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In the current business climate, finance teams - and by extension, organizations overall - face two major issues relating to their financial data.
The first is that the sheer volume of data they can collect, store, and process has never been bigger, and is growing all the time. This puts pressure on finance teams to make the most of this data and uncover insights that can help the business succeed and grow.
The second is that the amount of regulations and compliance demands placed upon businesses has similarly increased. This incorporates data protection rules such as GDPR and CCPA, and also financial regulations intended to counter criminal activity and ensure transparency for customers. “Data security is very high on the agenda, privacy, the credibility of the data, the reliability. In addition to independent audits on the credibility of the data, organizations may need independent suppliers that can facilitate supplying the data to comply with the new mandates.” Nancy Kamp-Roelands, Professor Non-financial information, integrated reporting and assurance at the University of Groningen.
All this means that businesses, and large enterprises, in particular, must ensure that their financial reporting and analytics capabilities are secure and fit for a fast-changing world, in order to remain competitive and stay compliant. This report explores the current status of financial reporting and analytics, the most common challenges, and how these can be solved, with expert insight from business finance and technology specialists.
Senior VP of Financial Planning & Analysis, MicroStrategy
The ability for analytics to provide unprecedented levels of insights for finance departments is well-known. However, despite this, many organizations simply aren’t making the most of the opportunities available to them. Research has found that only 14% of businesses are driving data insights to their maximum; the 86% that aren’t are therefore prone to missing out on insights that can drive competitive advantage. Finance departments need to look at the opportunities, in addition to identifying risks.
A lot of this is due to the fact that analytics tend only to be used on an ‘as-needed’ basis. This is where ad-hoc analysis is conducted reactively when particular insights are required to aid specific decision-making. Instead of taking a constant and proactive approach to their analytics, firms tend to enter a cyclical process of producing reports periodically, which can aid decision-making at the time. However, these cannot be used to spot trends as they emerge and take action to react to them with agility.
“Don’t only look at risks, but also look at opportunities. Identify business challenges and see if that requires a different decision.” Nancy Kamp-Roelands, Professor Non-financial information, integrated reporting and assurance at the University of Groningen.
At a technical level, many organizations using visualization and business intelligence tooling are only applying them for specific use cases, and then only by individual siloed departments. Cross-departmental use of financial data and analytics remains relatively rare. “The finance function needs to break through their silo and work with a holistic approach. The function needs to change from the Chief financial officer to the Chief Value Officer.” – Nancy Kamp-Roelands, Professor Non-financial information, integrated reporting and assurance at the University of Groningen.
Research indicates that enterprises are finding it difficult to handle all the different financial responsibilities they have to fulfill.
The CFO’s responsibilities have grown in a few important areas, particularly in digital. Between 2016 and 2021, certain activities increased greatly for the finance function; digital activities (+22%), investor relations (+20%), and the use of artificial intelligence (+14%). Finally, the use of advanced analytics for business operations has almost doubled (+42%) while data visualization and connectivity increased with 32%. (McKinsey & Company (2021) Mastering change: The new CFO mandate).
The lack of an effective, proactive framework for financial data, reporting, and analytics inhibits businesses’ opportunities to address all of these concerns. In particular, four common challenges have emerged that are preventing real progress from being made:
At present, businesses carrying out analytics or reporting do so through independent departments, operating entirely separately from one another. The easy availability of function-specific analytics tooling is exacerbating this problem within many businesses.
As Phong Le, MicroStrategy’s CFO, explains: “The advent of technology has actually made this worse because everybody can buy their own dashboarding tool or their own BI tool in their own department and run it their own way.” This prohibits CFOs and their teams from maximizing their potential as business partners to the organization.
This leads to data silos being created, which not only prevent a business from getting a complete picture of data organization-wide, but can lead to inconsistencies between one departmental set of data and another. It also discourages collaboration and fosters distrust between departments and makes growth and revenue generation harder as not everyone within a business is necessarily pulling in the same direction.
Siloed approaches to data and analytics between different departments don’t just lead to inconsistencies in data: it can lead to inconsistencies in human skills, too. This is because employees in one department become experts in one data set and platform, without gaining any experience of any others used elsewhere. 23% of finance functions report that inadequate skillset to design, build and implement technology is preventing them from using digital technologies in processes effectively. 18% lists cultural and organizational resistance as a barrier.
At the same time, some organizations are still held back by the old-fashioned approach of IT departments acting as highly restrictive gatekeepers. As Helen Hunter, Chief Technology Officer of Sainsbury’s, says: “Even in the recent past, access to data was tightly controlled by people with ‘IT’ in their titles. It was guarded and only released after forensic scrutiny.”
This emphasizes the importance of all relevant staff being trained up on any new technology being deployed, so that they can support effective and consistent reporting, and understand the criticality of doing so. Peter Svensson says: “The people working with the new data setup really need to understand what they are working with. They need to understand how the data can support the business’s decisions.”
All these factors paint an overarching picture of finance teams that have too much data for their current analytics tooling to handle and haven’t perfected access control to that data. As a result, they’re overwhelmed and can’t take full advantage of the potential insights within all their data.
With different departments using data and analytics in different ways, there is unlikely to be adequate control over who can access data, and what purposes it can be used for. This can lead to all sorts of risks over misuse of data, or of credentials being hacked, leading to an extremely costly data breach. But at the same time, the right people need access to the right data so that they can do their jobs effectively.
From a financial perspective, CFOs and financial leaders often take on responsibilities for control and compliance, alongside their existing duties within finance. Research shows that companies that describe finance functions as; significantly more prepared for future crises, because of the way they responded to COVID-19 report a greater use of digital and automation technology. Among companies that are well prepared for future crises, 75% uses advanced analytics for business operations, and more than half (56%) use data visualization and connectivity (McKinsey & Company (2021) Mastering change: The new CFO mandate). CFOs and their departments have a lot on their plate, and they are often not able to give security and compliance the attention it demands. In addition, they need to prepare for changes in regulations. “There is going to be a single access point in Europe, and all data will have to be publicly available here. Investors will have easy access to sustainability data of corporations to facilitate their investment decisions.” Nancy Kamp-Roelands, Professor Non-financial information, integrated reporting and assurance at the University of Groningen.
As Phong Le explains, role-based access control is crucial, and the right technology is essential for getting it right: “You want data access based on roles and departments, and that's a key role that technology can play. Finance can also play a key part here in making sure that they set the rules appropriately.”
While the world of business—and business finance—has changed greatly in recent years, the technology many organizations are using hasn’t been upgraded to keep pace with developments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this issue into a particularly sharp focus. With more employees operating from home, access to data and applications had to become more distributed. Businesses who are still largely on-premise with their data storage and application access, and haven’t extensively pursued a cloud migration, have found it particularly difficult to adjust. In particular, they have been unable to use real-time and predictive data analysis to make quick, well-informed decisions.
As Peter Svensson, Head of Financial and Business Control at Nordea said: “Businesses need to change the culture and the process. In 20 years, their systems haven’t changed that much. The way they do controlling has changed, but the basics have stayed the same, so it’s time to embrace new technologies.”
Solving the challenges outlined in the previous section needs much more than plugging in new technology. Deploying the right solution and technical partner is important, but alongside this must come a change of philosophy, company culture, and the breaking down of silos and barriers. Only this way can data, reporting, and analytics become more consistent, more proactive, and more insightful.
It’s clear that businesses must bring all departments together to use one overarching data-set, which can be easily and quickly updated, and accessed by all relevant departments.
In the past, many organizations may have shied away from this approach because of concerns that access won’t be properly controlled. But as Phong Le explains, a technology partner can help businesses strike the right balance: “Right now it feels like it's a trade-off. On one hand, you can give data to everybody so that they can run their own analytics and reports, but then it's not governed, secure, or a single source of truth. Or you can make it secure and a single source of truth but without making it easily accessible to everybody. But that’s where technology like MicroStrategy comes in: we believe you can have both.”
This is an area where finance, in particular, can lead the way, especially if it’s able to deliver accurate data in real time that other departments know they can rely on.
With that technology and expertise in place, users can access not only a broader suite of applications and analytics innovations but a more up-to-date range of them, too. This makes it far easier for them to become experts in analytics, especially in the tools they use regularly, and drive more detailed and more useful levels of insights.
Phong Le says: “You have to cultivate that knowledge and develop it from within. In finance, that could mean rolling out enterprise reporting across the company to manage things like budgets, controllable costs, and procurement processes. I think that if you have a strong incubation group within finance, you have a really good chance of having a successful project.”
Phil Jordan, Chief Information Officer for Sainsbury’s, says that interconnectivity should sit at the heart of the ultimate end goal: “It’s a rare and beautiful thing when you’re able to establish an entire ecosystem that offers data and insight to everyone in your organization. But that’s what we set out to achieve: using great technology to get timely, impactful information into the hands of great people.”
Connected to the previous point, once the single source of truth has been established, the right controls can then be put in place to determine who can access which parts of the data set, and why.
Once this has been established, users across each department should be free to use their normal applications with a single data set. Furthermore, it also means that different departments’ findings and insights can be compared and investigated in the same context, as they are using the same data.
As Peter Svensson explains: “I’d like to see guided self-service reporting which can be spread out to lower management levels. Right now, much of the reporting is focused on upper management, and lower management often do not get any reports. With self-service reporting, you can easily give them access to reports for their specific area.”
Once users can quickly access data that they know is accurate, up-to-date, and consistent with what other departments are using, they will come to rely on that information and use it much more.
Phong Le highlights: “If you tell me I have to open a web page and type in four things to get the information I need, I'll probably just make the decision based on gut instinct instead, which can be dangerous. So how do you make the most relevant, important information available to teams right then and there?”
Making this happen will most likely require support from an expert partner such as MicroStrategy who can remove data silos and bring sources together. That way, users can access insights across all the applications they use, meaning those insights can be integrated in a more meaningful, platform-agnostic way.
Chief Information Officer for Sainsbury’s
Critical Capabilities for Analytics and Business Intelligence Platforms (Gartner, May 2022)
It’s clear that CFOs can drive digital transformation and help a business fully embrace analytics, as long as it doesn’t overburden them when their other responsibilities are taken into account. In particular, they can also help gain the senior management buy-in that is vital for success.
In advising other finance leaders on what they can do to ensure the success of their data & analytics projects Peter Svensson concludes: “You have to have a person to drive it, who can sell it to the company. Full management commitment is key. Not having this leads to slower execution, which demotivates people.”
Phong Le adds, “Don’t wait too long to roll out a report or dashboard, work in two-week sprints, build a dashboard and get feedback. Then create a new iteration. If you wait too long the requirement will have changed and the project will be obsolete.”
President & Chief Financial Officer, MicroStrategy