Finance Value Creation Goes Beyond Running the Financial Side of the Business

Advances in technology are helping the finance function reduce operational costs, streamline processes and improve productivity. Thanks to automation, tasks that used to take months to complete are being completed in weeks and those that took weeks to accomplish are getting done in days.

For instance, advanced analytics and robotic process automation are shortening the timelines finance teams require to produce a forecast, perform account reconciliations or close the books.

Technology is enabling more to be done with less and the trend is not expected to go away anytime time soon. A couple of years go the staff size of the finance function was big. CFOs were happy to have separate staff handle AP, AR, Payroll, Bank Reconciliations, Management Accounts etc.

Today the size of the finance function has shrunk significantly. Thanks to shared services centers, outsourcing and process automation. Robots have taken over rules-based, repetitive and transactional tasks that were once performed by humans.

Machine learning algorithms are already replicating highly analytical tasks, analyzing large data sets and churning out insights in real time to support decision making. Although the adoption of machine learning and/or AI tools is not yet widespread it’s only a matter of time before the technology becomes a part of our everyday life.

Implications for finance professionals

In order to stay current and move ahead finance teams need to evolve and adapt to the changing environment.

Some of the skills we have acquired in the past and relied on to get us to the next level are no longer sufficient in the current and future environment. As a result, we have to develop a continuous learning mindset. Learn new ways of doing things, unlearn the old habits and continue to relearn.

For instance, being detailed oriented alone used to be sufficient. Not anymore. Today finance professionals are expected to be commercially aware and broad in their thinking.

Decision makers are searching for collaborative business partners who have a deeper understanding of the operational and strategic challenges facing the business. Problem solvers able to enrich the business with insightful analysis and capable of recommending the right solutions. Team players who understand the markets in which the business operates, its products, competitor business and the drivers of performance as a whole.

Build a big picture perspective of the business

If finance is to be recognized as a valuable strategic business partner we need to build a big picture perspective of the business and be able to recognize the role and contribution of each function, individual, process and activity in achieving the objectives of the company. Knowing debits and credits alone will not take us far.

With the business environment constantly changing, we need to shift our focus from historical analysis to forward looking.

Many at times we spend a lot of time producing variance analysis reports that do not drive the right conclusions and actions out of the insights. For example, simply commenting sales for the month are up 5% or operational costs are down by $1MM is not insightful enough to support key decision making.

We need to understand what the numbers mean and the real drivers behind them. For example, did sales increase because of new customers, price increases, improved demand, enhanced marketing efforts, new product lines, entry into new markets, product bundling?

CFOs and their teams need to be doing more than running the financial side of the business – recording revenues and costs. Instead, they should help the business adapt and make insight-driven strategic turns without throwing off alignment between broad strategy and day-to-day execution.

Part of building a bigger picture perspective of the business requires a finance function that is more flexible and collaborative than in the past and knows how to manage its internal working relationships. A finance function that is capable of partnering with operations instead of always pointing out what operations is always doing wrong.

Spending the majority of our time behind our desks preparing financial statements and regulatory compliance reports will not help us become more strategic and commercially aware. We need to get interested in the affairs of the business. Avail ourselves for projects that take us out of our comfort zones. Regularly interact with colleagues outside finance to get a deeper understanding of the drivers of the business, what projects the teams are working on, how they align with the broader strategy, the risks and challenges they are facing and recommend solutions.

If you are used to sitting behind a computer all day, leaving your desk to engage with the business is initially unnerving but the more you do it the more confidence you gather. Evolving priorities require a finance professional with a well-honed ability to communicate, build trust and maintain collaborative relationships with the rest of the business.

Driving business growth versus cost cutting

Too often finance teams are focused on cost cutting activities in order to improve the bottom line instead of identifying alternative ways of driving up top line growth. Today’s global companies are operating in a world of complex supply chains, intense competition, shifting customer expectations, increased regulatory demands, emerging operating models and exposure to significant business risk. Cost reduction alone will not help the business sustain its competitive relevance in this world.

The problem with many cost optimization programmes is that they fail to deliver the expected outcomes. It is not about how much you cut the costs, rather where you channel resources to differentiate, stimulate growth and achieve strategic objectives. Finance needs to look beyond narrowly defined functional or organizational structures when identifying candidates for cost cutting and take a holistic, end-to-end view of costs across the whole organization. This will help separate the strategically-aligned good costs from the non-essential bad costs.

With the adoption of big data and analytical tools becoming mainstream, it’s not too late for finance to play catch up. Transitioning to data analytics starts with putting in place a well-structured data and information management foundation and then combining technology with the right analytics and expertise.

Only then can finance transform data into true, actionable business intelligence (on products, customers, markets, process efficiencies, supply chain, competition and business risk) that drives better informed decision making and business growth.

Traditional financial reporting does not provide the actionable information the business needs to make more informed strategic decisions. Today, the business needs to leverage both structured data (which resides in enterprise databases) and unstructured data (email, social media, internet) including analytics to generate insightful analysis that can help drive operational and strategic performance.

