Unlocking Opportunities in Big Data

Data has become a key focus for corporate leaders today. It holds the potential to change the way business is done. New data technologies are creating significant opportunities for business. Find out how finance leaders are translating analytical insights to commercial impact. 

The volume and variety of data available for analysis is expanding exponentially. Meanwhile, increasingly powerful technologies have emerged to enable more sophisticated data management and analytics. The wealth of data sources available today is almost unlimited, and includes call-centre recordings, external data feeds, machine-generated data, customers’ social media posts, and a huge amount more. These related trends – popularly summed up by the term ‘big data’ – are combining to enabletoday’s organisations to unlock new sources of insight and value.
 
Inevitably, taking advantage of these opportunities with data will be challenging for companies, creating the need for new skills, tools and ways of thinking. So what does the data-driven era imply for business leaders, and finance professionals in particular? What benefits are being derived from new approaches to data analytics? And what role should management accountants seek to play in this area? These are some of the core questions that this report seeks to address. To do so, it draws on a programme of in-depth interviews, a survey of over 2,000 CFOs and finance professionals, and comprehensive desk research.
 
Some of our key conclusions include:
 
Data is becoming a core business asset.
Companies of all sizes and types are already generating material value from data in a range of ways. This spans all industries, with examples emerging from social media and internet companies, food and beverage companies, fast food chains, banks, manufacturers and hotels, among many others. Academic research reveals the scope for productivity gains on the back of data-driven decision-making. The finance professionals surveyed for this report agree, pointing to greater efficiencies and better KPIs as some of the benefits they expect from data.
 
Firms face a steep ‘learning curve’ in harnessing their data for commercial benefit.
For most companies, fully adapting to a datadriven era of business remains a work in progress. 86% of the finance professionals we surveyed agree that their businesses are struggling to get valuable insight from data, not least due to issues such as organisational data silos, challenges relating to data quality, or the ability to work with unfamiliar non-financial data. To help counter this, the software industry continues to develop a growing range of tools and applications to help companies of all sizes find and extract insights from their data. But this remains challenging because businesses must first determine how they will use data to improve their performance before selecting a technical solution.
 
Finance professionals are well placed to help translate data into commercial insights and value.
More than 90% of survey respondents agree that finance has an essential role to play in helping their organisations benefit from data-related projects. But there is also often uncertainty as to what that role might be. Advanced types of data analysis will often require the expertise of data scientists, who may hold a PhD in a relevant discipline, and it is rare for finance people to have the specialist skills required in this area. However, where finance can add value is by applying their combined knowledge of finance and the business to help translate new analytical insights into commercial impact – for example, through planning, budgeting, forecasting and performance management. “It’s not our job to go down to the lowest level of data, but to know how to aggregate outcomes so it can be converted into an insightful report,” argues James Miln, Senior Finance Director, Global Operations Finance, Yahoo!.
 
Delivering on the potential of data will make closer finance/business partnering more important than ever.
To truly unlock the opportunities in big data, management accountants will need to partner more closely with three sets of key stakeholders: their colleagues in IT who capture much of the data; the data scientists who can perform advanced types of analysis on that data; and finally business leaders who can ensure new ideas are turned into concrete action. This requires financial professionals to have a broader range of management skills: clear communication, the ability to lead and influence, and a strategic understanding of the business – all of which are essential for the business partnering role that many firms want finance to play.
 
Delivering on new data insights is as much an opportunity for small and mid-size companies, as it is for large ones.
Companies of all sizes see the scope to benefit from building a more data-centric business. Although smaller businesses have fewer resources for data projects, they have less legacy IT complexity to deal with, as compared with their larger counterparts, along with a willingness to move quickly. They can also tap into a growing number of easy-to-use applications and data services, which can help them benefit from data at minimal cost or risk. However, the key to success for small as well as large firms is to develop clear objectives for their data projects, and only then to select the tools or services that are best aligned to their particular goals.
 
Data also holds opportunities for finance professionals to unlock new career openings.
The data-enabled era creates an opportunity for today’s management accountants to develop new skills and competencies. Indeed, 85% of survey respondents believe that increasing their ability to work with big data will enhance their career and employability. Although some will no doubt seek to bolster their data analysis skills, the ability to play a central role in converting the potential of data into real commercial value could act as a boost for those with an aspiration to play a more strategic role in the organisation. The challenges outlined above are substantial, and will certainly stretch finance professionals’ skills into unfamiliar areas. However, management accountants have proven their ability to adapt to changing demands in the past, for example evolving their roles and capabilities to meet the demands of the postindustrial era of business. Today a similar evolution is required, with management accountants acquiring new skills and new ways of thinking that will put them at the forefront of the way their organisations harness data for commercial advantage.
 

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