Reaching An Analytics Inflection Point: It’s About Profitability

Nilly Essaides

Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) is becoming the analytics hub of the business. Situated in the central point of the organization, it has access to data from multiple sources and can view, analyze, and share information across the enterprise, providing senior management and business leaders with insight and foresight on how to improve enterprise performance.

A IBM white paper, Finance Analytics: Seven How’s and Millions of Why’s, cites a survey of 1,000 CFOs; it shows that 3 out of 10 have implemented analytics solutions, and adoption is set to double over the next 2 years. The study also found that companies that have adopted analytics solutions are more likely to be profitable than ones that have not.

A wave (or cloud) of change

The confluence of external pressures, technological advances, and the shifting role of FP&A has brought the function to an inflection point. More companies are adopting new ways of analyzing information and empowering finance to come up with better inputs to support data-driven, decision-making processes. The pressure to adopt more advanced analytics methods comes from having to navigate a complex and competitive business environment, and the growing availability of better, more affordable, and less IT-dependent self-service analytics tools.

Philip Peck is the vice president at the Peloton Group. According to Peck, the pace of internal and external change continues to accelerate and the world is more complex, dynamic, and filled with uncertainty. Meanwhile, the organization is asking more of the finance function. “Now, the imperative is for FP&A to step up and provide more advanced analysis and deeper, more robust insights to help shape companies’ business strategies and improve data-driven decision-making in real time so companies can be flexible and agile,” he said. “To be indispensable business partners, FP&A needs to be better at performing analytics.”

For FP&A to be sharp, it needs to increase its understanding of the organization’s value chain and spread that knowledge across the company. Using predictive analytics, and coming up with potential action items, FP&A can deliver more insight into the broader organizational performance.

Technology allows finance to use advanced self-service tools, whereas before solutions had to be implemented and managed by IT, creating huge bottlenecks every time a new solution or a model had to be implemented, created, or upgraded. Today, finance can implement new solutions more quickly, and not have to rely on overburdened IT departments. Moreover, the new technologies are more intuitive and user-friendly, and can be pushed to other users outside of finance, who can run their own analytics on the fly.

As a result, finance can step outside of its traditional comfort zone and get more involved in helping to analyze operational trends, using regression, correlation, clustering, and segmentation techniques. It can fulfill its mandate to become a true business partner. According to Gary Cokins, a leading expert in the area of enterprise and corporate performance management (EPM/CPM) and author of Predictive Business Analytics: Forward Looking Capabilities to Improve Business Performance, “it’s no longer a technology issue. It’s a mindset. It’s a behavioral issue.”

The day-to-day implications

To leverage more advanced analytics capabilities, FP&A needs to start building driver-based models— essentially mathematical equations that take operational drivers and calculate their impact on key financial results, using an array of multidimensional relationships. Before FP&A can climb to the next level, however, some things needs to change.

  1. Where finance professionals spend the majority of their time: Too many practitioners spend too much of their time collecting data, churning out reports, and validating reports. Preliminary results from AFP’s 2016 FP&A Benchmarking survey shows companies that invest more in technology spend less time on grunt work and have faster cycle times.
  2. Corporate inertia: Some organizations may fail to see the business case for investing the resources (human/technology/process) in improving analytical capabilities. They tend to fall back on the tried-and-true traditional rules of thumb and rely on individual intuition and experience.
  3. Skills gaps in the current FP&A team: Legacy finance organizations were built to deliver information and produce reports, but not for more exploratory work and delving into the unknowns. It’s therefore important to train existing staff or hire new talent with advanced analytics and technology skills.
  4. Data availability, access, quality, and integration across multiple internal and external systems: In many cases, finance lacks access to the right information to optimally leverage and deploy more advanced analytics capabilities. New cloud solutions make it easier to pull data from disparate sources. There’s good news on the horizon. The preliminary AFP FP&A Benchmarking survey results show over half of organizations believe greater access to data will become the competitive driver going forward.

Already, FP&A is making the investments to improve analytics capabilities. That investment is paying off, big. The IBM research shows that investment in analytics pays back US$13.01 for every dollar spent, and returns are only increasing. Finance organizations that are lagging in making the right investments may find that they are not in a position to make a meaningful contribution to enterprise performance by becoming better business partners. Analytics plays a key role in understanding and optimizing the profitability of products, services, and customers.

To learn how AFP can help bridge the talent gap in your FP&A team, click here.

Nilly Essaides

About Nilly Essaides

Nilly Essaides is senior research director, Finance & EPM Advisory Practice at The Hackett Group. Nilly is a thought leader and frequent speaker and meeting facilitator at industry events, the author of multiple in-depth guides on financial planning & analysis topics, as well as monthly articles and numerous blogs. She was formerly director and practice lead of Financial Planning & Analysis at the Association for Financial Professionals, and managing director at the NeuGroup, where she co-led the company’s successful peer group business. Nilly also co-authored a book about knowledge management and how to transfer best practices with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC).