The CFO Role In 2020

Estelle Lagorce

African American businessman looking out office window --- Image by © Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/CorbisThe role of the CFO is undergoing a serious transformation, and CFOs can expect their role to continue to evolve, according to a recent article by Deloitte COO and CFO Frank Friedman.

In the futurist article, Friedman says one of the biggest factors that will contribute to the CFO’s significant change over the next five years is technology.

Digital technology is obviously expected to drive change in high-tech companies, but Friedman says it’s industries outside of the tech sectors that are of particular interest, as they struggle to understand how to grasp and harness the digital capabilities available to them.

Working with high tech in low-tech industries

Five years from now, a finance team may be defined by how well it uses technology and innovative business tools, regardless of what industry it’s in. The article outlines some examples of ways that digital technology will increasingly be used by CFOs in “non-tech” sectors:

  • Predictive analytics: CFOs in manufacturing companies can forecast results and produce revenue predictions based on customer-experience profiles and current demand, instead of comparing to previous years as most companies still do today.
  • Social media and crowdsourcing: You may not think CFOs spend a lot of time on social media or crowdsourcing sites, but these methods can actually expedite finance processes, such as month-end responsibilities of the finance organization.
  • Big Data: CFOs already have a lot of data at their fingertips, but in 2020 they will have even more. CFOs in both tech and non-tech sectors who understand how to use that data to make valuable, informed decisions, can strategically guide their company and industry in a more digitally oriented world.

To do this, Friedman says CFOs can lead the way by addressing some critical areas:

  1. Know the issues: Gather the key questions that leaders expect Big Data analytics to answer.
  1. Make data easily accessible: Collect data that is manageable and easy to access.
  1. Broaden skills: The finance team needs people with the skills to understand and strategically interpret the data available to them.

The tech-savvy CFO

The role of today’s CFO has already expanded to include strategic corporate growth advice as well as managing the bottom line. In 2020, Friedman says expectations placed on the CFO are presumed to be even greater, and CFOs will likely need a much more diverse, multidisciplinary skill set to meet those demands.

The article details several traits and skills that CFOs will need in order to keep up with the pace of digital change in their role.

  1. Digital knowledge: CFOs must be tech-savvy in order to capitalize on technical innovations that will benefit their company and their industry as a whole.
  1. Data-driven execution: CFOs will need the ability to execute company strategy and operations decisions based on data-driven insights.
  1. Regulatory compliance: Regulations continue to be more stringent globally, so CFOs will need to be proficient at working closely with regulators and compliance systems.
  1. Risk management: With the growing global economy comes increased cyber and geopolitical risks worldwide. The CFOs of 2020, especially those in large multinational organizations, will need to have the expertise to monitor and manage risk in areas that may be unforeseen today.

The future CFO’s well-rounded resume

By 2020, the CFO role will require much more than just an accounting background. According to Deloitte’s Frank Friedman, “CFOs may need to bring a much more multidisciplinary skill set to the job as well as broader career experiences, from working overseas to holding positions in sales and marketing, and even running a business unit.”

So if you’re a current or aspiring CFO, you have five years to round out your resume with the necessary skills to be ready for the digitally driven role of the CFO in 2020.

The above information is based on the article What Will the CFO Role Look Like In 2020?” by Deloitte COO & CFO, Frank Friedman – Copyright © 2015

Want to learn more about best practices for transforming your finance organization? View the SAP/Deloitte Webinar, “Reshaping the Finance Function”.

For an in-depth look at digital technology’s role in business transformation, download the SAP eBook, The Digital Economy: Reinventing the Business World.

To learn more about the business and technology factors driving digital disruption, download the SAP eBook, Digital Disruption: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our World.

To read more CFO insights from a tech industry perspective, read the Wall Street Journal article with SAP CFO Luka Mucic: Driving Insight with In-memory Technology.

Discover 7 Questions CFOs Should Ask Themselves About Cyber Security.


Estelle Lagorce

About Estelle Lagorce

Estelle Lagorce is the Director, Global Partner Marketing, at SAP. She leads the global planning, successful implementation and business impact of integrated marketing programs with top global Strategic Partner across priority regions and countries (demand generation, thought leadership).

Lessons On GRC Platforms From The Forrester Wave: Keep Your Eyes On The Road

Bruce McCuaig

On February 15, Forrester released The Forrester Wave: Governance, Risk, and Compliance Platforms, Q1 2018. SAP continues to be rated a leader. But the market for governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) platforms is maturing, and at SAP, we believe the criteria for evaluating and selecting a vendor are evolving.

Should you choose the GRC vendor with the strongest current offering or the GRC vendor with the strongest strategy?

SAP occupies neither position. But is there a third and better option?

Keep your eyes on the road, not the vendor

Anyone buying a new car has access to consumer reports comparing and rating vehicle manufacturers and models against a variety of criteria. Vehicle entertainment systems are among the criteria rated.

However, for most vehicles made in the last 5-10 years, the supplier of the original equipment vehicle entertainment system is not displayed. In some cases, the supplier is not even mentioned in the owner’s manual. There may be a lesson here for customers looking for GRC solutions.

In automobiles, the entertainment system is an outcome, not a separate process. The outcome is evaluated, not the vendor. Customers evaluate and purchase the complete vehicle, not an individual component.

In my recent vehicle purchase, the UI of the OEM entertainment system was rated poorly in several analyst reports.

The real issue, however, isn’t whether the vehicle entertainment system’s UI is easy to learn. That may be a useful criterion for an in-home entertainment system. But the critical criterion for the UI in a vehicle entertainment system is this: Can you use it while keeping your eyes on the road? That is the essential outcome. Acoustic performance is a given. But can the system add value and synergies from other vehicle systems through native integration and continuous monitoring?

Does the entertainment system provide continuous monitoring of the vehicle navigation system, integration with the alarm system, compatibility with the mobile communication and vehicle maintenance systems? Does it provide audio alerts for maintenance and safety issues? Will it warn you of hazards ahead? Does it connect to the cloud?

Does it make the vehicle better?

The specific stand-alone features and UI of the entertainment system in your vehicle are important but secondary to the main goal. Integration of the system into the vehicle’s overall performance is the key criterion. Criteria that help you select a home entertainment system are not useful for evaluating a system for your car. And beyond the core capabilities that are important for your home entertainment system, are there other features that add value and influence the car-buying decision?

The path for ERP providers in the GRC market

The goal is balance and integration. GRC performance without strategy is short-lived. GRC strategy without strong capability is not effective. Growing both simultaneously is difficult, but in the end, is the only sustainable option.

I’d suggest that is exactly where an ERP provider should be positioned and exactly the trajectory to follow.

Eventually, GRC systems, like car entertainment systems, will be subsumed into the ERP landscape of your business. The value of the GRC systems will lie in their integration into the underlying ERP system and the cloud and their contribution to performance, not in their stand-alone virtues.

Download and read The Forrester Wave: Governance, Risk, and Compliance Platforms, Q1 2018.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter) | LinkedIn | Facebook | YouTube


Bruce McCuaig

About Bruce McCuaig

Bruce McCuaig is director Product Marketing at SAP GRC solutions. He is responsible for development and execution of the product marketing strategy for SAP Risk Management, SAP Audit Management and SAP solutions for three lines of defense. Bruce has extensive experience in industry as a finance professional, as a chief risk officer, and as a chief audit executive. He has written and spoken extensively on GRC topics and has worked with clients around the world implementing GRC solutions and technology.

The CFO’s Strategy Playbook: Seven Key Elements

Johannes Vogel

Part 1 of the 4-part CFO Strategy Playbook series

In my first blog, “Seven Finance Strategy Questions That Can Start the Paradigm Shift in the CFO Domain,” I discussed the reasons why many CFOs are starting to look at their finance team’s functional strategy. They revisit the way the finance teams are set up, what values and vision the team stands for, how to better serve the “customers” of the CFO team, and what changes are needed to implement this transformation.

In this article, I will explore which key content elements should be part of a functional finance strategy. The article can be used as a finance strategy playbook.

The elements provide a framework for the CFO team’s strategic organizational development. The focus of this post will be on strategic content and less on approach. In working with my customers’ finance teams, I do sense a growing interest in reviewing or fine-tuning their functional finance strategies, combined with a willingness toward more experimentation and smaller initiatives to try out innovation options. This frame of mind provides a good starting point for starting any finance transformation. The finance strategy creates the foundation and framework for transformation of the finance function.

