As organisations across sectors adjust or refine their strategies to reflect the new economic realities, many finance teams are tasked with creating (or maintaining) value in a highly cost-conscious environment. This is forcing finance leaders and management accountants to look at indicators and numbers in a new way, shortening traditional forecasts and adjusting budgets to cater for volatility.
Yet simply reacting to market conditions will not be enough, and finance teams will need to unlock hidden value by proactively pulling on levers that have not yet been considered. In today's era of technology-fuelled business growth, much of this hidden value can be uncovered by turning to both organisational and external data, according to Mark Mayberry, CPA/CITP, an assurance technologist, most recently as strategic initiatives director at business advisory firm BDO.
"Data allows you to connect the dots within existing systems and models and to recognise patterns that can unlock and trigger value creation without requiring massive investment," explained Mayberry. "The task for finance teams and other decision-makers is to let the data tell you the story because, chances are, you may not have been listening."
From large manufacturers and multinational e-commerce giants to startups and family-run enterprises, "listening" and responding to small nuances and patterns in data can unveil costly inefficiencies, consumer trends, and major growth opportunities. For example, Amazon, the world's biggest e-commerce company, uses predictive analytics for the "anticipatory shipping" of billions of items from its fulfilment centres globally to local distribution centres, thus reducing shipping costs and travel times. This cost saving is achieved by incorporating and analysing data such as consumer purchase history in conjunction with factors such as weather, seasons, and economic trends.
For most organisations, however, there is much groundwork to be done before data can be efficiently harnessed, including the development of a data strategy to guide the process.
FM magazine spoke to Mayberry and other finance experts to explore what this groundwork should look like in order to unlock innovation through organisational data as well as data gleaned from external sources.
Get your (financial) house in order
Mohamed Zayne Nabbee, ACMA, CGMA, group financial manager at Creative CFO, a global finance consultancy based in South Africa, said that the first step to leveraging data is to ensure that your books and financial records are up to date, complete, and accurate.
"This is critical, because your financial systems are a reflection of what's really going on in the business," he said. "Without these up-to-date and accurate records, finance teams are too far removed from reality to identify trends and patterns with accuracy and insight."
In this first phase, finance leaders should strive to be integrating key data (such as bank statements and invoices) in real time, thus ensuring that financial records are always current and available for analysis. Any roadblocks (such as out-of-date technology, manual processes, or misdirected statements) need to be identified and addressed.
Find out where your data is sitting
In addition to becoming disciplined about monthly financial recordkeeping, finance leaders and executive teams need to develop a strategy to collect other key data from the various systems and departments within the business.
"The key concept is to be able to get the data out of the source systems and into the next 'layer' so that your analysis can be done on a copy or subset of the data, from multiple sources," Mayberry explained. "In this way, accounting data, operational data, social data, etc., can all be used together to gain better business insights and unlock value."
Broaden your data horizon
Shukri Toefy, CEO at Fortified Group and an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School, said that finance teams should also be looking at external sources of data to inform internal and external strategies.
"Many companies are losing sight of the essence of what data can do," he said. "Ironically, data helps us to become more human: to personalise products and services and to connect to the market of one."
For example, using data such as age, gender, location, and purchase history can support marketers in creating personalised email campaigns that address an individual by name — and reflect that the brand or company has a more detailed and thoughtful understanding of an individual's interests and ambitions (as opposed to sending mass emails that speak to a broad and impersonal target market).
With this in mind, he advised teams to begin exploring nonfinancial sources such as social media platforms and predictive sales analytics tools, and simply speaking to staff and clients to gather data that can ultimately be used on a more human level. For instance, online product reviews can provide valuable insight into future sales, the need to plan for returns, and other distribution issues.
"There are so many things that are open source in the digital space, and you don't necessarily need a data science team to turn these sources into valuable insights for your business," Toefy said. "Many of today's popular platforms are open source and have really interesting dashboards that can inform your people and talent strategies, for instance, without spending anything on new software or expensive advice."
Democratise the data
With many leaders now prioritising organisational agility and speed, it is becoming more important to empower key decision-makers and team leaders with access to data flows and dashboards. This will give each team or department a far more detailed viewpoint of challenges and opportunities.
"Gone are the days when reports are only analysed at the executive level," Nabbee said. "To really harness data flows, we need to ensure that the right people have access. For instance, the sales manager has the most direct, day-to-day impact on sales performance, so he or she must be empowered with all the data relating to this aspect of the business."
In this "democratised" data environment, Nabbee said that the role of the management accountant is to bring the moving parts of the business together — which requires looking far beyond the finance department to the other spheres of the business. This task becomes far more fluid if data flows have not been restricted in the first place, and there is an element of cross-departmental sharing and collaboration.
Don't make it all about the tech
With so much media hype surrounding big data and its endless applications for business, many leaders have fallen into the age-old trap of thinking that it requires expensive and shiny new technology, but simpler tools like Excel and Power BI are also effective.
"People tend to think that the technology is the solution rather than the enabler," Mayberry said. "This often culminates in wasted resources and frustration because companies buy complex technology that isn't fit for purpose."
Yet many of the simpler tools provide an accessible way to start leveraging data — and these tools often come with strong user support and intuitive interfaces.
For instance, once the data has been extracted from the various sources and stored in formats such as CSV or Excel, Microsoft Power BI can advance your data analytics to the next level because it can read data from multiple sources, create links between databases, and build visualisations, Mayberry said. For example, companies can analyse their production capacity and output compared to their current inventory and potential sales of certain products to determine if they are over- or underproducing products or, potentially, need to expand their operations.
"The decision of which technology platform to invest in should only be made once leaders have understood what a data strategy really entails," he added.
In addition, Mayberry encouraged leaders to start slowly, build momentum, and focus on one part of the business to begin with. In many instances, the expectations don't take into account the learning process that must be undergone.
"This is essentially an exercise in change management, and it is best to do this incrementally, in small steps," he said. "Find quick wins to begin with, and build morale within your team. You will have to accept that there will be failures to overcome, and learning to harness data in your business is a journey of continuous learning and evolution."
Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.
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