longer do you think all that virtual stuff will keep you busy?" he asked.
"About a fortnight," I said.
"Why do you ask?"
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