Let’s explore what questions should be addressed in developing a company’s finance strategy:

  • How does the overall company strategy inform and impact the CFO team’s functional strategy?
  • Which megatrends and innovations are relevant for the company at large and for the finance team in particular?
  • What are the requirements of the business and of capital market stakeholders or investors, which the finance team needs to address in three to five years?
  • Which finance activities provide the most value and need to be strengthened—for example, decision support, capital allocation, active business partnering?
  • What should be the vision and mission for the finance team looking at the needs of the rest of the company and the finance team for the next three to five years?
  • Which are the topics of strategic focus for the CFO team, what are “strategic thrust areas”?
  • How does finance define its role relative to the business, and what operating model and governance are needed to sustain that role?
  • What people and cultural aspects should be considered, and what changes for job profiles are required?
  • What is the status quo of the finance team and what initiatives are needed?
  • How can we track and measure success?
  • What is the roadmap and implementation plan to operationalize and execute the strategy?

Finance strategy – a definition

On a more abstract level, functional finance strategies deal with external and internal requirements for the finance team. They consider external megatrends and innovation and make specific what the vision and mission should be and what strategic thrust areas are relevant. The strategic thrust areas make transparent what areas the finance team will create value for the business. They also address how business insight is generated and made available to the operative business. In addition, there is typically an organizational update of roles and responsibilities.

Ideally, the finance strategy also covers the operating model (team structures and in- and outsourcing decisions), at team governance, and at ways of working and required skill profiles and cultural aspects. Finally, the finance strategy should include actionable initiatives and tasks, showing what is needed to master the transformation and how the change will be implemented.

The seven finance strategy elements

Let’s assume that a CFO together with a team wants to start the definition of their functional finance strategy. The structure might look like this:

  1. The context
  1. The objectives
  1. Governance
    • Design principles
    • Strategy development process
  1. Status quo and requirements
    • Megatrends and innovation relevant for finance
    • Status quo of the CFO team (as-is state)
    • Requirements for the finance team
  1. Finance strategy dimensions*
    • Finance strategic thrust areas
    • Finance strategy vision and mission statements
    • Finance strategy details (by strategic thrust area)
    • Impact on the Finance operating model and organizational structure
    • Summary to-be state
  1. The finance strategy gap (as-is state vs. to-be state)
  1. Implementation road gap
    • Initiative summaries
    • Finance initiative portfolio and prioritization
    • Roadmap and implementation plan

In upcoming posts, I will delve into more detail.

*Please note that the various aspects of a company’s financing strategy, which frequently is also viewed as part of the overall finance strategy, warrant a separate article.

For more insight on financial leadership, see Why Complacency Is An Expensive Mindset For The CFO.


Johannes Vogel

About Johannes Vogel

Johannes Vogel is director of Finance & Regulatory for Finance Strategy & Digital CFO Services at BearingPoint. Johannes is an experienced professional in management consulting in the areas of finance strategy, finance process improvement, digital CFO services, and process management. He has worked with national and international clients in creating functional strategies for CFO teams preparing to support the business by creating value and business insights, while running a cost-efficient yet technologically modern organization. Other projects Johannes conducted with his clients included digital CFO assessments and benchmarking, as well as ERP and finance process implementations. Prior to consulting, Johannes worked in various finance functions of an Atlanta-based international media group. Johannes is a lecturer for a Master Program at the Universität der Künste in Berlin and likes to post on finance topics. In his time off, he enjoys playing guitar with friends and tries to spend as much time as possible with his sailing buddies somewhere off the coast of Croatia or elsewhere.

Hack the CIO

By Thomas Saueressig, Timo Elliott, Sam Yen, and Bennett Voyles

For nerds, the weeks right before finals are a Cinderella moment. Suddenly they’re stars. Pocket protectors are fashionable; people find their jokes a whole lot funnier; Dungeons & Dragons sounds cool.

Many CIOs are enjoying this kind of moment now, as companies everywhere face the business equivalent of a final exam for a vital class they have managed to mostly avoid so far: digital transformation.

But as always, there is a limit to nerdy magic. No matter how helpful CIOs try to be, their classmates still won’t pass if they don’t learn the material. With IT increasingly central to every business—from the customer experience to the offering to the business model itself—we all need to start thinking like CIOs.

Pass the digital transformation exam, and you probably have a bright future ahead. A recent SAP-Oxford Economics study of 3,100 organizations in a variety of industries across 17 countries found that the companies that have taken the lead in digital transformation earn higher profits and revenues and have more competitive differentiation than their peers. They also expect 23% more revenue growth from their digital initiatives over the next two years—an estimate 2.5 to 4 times larger than the average company’s.

But the market is grading on a steep curve: this same SAP-Oxford study found that only 3% have completed some degree of digital transformation across their organization. Other surveys also suggest that most companies won’t be graduating anytime soon: in one recent survey of 450 heads of digital transformation for enterprises in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany by technology company Couchbase, 90% agreed that most digital projects fail to meet expectations and deliver only incremental improvements. Worse: over half (54%) believe that organizations that don’t succeed with their transformation project will fail or be absorbed by a savvier competitor within four years.

Companies that are making the grade understand that unlike earlier technical advances, digital transformation doesn’t just support the business, it’s the future of the business. That’s why 60% of digital leading companies have entrusted the leadership of their transformation to their CIO, and that’s why experts say businesspeople must do more than have a vague understanding of the technology. They must also master a way of thinking and looking at business challenges that is unfamiliar to most people outside the IT department.

In other words, if you don’t think like a CIO yet, now is a very good time to learn.

However, given that you probably don’t have a spare 15 years to learn what your CIO knows, we asked the experts what makes CIO thinking distinctive. Here are the top eight mind hacks.

1. Think in Systems

A lot of businesspeople are used to seeing their organization as a series of loosely joined silos. But in the world of digital business, everything is part of a larger system.

CIOs have known for a long time that smart processes win. Whether they were installing enterprise resource planning systems or working with the business to imagine the customer’s journey, they always had to think in holistic ways that crossed traditional departmental, functional, and operational boundaries.

Unlike other business leaders, CIOs spend their careers looking across systems. Why did our supply chain go down? How can we support this new business initiative beyond a single department or function? Now supported by end-to-end process methodologies such as design thinking, good CIOs have developed a way of looking at the company that can lead to radical simplifications that can reduce cost and improve performance at the same time.

They are also used to thinking beyond temporal boundaries. “This idea that the power of technology doubles every two years means that as you’re planning ahead you can’t think in terms of a linear process, you have to think in terms of huge jumps,” says Jay Ferro, CIO of TransPerfect, a New York–based global translation firm.

No wonder the SAP-Oxford transformation study found that one of the values transformational leaders shared was a tendency to look beyond silos and view the digital transformation as a company-wide initiative.

This will come in handy because in digital transformation, not only do business processes evolve but the company’s entire value proposition changes, says Jeanne Ross, principal research scientist at the Center for Information Systems Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “It either already has or it’s going to, because digital technologies make things possible that weren’t possible before,” she explains.

2. Work in Diverse Teams

When it comes to large projects, CIOs have always needed input from a diverse collection of businesspeople to be successful. The best have developed ways to convince and cajole reluctant participants to come to the table. They seek out technology enthusiasts in the business and those who are respected by their peers to help build passion and commitment among the halfhearted.

Digital transformation amps up the urgency for building diverse teams even further. “A small, focused group simply won’t have the same breadth of perspective as a team that includes a salesperson and a service person and a development person, as well as an IT person,” says Ross.

At Lenovo, the global technology giant, many of these cross-functional teams become so used to working together that it’s hard to tell where each member originally belonged: “You can’t tell who is business or IT; you can’t tell who is product, IT, or design,” says the company’s CIO, Arthur Hu.

One interesting corollary of this trend toward broader teamwork is that talent is a priority among digital leaders: they spend more on training their employees and partners than ordinary companies, as well as on hiring the people they need, according to the SAP-Oxford Economics survey. They’re also already being rewarded for their faith in their teams: 71% of leaders say that their successful digital transformation has made it easier for them to attract and retain talent, and 64% say that their employees are now more engaged than they were before the transformation.

3. Become a Consultant

Good CIOs have long needed to be internal consultants to the business. Ever since technology moved out of the glasshouse and onto employees’ desks, CIOs have not only needed a deep understanding of the goals of a given project but also to make sure that the project didn’t stray from those goals, even after the businesspeople who had ordered the project went back to their day jobs. “Businesspeople didn’t really need to get into the details of what IT was really doing,” recalls Ferro. “They just had a set of demands and said, ‘Hey, IT, go do that.’”

Now software has become so integral to the business that nobody can afford to walk away. Businesspeople must join the ranks of the IT consultants.

But that was then. Now software has become so integral to the business that nobody can afford to walk away. Businesspeople must join the ranks of the IT consultants. “If you’re building a house, you don’t just disappear for six months and come back and go, ‘Oh, it looks pretty good,’” says Ferro. “You’re on that work site constantly and all of a sudden you’re looking at something, going, ‘Well, that looked really good on the blueprint, not sure it makes sense in reality. Let’s move that over six feet.’ Or, ‘I don’t know if I like that anymore.’ It’s really not much different in application development or for IT or technical projects, where on paper it looked really good and three weeks in, in that second sprint, you’re going, ‘Oh, now that I look at it, that’s really stupid.’”

4. Learn Horizontal Leadership

CIOs have always needed the ability to educate and influence other leaders that they don’t directly control. For major IT projects to be successful, they need other leaders to contribute budget, time, and resources from multiple areas of the business.

It’s a kind of horizontal leadership that will become critical for businesspeople to acquire in digital transformation. “The leadership role becomes one much more of coaching others across the organization—encouraging people to be creative, making sure everybody knows how to use data well,” Ross says.

In this team-based environment, having all the answers becomes less important. “It used to be that the best business executives and leaders had the best answers. Today that is no longer the case,” observes Gary Cokins, a technology consultant who focuses on analytics-based performance management. “Increasingly, it’s the executives and leaders who ask the best questions. There is too much volatility and uncertainty for them to rely on their intuition or past experiences.”

Many experts expect this trend to continue as the confluence of automation and data keeps chipping away at the organizational pyramid. “Hierarchical, command-and-control leadership will become obsolete,” says Edward Hess, professor of business administration and Batten executive-in-residence at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “Flatter, distributive leadership via teams will become the dominant structure.”

5. Understand Process Design

When business processes were simpler, IT could analyze the process and improve it without input from the business. But today many processes are triggered on the fly by the customer, making a seamless customer experience more difficult to build without the benefit of a larger, multifunctional team. In a highly digitalized organization like Amazon, which releases thousands of new software programs each year, IT can no longer do it all.

While businesspeople aren’t expected to start coding, their involvement in process design is crucial. One of the techniques that many organizations have adopted to help IT and businesspeople visualize business processes together is design thinking (for more on design thinking techniques, see “A Cult of Creation“).

Customers aren’t the only ones who benefit from better processes. Among the 100 companies the SAP-Oxford Economics researchers have identified as digital leaders, two-thirds say that they are making their employees’ lives easier by eliminating process roadblocks that interfere with their ability to do their jobs. Ninety percent of leaders surveyed expect to see value from these projects in the next two years alone.

6. Learn to Keep Learning

The ability to learn and keep learning has been a part of IT from the start. Since the first mainframes in the 1950s, technologists have understood that they need to keep reinventing themselves and their skills to adapt to the changes around them.

Now that’s starting to become part of other job descriptions too. Many companies are investing in teaching their employees new digital skills. One South American auto products company, for example, has created a custom-education institute that trained 20,000 employees and partner-employees in 2016. In addition to training current staff, many leading digital companies are also hiring new employees and creating new roles, such as a chief robotics officer, to support their digital transformation efforts.

Nicolas van Zeebroeck, professor of information systems and digital business innovation at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management at the Free University of Brussels, says that he expects the ability to learn quickly will remain crucial. “If I had to think of one critical skill,” he explains, “I would have to say it’s the ability to learn and keep learning—the ability to challenge the status quo and question what you take for granted.”

7. Fail Smarter

Traditionally, CIOs tended to be good at thinking through tests that would allow the company to experiment with new technology without risking the entire network.

This is another unfamiliar skill that smart managers are trying to pick up. “There’s a lot of trial and error in the best companies right now,” notes MIT’s Ross. But there’s a catch, she adds. “Most companies aren’t designed for trial and error—they’re trying to avoid an error,” she says.

To learn how to do it better, take your lead from IT, where many people have already learned to work in small, innovative teams that use agile development principles, advises Ross.

For example, business managers must learn how to think in terms of a minimum viable product: build a simple version of what you have in mind, test it, and if it works start building. You don’t build the whole thing at once anymore.… It’s really important to build things incrementally,” Ross says.

Flexibility and the ability to capitalize on accidental discoveries during experimentation are more important than having a concrete project plan, says Ross. At Spotify, the music service, and CarMax, the used-car retailer, change is driven not from the center but from small teams that have developed something new. “The thing you have to get comfortable with is not having the formalized plan that we would have traditionally relied on, because as soon as you insist on that, you limit your ability to keep learning,” Ross warns.

8. Understand the True Cost—and Speed—of Data

Gut instincts have never had much to do with being a CIO; now they should have less to do with being an ordinary manager as well, as data becomes more important.

As part of that calculation, businesspeople must have the ability to analyze the value of the data that they seek. “You’ll need to apply a pinch of knowledge salt to your data,” advises Solvay’s van Zeebroeck. “What really matters is the ability not just to tap into data but to see what is behind the data. Is it a fair representation? Is it impartial?”

Increasingly, businesspeople will need to do their analysis in real time, just as CIOs have always had to manage live systems and processes. Moving toward real-time reports and away from paper-based decisions increases accuracy and effectiveness—and leaves less time for long meetings and PowerPoint presentations (let us all rejoice).

Not Every CIO Is Ready

Of course, not all CIOs are ready for these changes. Just as high school has a lot of false positives—genius nerds who turn out to be merely nearsighted—so there are many CIOs who aren’t good role models for transformation.

Success as a CIO these days requires more than delivering near-perfect uptime, says Lenovo’s Hu. You need to be able to understand the business as well. Some CIOs simply don’t have all the business skills that are needed to succeed in the transformation. Others lack the internal clout: a 2016 KPMG study found that only 34% of CIOs report directly to the CEO.

This lack of a strategic perspective is holding back digital transformation at many organizations. They approach digital transformation as a cool, one-off project: we’re going to put this new mobile app in place and we’re done. But that’s not a systematic approach; it’s an island of innovation that doesn’t join up with the other islands of innovation. In the longer term, this kind of development creates more problems than it fixes.

Such organizations are not building in the capacity for change; they’re trying to get away with just doing it once rather than thinking about how they’re going to use digitalization as a means to constantly experiment and become a better company over the long term.

As a result, in some companies, the most interesting tech developments are happening despite IT, not because of it. “There’s an alarming digital divide within many companies. Marketers are developing nimble software to give customers an engaging, personalized experience, while IT departments remain focused on the legacy infrastructure. The front and back ends aren’t working together, resulting in appealing web sites and apps that don’t quite deliver,” writes George Colony, founder, chairman, and CEO of Forrester Research, in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Thanks to cloud computing and easier development tools, many departments are developing on their own, without IT’s support. These days, anybody with a credit card can do it.

Traditionally, IT departments looked askance at these kinds of do-it-yourself shadow IT programs, but that’s changing. Ferro, for one, says that it’s better to look at those teams not as rogue groups but as people who are trying to help. “It’s less about ‘Hey, something’s escaped,’ and more about ‘No, we just actually grew our capacity and grew our ability to innovate,’” he explains.

“I don’t like the term ‘shadow IT,’” agrees Lenovo’s Hu. “I think it’s an artifact of a very traditional CIO team. If you think of it as shadow IT, you’re out of step with reality,” he says.

The reality today is that a company needs both a strong IT department and strong digital capacities outside its IT department. If the relationship is good, the CIO and IT become valuable allies in helping businesspeople add digital capabilities without disrupting or duplicating existing IT infrastructure.

If a company already has strong digital capacities, it should be able to move forward quickly, according to Ross. But many companies are still playing catch-up and aren’t even ready to begin transforming, as the SAP-Oxford Economics survey shows.

For enterprises where business and IT are unable to get their collective act together, Ross predicts that the next few years will be rough. “I think these companies ought to panic,” she says. D!

About the Authors

Thomas Saueressig is Chief Information Officer at SAP.

Timo Elliott is an Innovation Evangelist at SAP.

Sam Yen is Chief Design Officer at SAP and Managing Director of SAP Labs.

Bennett Voyles is a Berlin-based business writer.

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.


The Differences Between Machine Learning And Predictive Analytics

Shaily Kumar

Many people are confused about the specifics of machine learning and predictive analytics. Although they are both centered on efficient data processing, there are many differences.

Machine learning

Machine learning is a method of computational learning underlying most artificial intelligence (AI) applications. In ML, systems or algorithms improve themselves through data experience without relying on explicit programming. ML algorithms are wide-ranging tools capable of carrying out predictions while simultaneously learning from over trillions of observations.

Machine learning is considered a modern-day extension of predictive analytics. Efficient pattern recognition and self-learning are the backbones of ML models, which automatically evolve based on changing patterns in order to enable appropriate actions.

