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Data: how FDs can tap into new forms of value creation

Finance directors can drive change in their organisations by blending the data they hold, say experts

Data and Analytics are now key to all organisations and should be seen and used as an asset to drive business forward, says Naeem Sarwar, associate director at technology group Fujitsu.

He says this is the only way that organisations will survive in today’s marketplace. “The goal for organisations today is to convert descriptive analytics into predictive and prescriptive analytics. This is where you actually generate actions and decisions based on data analysis,” says Sarwar.

“In order for this to be truly successful, organisations need to work across all areas of data and IT, to establish the business strategy and how data, analytics and technology will support and drive that.

“Part of this will be having a data strategy and a data vision and ownership across the business. It is only then you will truly see the benefits,” says Sarwar.

By harvesting data through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, companies are creating new forms of value, says Kenneth Cukier, senior editor of digital products at the Economist.

Cukier says technology has become so powerful, cost of memory has gone down and data storage ability has massively increased, that there has been a big advance in how to create economic value from data.

“You can make decisions based on that data in a way that you really couldn’t previously,” says Cukier who co-authored Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Work in 2013 and Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education with Victor Mayer-Schonberger in 2014.

Mixing it up

Jean-Marc Huët, the former CFO of Unilever says one of the major contributions made by the finance team at the consumer giant was the compilation of an algorithmic data dashboard from a variety of sources as diverse as Facebook, Google, and research giant Nielsen.

He says it was vital to have multiple sources for analysing trends. “We built up an enterprise data warehouse, to cut, slice and analyse information from local, regional and global data.

“Although our industry is quite leading edge at exploiting data, we needed to look at a lot of indicators, seeking continuous improvement in this area,” says Huët, who left the Anglo-Dutch group in 2015.

But while Huët describes Unilever as a data-driven company, he is mindful of the limitations of relying too much on raw data.  “Just having heapfuls of data is not a panacea, you have to have the right platform to undertake the right action,” he says.

“Using data in the wrong way can sometimes inhibit decisions, especially as the world is so volatile. I have a view that an over-reliance on data makes you far less agile,he adds.

At Thunderbird Entertainment, a Vancouver-based film and TV distribution company, the onus is on extracting the best information from separate data sets.

Gavin Rose, finance and commercial director of the UK arm that focuses on releasing art house films- called Thunderbird Releasing, says strong data analysis skills are essential to understand how films perform in cinemas, video as well as subscription video on demand (SVOD) from players such as Amazon and Netflix.

“In film it’s really important to be able to merge different data because every window or revenue stream works very differently,” says Rose. “For theatrical, the booking and billing system we have is specialist, as is rights management and TV contract software, as is the way we track DVD revenue, so you need to have a way to bring all that information together,” he adds.

“It’s not just the revenues, but also title metadata, release dates and units sold all have to be brought into the data mix,” says Rose.

The human element

Stephen Cassidy, senior vice president and managing director, UK & Ireland, at hotel group Hilton Worldwide, says powerful data insights have proved to be vital for effective decisions in the hotel industry.

Cassidy says data used to create a detailed picture of customers to help forge closer relationships with them. An important tool from which insights can be drawn is the Hilton Honors loyalty system which now has more than 60 million members around the world.

For Cassidy though, it is not enough to have the systems in place to produce data, the group also has to have the right people in place with the appropriate skills to harvest the information and put it to work for the business.

“We have created a centre of expertise around revenue management, with a team of people able to draw insight from that data like nobody else and as a consequence of that our ability to risk manage and execute plans more effectively is pretty unparalleled,” says Cassidy.

He continues: “There is no computer that can do that, no piece of technology that can do that for you. Ultimately it needs highly skilled, experienced team members to take advantage of it.”

Fujitsu’s Sarwar says companies should be realistic about what they can achieve and focus on delivering the operational improvements they seek across a number of areas.

“The key is to align and couple your business goals and strategy to your data and analytics vision. They need to go hand in hand. Start with small agile Proof of Concepts or Value to prove the business case,” says Sarwar.

“Showcase these to other areas of the business and you will gain buy in from key stakeholders that leveraging the power of data and analytics can drive your business forward,” he adds.


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