TagFinance Decision Support

Finance Needs To Do More Than Prepare Reports

There is an ongoing discussion about the evolving role of finance and the function’s contribution towards enterprise performance improvement. Thanks to new operating models and emerging technologies, finance has been presented with an opportunity to step up and shine.

That is, focus more effort on providing effective decision support that drives organizational success and less on rote tasks that can easily be automated, outsourced or performed separately in a shared services center.

Providing effective decision support requires a deep understanding of the business in its completeness, the cause-and-effect relationships between business units, big growth drivers and performance drivers. It’s more than producing a complete set of financials on a monthly basis.

By virtue of their training, many finance professionals possess strong technical accounting backgrounds and limited business experience. For instance, preparing external reporting financials that are IFRS-aligned comes natural to them. At any point in time, they are able to interpret a particular standard, paragraph by paragraph, without even making reference to the standard handbook itself.

There is nothing wrong with becoming an accounting standard expert. The problem arises when the entire finance team is made up of financial reporting experts who spend the majority of their time churning out reports just to meet regulatory and compliance requirements and less on driving business performance.

Month-end, quarter-end and year-end reporting are still an important part of running a successful finance organization. It’s important that the financial statements are free from material misstatements and faithfully represent the financial performance and position of the business.

However, the process should not end there. Finance should also be able to interpret the reported numbers, create meaning and simplicity from them as well as communicate a point of view about how the numbers will inform strategic decisions.

It’s therefore imperative for finance leaders to continuously assess the tasks their teams are focused on. Begin with why. For instance, why does your team produce the reports it produces on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis? What purpose do they serve in informing business decisions?

After you have answered the why question, you should be able to determine whether the activity, report or process is a value add or not.

Any activity, report or process that is not value enhancing should be discontinued completely or streamlined. This will in turn help you free up more time and channel resources towards issues and or initiatives that really matter to business partners and senior decision makers.

Given that individuals are creatures of habit, it can be difficult to let go of traditional practices or old habits.

Unfortunately, sticking with the familiar in a constantly changing environment will not do you any justice. Just because this is how you have always done things in the past and are used to does not mean you should continue on the same path of the tried-and-tested.

In addition to getting rid of old habits that are no longer able to withstand the test of time, it’s also important to ask if the company’s business model is still fit for purpose to address today’s demands and challenges, and more important, is it fit for purpose for the future? With the world changing so fast around us, a business never reaches a point where it has the ideal model.

The operating model needs to continue to evolve. Finance can help shape this model through spending time with business partners and engaging in a two-way conversation about the business and offering its perspective. Communication between finance and the business should not be limited to month-end reports only.

Leveraging our financial expertise, we can help drive change by helping the company identify sources of growth and operational improvements, allocate resources effectively and efficiently, and accelerate its performance over time.

Finance is often regarded as the purse-holder of the company, holding the power to greenlight some initiatives and redlight others.

However, in order to drive innovation and change, finance must learn to see the world not only through a finance lens but also through a business lens. Many finance professionals are conservative and risk averse in their approach. Taking risk is something perceived extraordinary. We need to transition from this kind of thinking.

There is of course balance between taking risk and mitigating risk, but if finance is inclined to opt for the later, value creation opportunities can be missed. It’s therefore critical that we do not succumb to analysis paralysis because it’s easier to lose the big picture of what is needed to drive the company’s success in a myriad of daily transactions or useless data.

In conclusion, if finance is to influence strategic decisions and add value, finance leaders should start asking if their teams are focusing on what really matters to the business or the function.

Delivering Reliable Insights From Data Analytics

Data and analytics are becoming increasingly integral to business decisions. Organizations across all sectors are leveraging advanced real-time predictive analytics to balance intuitive decision-making and data-driven insights to monitor brand sentiment on social media, better serve their customers, streamline operations, manage risks and ultimately drive strategic performance.

Traditional business intelligence reporting tools with static charts and graphs are being replaced by interactive data visualization tools that enable business insights to be shared in a format that is easily understood by decision makers, in turn enabling better, faster operational and strategic decision-making.

Given the constantly changing business landscape driven by increased competition, macro and geopolitical risks, intense regulatory demands, complex supply chains, advanced technological changes etc. decision makers are turning to finance teams for actionable insights to help them navigate through this volatility and uncertainty.

As business unit managers increasingly rely on finance decision support for enhanced business performance, it is imperative for CFOs and their teams to ensure the performance insights they are delivering are informed and actionable. However, a 2016 survey report by KPMG revealed that 60% of the survey participants are not very confident in their data and analytics insights.

Data Quality or Quantity?

In today’s world of exponential data growth, the ability for finance to deliver reliable and actionable insights rests not on the quantity of data collected, analyzed and interpreted, but rather on the quality of that data. The starting point for any successful data analytics initiative involves clarifying why the business needs to collect a particular type of data.

One of the challenges facing many businesses today is identifying and selecting which internal and external sources of data to focus on. As a result, these companies end up investing in data warehouses full of massive amounts of useless data. To avoid being data rich and insight poor, CFOs need to understand  the role of quality in developing and managing tools, data and analytics.

Before inputting data into any analytical model, it is important to first assess the appropriateness of your data sources. Do they provide relevant and accurate data for analysis and interpretation? Instead of relying on a single source of data for analysis, you need to have the ability to blend and analyze multiple sources of data. This will help make informed decisions and drive business performance.

Further, businesses are operating in a period of rapid market changes. Market and customer data is getting outdated quickly. As a result, being agile and having the ability to quickly respond to changing market conditions has become a critical requirement for survival. The business cannot afford to sit on raw data for longer periods. Capabilities that enable data to be accessed, stored, retrieved and analysed in a timely basis should be enhanced.

Thus, in order to provide business users with access to real-time and near-time operational and financial data, the organization should focus on reducing data latency. Reducing data latency allows finance teams to run ad-hoc reports to answer specific business questions which in turn enables decision makers to make important decisions more quickly.

In the event that finance provides business insights or recommendations based on inaccurate data, analysis and predictions, this will quickly erode, if not extinguish, business trust and shake the confidence of those decision makers who rely on these predictions to make informed decisions.

As data volumes increase and new uses emerge, the challenge will only increase. It is therefore critical for finance to put in place robust data governance structures that assess and evaluate the accuracy of data analytics inputs and outputs.

Work with business partners to set objectives up front

Churning out performance reports that do not influence decision making is a waste of time yet that is what most finance teams are spending their time doing. It is not always the case that the numbers that make sense to finance will also make sense to business partners.

The biggest problem in the majority of these cases is lack of understanding by finance of the business objectives. Instead of collaborating with the business to develop a better understanding of their operations and how performance should be measured and reported, many finance analytics teams are working in their own silos without truly linking their activities back to business outcomes.

To improve finance’s reporting outcomes, the function should take stock of the reports it produces per month, quarter or annually. Then evaluate the nature and purpose of each report produced and what key decisions it helps to drive. It is not about the quantity of reports that matters, but rather the quality of the reports.

Business partners need to be engaged at the start of the process and throughout the analytics process. They need to be involved as finance explores the data and develop insights to ensure that when the modeling is complete, the results make sense from a business perspective

By working with business partners and setting objectives up front, finance will be able to focus its efforts and resources on value-add reports that tell a better business story. Further, the function will be able to assess and monitor the effectiveness of its data models in supporting business decisions

Simplify interconnected analytics

With so many variables impacting business performance the organization cannot continue to rely on gut instinct to make better decisions. The organization has no choice but to use data to drive insights. As a result, organizations are relying on a number of interconnected analytical models to predict and visualize future performance.

However, given that one variable might have multiple effects, it is important for the business to understand how changes in one variable will affect all the models that use that variable, rather than just one individual model. By maintaining a meta-model, the organization would be able to visualize and control how different analytical models are linked.

It also helps ensure consistency in how data is used across different analytical models. Ultimately, decision makers will be able to prioritize projects with the greatest potential of delivering the highest value to the business.

Build a data analytics culture

Advanced data analytics is a growing field and as such competition for talent among organizations is high. Due to their traditional professional training, many accounting and finance professionals lack the necessary data and analytics skills.

More over, decision makers not knowing enough about analytics are reluctant to adopt their use. Because of cognitive bias, it is human nature to subconsciously feel that their successful decisions in the past justify a continued use of old sources of data and insight. What we tend to forget is that what got us here won’t get us there, hence the need to learn, relearn and unlearn old habits.

To move forward, the organization should focus on overcoming cognitive biases developed over the years, and closing this skills gap and develop training and development programs that can help achieve the desired outcomes. Using advanced analytics to generate trusted insights requires an understanding of the various analytics methodologies, their rigor and applicability.

It’s difficult to have people understand if they don’t have the technical capabilities. However, building a data analytics culture does not imply that the organization should focus on developing data science skills alone. You also need to develop analytics translators.

These are individuals who are able apply their domain expertise in your industry or function, using a deep understanding of the drivers, processes, and metrics of the business to better leverage the data and turn it into reliable insights and concrete measurable actions.

Building a data analytics culture that promotes making decisions based on data-driven insights is a continuous endeavour that spans the data analytics life cycle from data through to insights and ultimately to generating value. Successful use cases can be used to further drive the culture across the organization.

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?

CFOs and Strategic Decision Making

These days there is an increasing number of articles, reports, podcasts, vblogs, eBooks etc. being churned out on the evolving role of the CFO. Though these publications and postings are worded differently, they all share one common message – Today’s and future CFO should be less of a number cruncher and more of a strategic advisor. In other words, spend more time partnering the with business helping create, preserve and sustain value.

One of the forces behind this call for change in the CFOs role is the onslaught of new technologies on the market. These new tools are helping finance chiefs to automate and streamline certain areas of their work, in turn improving the amount of time spent partnering with the business versus closing the books.

However, Are CFOs contributing enough around the strategy discussion table to merit the strategic advisor badge? Are they helping their companies execute effectively? Execution is the key factor of success yet statistics reveal that between 70%-90% of companies are failing to execute their strategy. How then is this possible if the CEO and the Board have smart, intelligent CFOs in their corner to advise them on strategic issues of the business? Have CFOs just become glorified accountants (since the majority of them are CPA, CMA, CA, ACCA, or CIMA designated) who lack a deeper understanding of the business and its value drivers?

I believe no matter how much we scream and shout about this new evolving, expansive and collaborative role of the CFO, if the results continue unconvincing then we should get off our high horses. We cannot afford to remain on this path of sameness, repeatedly claim that finance teams have a bird’s eye view of the organization and are better placed to influence results yet strategic failures continue to soar.

In today’s information age, it is much easier for finance executives to succumb to the misguided belief that the keys to strategic success is investing in more data and new technology. On the contrary, people drive strategic success. I am not against data and analytics. However, how you apply both to your business will determine whether you will succeed or not.

Unfortunately, many finance teams are still suffering from information overload and struggling to make sense of the data they are presented with. Rather than spend a greater proportion of their time increasing business acumen and providing meaningful analysis for their businesses, more time is being spent on gathering, cleansing and aggregating data from multiple sources. As a result, effective finance business partnering is faltering.

If the CFO is to meaningfully contribute around the strategy discussion table (s)he needs to improve finance’s approach to performance analysis. A bottom-up approach to data analytics will not help you reap the fruits you want. This is where most CFOs are getting it wrong. They embark on a data collection agenda without first identifying and defining the problem to be solved. Data management and analytics efforts should be tied back to strategy and the key drivers of the business.

Start by asking the right key performance questions. For example; Which components of our strategic decision making are currently not being supported by digital technologies? What is the worst that can happen to us should we fail to embrace data analytics? What is the best way to align internal and external data sources to strengthen analytics and insights? Which business functions or areas would benefit from digital technologies and newer analytical capabilities to support strategic decision making?

Asking more of these questions will help you recognize areas of the business that are problematic which in turn helps you to focus your analysis in these areas, identify critical drivers of value and provide fresh insights that support strategic decision making. The organization is then able to develop new capabilities and competences needed in relation to changing circumstances, environmental factors and trends and ultimately execute its strategy effectively.

What decision makers want from finance are real-time, reliable and actionable insights that help them make better decisions. In fact, valuable strategic decision support goes beyond calculating the profit and loss and then presenting the financial statements to C-Suite members and the board. The CFO has to be able to tell the full story behind the numbers, know how the organization arrived at those results and provide actionable recommendations from the analysis of the results.

The expectation now is for the CFO to wear many hats. IT, Procurement, Investor Relations, Risk Management, HR, Sustainability are now under the purview of the CFO in many organizations. However, I don’t think a CFO can be an expert in all of these areas at once. This therefore requires her/him to be surrounded by a great team since s(he) is only as good as the team that is behind him.

If the team performs well, the CFO performs well too. But for the team to perform well, training and development is important. Although the CFO remains accountable for overall performance of the function, when the finance team is talented and skilled (s)he will be confident enough to delegate certain tasks, free up enough time to partner with the business and contribute positively towards the achievement of strategic objectives.

Going forward, understanding the business across all lines, not just the financial aspects, and getting a holistic view of organizational performance will help CFOs play a crucial role in strategic decision support, close the gap between strategy formulation and execution and influence strategic performance.

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