What does a janitor have in common with a CFO?

25 November 2015

Last week we held out 4th Finance Leaders’ Summit which looked at how digital and technology are changing the role of Finance and how the function operates. These changes will impact all areas of Finance, including your financial reporting teams, business partners, and your shared services or operational finance teams. They’ll also touch all industries. In one of the breakout sessions, one of the delegates said that the role of the CFO in relation to your organisation’s data should be that of a janitor.

When I heard this my heart sank. I think of a janitor as someone who cleans up everyone’s mess, is probably still working long after everyone else has gone home and, likely as not, isn’t even thanked for their work or respected by their colleagues for the effort they put in. Added to that if some of the cleaning doesn’t get done or there’s a problem the janitor probably also gets the blame and no one else bothers doing any cleaning or keeping things in order as they just assume the janitor will do it. All in all, that doesn’t sound to me like the role Finance should be playing when you think about the data in your organisation……maybe though it’s all too often the role Finance ends up playing – grabbing data, reconciling data, cleaning and adjusting data, explaining the problems with data etc etc. Does this sound familiar to you?

During another session, we heard that a good chunk of data within systems is unable to be used or isn’t even accessed. Often this is because of the way data is structured and stored and also because of the multitude of potential sources of similar, but different, data within many organisations. In this case, data issues act as a handbrake on management decision making – getting the relevant data and driving out the insight from it that you require for decision making takes too long and the insights themselves may be flawed due to problems with the data. One of these problems is definitely data quality but another is the fact that we structure data in a way that enables us to answer the questions we currently have in mind. If the questions we ask, or the insights we need, radically change this highly structured data can cause a problem as before you do anything it needs to be restructured.

However, we also heard from a number of providers and IT specialists, like PwC’s David Doyle, who explained to us that this should no longer be a problem. Developments in technology tools and platforms and the concept of “data lakes” for the whole organisation to fish in for the data to answer their questions should mean we can remove many of these issues and get more quickly to the insights we need to inform the business. Lack of information or speed of analysis should no longer be a barrier meaning we need to base critical decisions on gut feel. The extra dimension to all of this is that with the rapid increase in capabilities to handle multi-sourced, unstructured data you can finally bring all the data we need into the decision making process – regardless of whether that data actually resides in your organisation. This external, or environmental data, can make up 90% of the actual data relevant to making key decisions so it’s hugely important to us all.

Given all of the above, someone clearly has to play the role of the mild-mannered janitor……and maybe Finance professionals with the discipline, integrity and trust resident within them are the best people to do this. But finance professionals are also analytical, understand data and reporting and know how the business works so surely there’s a much more central and pivotal role we should be looking to play in providing business insight? Successful business partnering models going forward, like the one shared with us at the summit, by another of our speakers, need to equip people with the tools and also the skills necessary to ask the right questions, interrogate and manipulate the data and present their insights in an easy to understand, visual and impactful way.

So maybe Finance should be a janitor but finance people can be much more than this if they adopt the right mindset and behaviours. Let’s move away from checking and reconciling data and let’s focus more on collaborating across the business to deliver leading edge analytics based on reliable and relevant data. Nothing can ever be 100% correct and everything is open to judgement and interpretation. The value in analytics is in the discussions we have as a result of the process and these discussions can often be had, and great decisions made, on directional rather than perfect data. So be the janitor but don’t limit your ambitions to only this role use your finance skills to drive the business forward setting future direction and defining profitable growth strategies. To do this though we’ll need to get used to working in different ways with different people and collaborating effectively with people both inside and outside your organisation. Finance will always be the home of accountants but in the future they’ll be working hand in hand with economists, statisticians, data scientists, visualisation experts and engineers to drive business insight. 

Learn more about how digital is impacting the CFO function from the Finance Leaders’ Summit 17 – 18 November in London and read more on emerging trends in Finance in our 2015 Finance Benchmarking Study.

Contact me if you would like any further information about the event. 

Brian Furness | Finance Consulting Lead Partner
Profile |  Email |  +44 (0) 207 212 3917


More articles by Brian Furness


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