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Putting finance in pole position: Strengthening strategic partnerships by extracting actionable insights from key data sets

The CFO community should be proactive and stay ahead of the game by understanding the need to enhance their L&D, skill sets and appetite to take advantage of new technologies

This intimate in-person discussion, led by Pat Romano, Finance Director at Dow Jones and joined by Linda Hull, Principal Solution Consultant at Workday Adaptive Planning, discussed the data challenges that finance functions are facing. They discussed the gap between skill set, mindset, and tech solutions and how to overcome them.

Questions arose around who makes the decisions, who takes ownership of mundane activities and who should take ultimate ownership of implementation of technology. It was suggested that this responsibility could rest with the CFO, CIO or CTO; however, as AI becomes more prominent, this may change in the future.

With this discussion in mind, data will become increasingly important across all industries, and it is crucial to ensure that finance functions are equipped with the right skillset and mindset as well as the right tech solutions to overcome challenges in navigating data to ensure informed decision making. The session was conducted under Chatham House rules so while this write-up will highlight key discussion points and takeaways, all participants are anonymised.

Challenges with Data

The ability to effectively use data is essential to any organization, not just in finance. With the rise of large-scale software, the CIO plays a big part in ensuring that data can reach the right people and be used effectively.

The group discussed how skill shortages within FP&A roles has exacerbated the risk of data not reaching those who need it. As a result, finance functions must explore how to ‘build upstream’ to ensure that data reaches where it needs to go. FP&A functions need access to skilled data resources and appropriate software support from the CIO to leverage data to drive insights.

The shortage of people with data skills has also placed a high demand on organizations who require clean and user-friendly data. This need for easy to digest and clean data brought up the conversation around the partnership of Workday Adaptive with Incorta, which is one way to ensure the data pipeline is efficient and data is clean and accessible. The focus is on the end-user since they do not have to have a technical or data savvy background providing an efficient and accessible way for users to make the most out of data without having to master tech or data related skills.

Dark shadow planning and relying on disconnected spreadsheets and manual work is not an effective or secure strategy, so there is a need to start eliminating this approach and start utilizing resources to drive better insights by using flexible, business-owned and user-friendly applications.

The group discussed the implementation of data cleaning – who should own this? The answer was it is a mix of both, depending on the business. Like most tech strategies, data, and the way in which it is used, has become the ‘personality’ of businesses. However, it was agreed finance functions are beginning to take more ownership of data as their role in deciphering their insights becomes more critical for business decision making.

The group discussed also touched on the security issues surrounding data, which have somewhat been exacerbated as the volume of data collected by companies increases. Tagging was one area addressed, specifically on how this process occurs when numerous teams use the data sets to drill down into. Organizations have more systems than ever, which is creating additional challenges. As software changes so rapidly, businesses are recognising legal is constantly playing catch up.

Talent and skills

The group had an in-depth discussion regarding skills gaps within finance teams, and the required talent/skills needed for the future of the function. Participants also discussed the investment needed to upskill individuals to bridge these gaps.

The importance of having a diverse skill set within a team was highlighted, as it would prevent teams from being “stuck without a critical skill” if one expert left. Investing in the correct skill sets and talent is essential for effective financial performance. The discussion emphasized that a well-thought-out skills and talent plan is important to maximize the value of time spent for the finance teams.

Time was also identified as being a key factor; small teams should focus on value added work rather than mundane tasks, which can be completed quickly using tech and time-saving tools such as Workday Adaptive Planning. The group discussed how each team must take ownership of their own functions and be aware of the data, tools and budgets that are available. This trend is seen across the board as more accountabilities are distributed and finance does not become a bottleneck due to data access.

To make this easier, CFOs should consider regular skills audits which track the strengths and skill sets of each team member across departments – access to this information could prove crucial as businesses continue to scale. Workday Adaptive Planning was mentioned as a great tool for this, as it allows finance teams to add value to the process, rather than be a limiting factor. This way, teams can use the data to answer questions and create meaningful insights for their organization, highlighting the importance for each team to have adequate skill set, talent, finance knowledge, and tools available to maximize their potential.

Participants also noted the importance of ‘People and Skills Planning’. Hiring the ‘right people’ in the current economic environment will be a challenge for most businesses and so professional development has risen on the agenda. However, when prospecting new talent, businesses need to ensure interviews include a baseline assessment to determine transferable skills so that the team can focus on development and leveraging data.

One participant noted their organization provides its employees with $750 a year for their professional development, allowing them to scope out the requirements they need – employees are therefore encouraged to take ownership of their learning.

Participants agreed however, that the success of learning and development ultimately hinges on strong leadership. The quote “what if you invest in people and they leave?, but what if you don’t and they stay?”.” was used to make this argument, but also applied to the implementation of technology as the discussion evolved; namely, businesses need to invest in their technology in the same way they invest in their people. The suggestion from the impending discussion was that investing in people is a great way to invest in tech. By empowering individuals to ‘own’ their projects, they can gain a sense of ownership and responsibility which will only lead to higher success rates (and retention!). It also provides an opportunity for employees to hone their skills and leadership abilities, while giving the organization the chance to leverage data and insights on the projects. This kind of professional development leads to improved productivity, quality and innovation in the workplace, and increasing return on investment.

Return of investment of tech solutions

In the current landscape, the demand for tools that provide greater focus on tech implementation and ROI is growing. Evidencing the ROI on certain tools can be difficult, especially if they are integrated with existing systems as the process can be complicated to quantify. To make the most of these tools and opportunities, an ROI proposal should be developed that shortens the ROI period. The opportunity cost of not falling behind other organizations should also be considered as they are already leveraging data to gain insights into their people and employees. From a Workday perspective, people are using tools with customers and prospects that can walk through a ROI process which gives qualitative and quantitative responses to show the ROI of implementation.

The question of whether to build internally or buy a tech solution was also discussed by participants. Building something from scratch can be very risky, as it requires a high level of knowledge and skills – the cost in terms of finance and resources can be heavy if the project does not deliver the ROI. That is why it is important for organizations to develop their people with relevant training and leadership initiatives to leverage data and help employees build on top of existing solutions to meet the nuances required.

Not only will this help teams clean up account data but also enable the organization to benefit from their employees’ valuable skills and knowledge. Easy to implement solutions mentioned by the group that can be used on top of current solutions or workflows were solutions like Visier related to HR/people data and Alteryx related to general workflow process automation.

Participants also discussed current methods of building ways to solve problems currently faced but also acknowledged the business environment will change; in essence, how do you stay agile?

  • Build in phases.
  • Anticipate change.
  • Find solutions that are scalable and adaptable in the long run
  • Form good partnership with vendors that listens
  • Trust in vendors to grow with you

It was agreed by participants that ultimately, plan as best you can but you do not know what you do not know. Gartner’s research into composable architecture advocates the use of the right tool for the right job, however, to ensure that vendors connect with compatible tech solutions, there needs to be an element of consolidation of tech and a reduction in the number of vendors. Apple was highlighted as an example of an effective ecosystem, but nuances in demands, requirements and skill sets need to be considered. Vendors can add enhancements to help build, implement, and use technology that brings the most success, creating internal excitement.

There was a discussion on ownership when modifications to software are required: Who has the final say? Who should own the adoption and the overall implementation? The group agreed that the CFO needs to be onboard, but recognised organizational structure can be a challenge.

Potential solutions were discussed, the main one being a requirement for a lead on each technology investment that is implemented. This fixes the cultural problem of integrating tech and ensures that buy-in and excitement of the solution is felt across the board by all teams. It can take time to get everyone on board and therefore the experts that assist processes and teams helps with this adoption. Centers of excellence “outsourcing internally” were discussed and whether this will be the future of how finance team’s function.

Future challenges and changes finance teams are facing

Change is coming -this was agreed by the whole group. Finance roles are changing and have changed exponentially in the last 10 years. One participant noted that scenario planning was not even a thing discussed by finance teams a decade or so ago – working within the FP&A function is completely different.

The degree to which data science will change the role was up for debate.

  • Where do we go with AI? How will this change?
  • What does this mean for finance functions and finance teams?
  • What enhancements to the audit industry can be made?
  • How do you make it part of the process and less intrusive?

The changes and advancements in AI were up for debate with varying levels of current adoption and skepticism for use cases in the industry. One participant mentioned that AI will require better, well-rounded professionals with greater infrastructure around engineers and experts in their fields. AI within finance has two potential routes – “create me” and “guess what.” Both used at varying levels.

  1. Create me… predictive forecasting and planning. Where do we go with this? Repetitive tasks done automatically to elevate the teams we have to complete more of the value-add tasks.
  2. Guess what I am going to ask next. The ability to deliver what people are looking for

Conclusion

The discussion then led back to the talent, development and skill sets of organizations and finance functions. The group concluded by discussing how the CFO community needs to be proactive and stay ahead of the game by understanding the need to enhance their L&D, skill sets and appetite to take advantage of new technologies.

This is particularly pertinent in relation to data, as currently there are a lot of unknown challenges for finance functions. CFOs must ensure they are up to date with their knowledge and skills to ensure their businesses remain agile and competitive.

 

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