By Matthew Kibby, Vice President, Enterprise, Africa & Middle East at Sage

The CFO has a critical part to play in today’s enterprise as the person who interprets the numbers to provide incisive insights that guide profitability and revenue. 

With the backdrop of a fast-changing regulatory landscape, evolving technology and volatile operating conditions, the CFO should expand this role to encompass helping the whole organisation to make better use of data to inform strategic and operational decision-making.

The CFO is one of the natural leaders for a big data strategy, given that the financial leader will typically already have put analytics tools in place to gain visibility into financial metrics. The finance function also has good line of sight of key performance indicators across sales, the supply chain, procurement, and so forth.

The challenge, increasingly, is not about accessing data that reflects the organisation’s key operational and financial metrics, but findings ways to surface the data that will be most useful in driving business performance. By tapping into the right data, CFOs can help their organisations to rapidly respond to changing market conditions, identify new trends, and drive growth in revenues and profits.

Charting a course for growth

To chart a path for profitable growth, finance departments must thus become masters of processing and extracting actionable insights from large amounts of data. They need to look beyond historical financial data towards working with the CIO and business to put in place platforms that generate insights in real-time and offer predictive intelligence.

To step into this big data future, however, CFOs should first ensure that they have automated statutory reporting and generating financial statements, so that they can focus on finding new ways to add value to the business. An important foundation for this capability is a modern, integrated business solution that provides people in the business with fast and easy access to financial information. 

Inflexible legacy infrastructures should be replaced by scalable technology that can provide a holistic view of processes and data right across the business and its supply chain, while giving easier access to information to the people and systems that need it. Cloud-based platforms can speed up and reduce the risks of modernising the IT infrastructure.

Those CFOs that leverage data effectively and embrace change at speed will be well positioned to help guide their organisations through times of change and turbulence. But their role goes beyond using the data themselves towards becoming champions of a data-driven enterprise, where access to insights is democratised.

Automatic for the people

CFOs and their organisations should invest in ensuring that real-time data and real-time analytics are available at the points where operational decisions are made. This may involve enabling machine learning and AI-powered systems and devices to make decisions in real-time, speeding up processes and lowering costs through automation.

It can facilitate faster response to emerging business needs as well as monitoring advanced metrics for constant optimisation of costs and business performance.   

Self-service business intelligence tools that allow people to interrogate data using familiar interfaces such as Excel, or to look at visual representations of business trends in graphs and tables, can be used to help those at the coalface make faster and better operational decisions. In future, AI and natural language interfaces (speech recognition or chatbots, for example) could even be used to help people at all levels of the organisation to make sense of data. 

Finance has always been a reporting function, but senior finance executives understand that today it needs to be a data-driven insights centre, driving business initiative and strategy. With an increase in the volume of data, this requires new focus and capabilities. This investment is one that will pay off in the longer term.

***Sage is a silver sponsor of the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2019 which is set to take place from 16-18 September in Cape Town.

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