For example, finance should be able to collaborate with the marketing function, analyze and interpret customer data to understand customer journeys, and help the function design and implement better customer/brand strategies and responses.

Finance cannot expect to drive business growth by continuously doing the same things. It’s not about this is how we have always done things here. Ask yourselves: what is the right way of doing things in today’s disruptive world and what are the expectations of the business?

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Finance Analytics: It’s Not About the Size of The Data

As the need to make impactful operational and strategic decisions in real time increases, CFOs are playing a greater role in the adoption and integration of data analytics in their organizations to support data-driven decision making.

Executives and business unit leaders are increasingly relying on insights produced by Finance to better understand enterprise performance. That is, what has happened, why it has happened, what is most likely to happen in the future, and the appropriate course of action to take.

In an era where data is proliferating in volume and variety, decision makers have realized it’s no longer enough to base key enterprise performance and risk decisions on experience and intuition alone.

Rather, this must be combined with a facts-based approach. Which means CFOs must set up modernized reporting and analytics capabilities with one of the main goals being the use of data as a tool for business decision making.

Appropriately analyzed and interpreted, data always has a story, and there’s always something to discover from it. However, many finance functions are failing to deliver value from their existing data analytics capabilities.

There is a misconception that to deliver actionable insights, the function needs more data for analysis. As a result, the supply of data keeps rising, while the ability to use it to generate informed insights lags badly.

Yet it’s not about the size of the data. It’s about translating available data and making it understandable and useful.

In other words, it’s about context and understanding that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Finance leaders should connect the dots in ways that produce valuable insights or discoveries, and determine for example:

  • What is being measured, why, and how is it measured?
  • How extensive the exploration for such discoveries was?
  • How many additional factors were also reviewed for a correlation?

Further, to use data intelligently and influence better decision making, CFOs and their teams should recognize that most enterprise data is accumulated not to serve analytics, but as the by-product of routine tasks and activities.

Consider customer online and offline purchases data. Social media posts. Logs of customer communications for billing and other transactional purposes.

Such data is not produced for the purpose of prediction yet when analyzed, this data can reveal valuable insights that can be translated into action which delivers measurable benefits.

Often the company already has the data that it needs to answer its critical business performance questions, but little of it is being aggregated, cleaned, analyzed, and linked to decision making activities in a coherent way.

Exacerbating the issue is the mere fact that the company has a mishmash of incompatible computer systems and data formats added over the years ultimately making it difficult to perform granular analysis at a product, supplier, geographic, customer, and channel level, and many other variables.

There is nothing grand about data itself. What matters most is how you are handling the flood of data your systems are collecting daily. Yes, data can always be accumulated but as a finance leader:

  • Are you taking time to dig down into the data and observing patterns?
  • Are the observed patterns significant to altering the strategic direction of the organization?
  • Are you measuring what you really want to know, what matters for the success of the business?
  • Or you are just measuring what is easy to measure rather than what is most relevant?

CFOs do not need more data. What they need right now is the ability to aggregate, clean and analyze the existing data sitting in the company’s computer systems and understand what story it is telling them.

Before they can focus on prediction, they first need to observe what is happening and why. Bear in mind correlation does not imply causation.

Yes, you might have discovered a predictive relationship between X and Y but this does not mean one causes the other, not even indirectly.

For instance, employee training hours and sales revenue. Just because there is a high correlation between the two does not mean increase in training hours is causing a corresponding increase in sales revenue. A third variable might be driving the revenue the increase.

Jumping to conclusions too soon about causality for a correlation observed in data can lead to bad decisions and far-reaching consequences, hence finance leaders should validate whether an observed trend is real rather than misleading noise before providing any causal explanation.

Certainly, big data can be a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Not all data is created equal, or evenly valuable. There are situations where big data sets play a pivotal role, and others where small, rich data sets trump big data sets.

Before they decide to collect more data, CFOs should always remember data is comparable to an unexploited resource.

Even though data is now considered an important strategic asset for the organization, raw data is like oil that has been drilled and pulled out of the ground but not yet refined to its finer version of kerosene and gasoline.

The data oil has not yet been converted into insights that can be translated into action to cut costs, boost revenues, streamline operations, and guide the company’s strategic direction.

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Doing The Right Thing For Too Long

Markets and business models are shifting, and so should you keep up with these market changes if your business is to survive and succeed. Compared with the past, the current era of digitization represents an inflection point.

Consider individual trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Big Data, cybersecurity threats, drones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, blockchain technologies, and more.

These new technologies have significantly changed the way we connect and interact as individuals, including how businesses deliver products and services to their customers.

Reinventing your business will determine whether you succeed or fail in the digital age. As the saying goes, disrupt or be disrupted. No company, business, or industry is safe from disruption. Today, individual businesses have the potential to compete against multinational companies and win.

These businesses are quick to anticipate market changes and flexible to get ahead of the curve. Sadly, many companies are blinded by their successes and aren’t willing to disrupt themselves. They are not experiencing their desired growth trajectory because they are stuck doing the right thing for too long.

Don’t get comfortable with the status quo and allow your business to get stuck on a strategy and mindset that no longer fit the market.

Here are a few questions to ponder, the answers to which will determine the future of your business:

  • What is at the core of your strategy?
  • Are you in touch with the customers you want to serve? When customers give you negative feedback, how often do you listen and act on it?
  • Are you operating your business on the premise that you know what is best for your customers therefore they are supposed to buy whatever product or service you offer them?
  • Are you keeping up with market shifts or you only know how to grow under one set of conditions or products and services, but not how to survive and strive under another?
  • How robust and flexible is your IT infrastructure to help you innovate, perform your company’s Jobs To Be Done, and scale your business?
  • Are you creating a strong culture that is focused on customers, including a culture that not only embraces change but seeks it out?

Given our world is changing faster, it’s imperative to continuously look for signs that things are changing and think about how those shifts would play out in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term, not forgetting the impact on the execution of your strategy and enterprise performance.

The signs can reveal individually. At times, they are part of a wider trend.

Nonetheless, how you adapt will determine whether you succeed or fail. Keep learning. Learn about innovations in your industry and beyond. Try out new business models and technologies and embrace a philosophy of constant change.

Once you understand how the market is changing and evolving, you can develop the right product or service and strategy that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

We often talk of the ability to “connect the dots” and “take a helicopter view of the business” as key ingredients for success. But how often are business leaders and their teams doing this?

Across the organization, a culture of “them versus us” prevails. Important decisions are made at a functional level with little or no consideration of their impact at the enterprise level.

Having the ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is essential for determining the right path or course of action to pursue.

So, how do you spot market transitions and develop a clear sense of where the market is going?

  • Be curious and hungry for new ideas. Continuously ask tons of key performance questions and pay attention to what’s around you.
  • From time to time, challenge conventional wisdom. It’s easy to stick with what you know about your business model, customers, competitors, markets, or industry but dare to pivot when conditions change.
  • Don’t be nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what you’ve built in the present. Always be curious about the future and develop a willingness to take calculated risks.
  • Ask existing and would-be customers how they feel about your company’s products, services, and strategy. Instead of turning to sources that reinforce your existing point of view, seek multiple perspectives and cross-reference them as new facts come in.
  • Develop an ability to handle multiple random data points at once. This will help you generate critical market, customer, and business performance insights and make smarter, informed decisions. Be careful to distinguish between the signal and the noise since data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “confirmation” that protects your business model.

Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on.

  • Look for patterns and abnormalities that might suggest something is going on, including any interdependencies.
  • Anticipate all the various scenarios of what could happen.
  • Plan your course of action in response to what’s happening in real time.

As the signals of a market shift increase, the need to act becomes more imperative. Note, monitoring and identifying market shifts, and effectively taking the appropriate course of action is a matter of timing.

If you continue doing the right thing for too long and lack the boldness to disrupt both the market and your own organization, you risk being disrupted and left behind. There is no company that is too big to fail. Neither is there a startup that is too small to succeed.

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How Feasible Are Your Strategic Objectives?

Every organization sets out its goals and objectives, to accomplish its mission and vision. The two often seem like two interchangeable phrases but there is a distinction.

A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and vague. An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal.

It is every leader’s job to create a coherent set of feasible objectives or what Richard Rumelt calls proximate objectives. Objectives that define targets the organization is fairly expected to achieve, even overwhelm.

This is essential for ensuring energy and resources are focused on one, or a very few, critical objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of positive outcomes.

An effective strategy defines a critical challenge or opportunity and clearly articulates how the organization is going to play to win or perform customers’ Jobs to Be Done.

Thus, the objectives an effective strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.

On the contrary, a bad strategy results in the setting of bad strategic objectives.

Long lists of “things to be done,” are often labeled wrongly as strategies or objectives. Or the desired outcome is simply rehashed with no explanation of how this will be accomplished.

It doesn’t matter how well-thought your strategy is in response to an identified challenge or opportunity. If the resultant strategic objectives are merely a list of things to do, or just as difficult to achieve as the identified key challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.

In today’s highly competitive, uncertain, dynamic, and complex environment in which a leader’s ability to look further ahead is diminished, it is better to focus on a few pivotal items through taking strong positions, creating options, and building advantage.

First identify the key challenges or opportunities for the business. Look very closely at the changes happening within your business, where you might get an added advantage over competition.

Next, create a list of the issues, including the actions your company should take.

Then, trim the original list to a noticeably short list of pivotal issues and proximate objectives by identifying one or two feasible objective(s), when achieved, would make the biggest difference. Remember, the identified objectives should be more like tasks and less like goals.

Now, focus on the objectives by channeling skills and available resources to accomplish the overall goal.

Once accomplished, new opportunities will open up resulting in the creation of more ambitious objectives. This cycle will help you develop a system that enables the setting of feasible strategic objectives.

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