Many companies today depend on machine learning algorithms to better understand their clients and potential revenue opportunities. Hundreds of existing and newly developed machine learning algorithms are applied to derive high-end predictions that guide real-time decisions with less reliance on human intervention.

Business application of machine learning: employee satisfaction

One common, uncomplicated, yet successful business application of machine learning is measuring real-time employee satisfaction.

Machine learning applications can be highly complex, but one that’s both simple and very useful for business is a machine learning algorithm that compares employee satisfaction ratings to salaries. Instead of plotting a predictive satisfaction curve against salary figures for various employees, as predictive analytics would suggest, the algorithm assimilates huge amounts of random training data upon entry, and the prediction results are affected by any added training data to produce real-time accuracy and more helpful predictions.

This machine learning algorithm employs self-learning and automated recalibration in response to pattern changes in the training data, making machine learning more reliable for real-time predictions than other AI concepts. Repeatedly increasing or updating the bulk of training data guarantees better predictions.

Machine learning can also be implemented in image classification and facial recognition with deep learning and neural network techniques.

Predictive analytics

Predictive analytics can be defined as the procedure of condensing huge volumes of data into information that humans can understand and use. Basic descriptive analytic techniques include averages and counts. Descriptive analytics based on obtaining information from past events has evolved into predictive analytics, which attempts to predict the future based on historical data.

This concept applies complex techniques of classical statistics, like regression and decision trees, to provide credible answers to queries such as: ‘’How exactly will my sales be influenced by a 10% increase in advertising expenditure?’’ This leads to simulations and “what-if” analyses for users to learn more.

All predictive analytics applications involve three fundamental components:

  • Data: The effectiveness of every predictive model strongly depends on the quality of the historical data it processes.
  • Statistical modeling: Includes the various statistical techniques ranging from basic to complex functions used for the derivation of meaning, insight, and inference. Regression is the most commonly used statistical technique.
  • Assumptions: The conclusions drawn from collected and analyzed data usually assume the future will follow a pattern related to the past.

Data analysis is crucial for any business en route to success, and predictive analytics can be applied in numerous ways to enhance business productivity. These include things like marketing campaign optimization, risk assessment, market analysis, and fraud detection.

Business application of predictive analytics: marketing campaign optimization

In the past, valuable marketing campaign resources were wasted by businesses using instincts alone to try to capture market niches. Today, many predictive analytic strategies help businesses identify, engage, and secure suitable markets for their services and products, driving greater efficiency into marketing campaigns.

A clear application is using visitors’ search history and usage patterns on e-commerce websites to make product recommendations. Sites like Amazon increase their chance of sales by recommending products based on specific consumer interests. Predictive analytics now plays a vital role in the marketing operations of real estate, insurance, retail, and almost every other sector.

How machine learning and predictive analytics are related

While businesses must understand the differences between machine learning and predictive analytics, it’s just as important to know how they are related. Basically, machine learning is a predictive analytics branch. Despite having similar aims and processes, there are two main differences between them:

  • Machine learning works out predictions and recalibrates models in real-time automatically after design. Meanwhile, predictive analytics works strictly on “cause” data and must be refreshed with “change” data.
  • Unlike machine learning, predictive analytics still relies on human experts to work out and test the associations between cause and outcome.

Explore machine learning applications and AI software with SAP Leonardo.


Shaily Kumar

About Shaily Kumar

Shailendra has been on a quest to help organisations make money out of data and has generated an incremental value of over one billion dollars through analytics and cognitive processes. With a global experience of more than two decades, Shailendra has worked with a myriad of Corporations, Consulting Services and Software Companies in various industries like Retail, Telecommunications, Financial Services and Travel - to help them realise incremental value hidden in zettabytes of data. He has published multiple articles in international journals about Analytics and Cognitive Solutions; and recently published “Making Money out of Data” which showcases five business stories from various industries on how successful companies make millions of dollars in incremental value using analytics. Prior to joining SAP, Shailendra was Partner / Analytics & Cognitive Leader, Asia at IBM where he drove the cognitive business across Asia. Before joining IBM, he was the Managing Director and Analytics Lead at Accenture delivering value to its clients across Australia and New Zealand. Coming from the industry, Shailendra held key Executive positions driving analytics at Woolworths and Coles in the past. Please feel to connect on: Linkedin: Twitter: