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Business analytics skills high on CFO wish list


By Samantha White

CFOs see the business analytics skillset, including business intelligence and data mining, as a prerequisite for their accounting and finance staff. As the quantity of data available to companies grows, proficiency in this area is becoming more and more sought after.

Sixty-one per cent of CFOs described the ability to identify and interpret key data trends as essential for some or all of their finance staff, according to a Robert Half Management Resources survey of 2,100 US CFOs.

Forty per cent of respondents reported that their staff members already had excellent skills in this area, and 52% described their employees’ abilities as good.

However, finance professionals are advised to keep their knowledge up to date. “Business analytics is a rapidly changing area that is constantly experiencing new demands from companies,” Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, said in a news release. “Staying current with emerging data and software trends and continuing industry-related training is career insurance.”

In-house training is the most common way of helping employees to develop these skills, offered by 82% of the companies participating in the survey. Mentorships, funding for external courses, and working with a consultant are among the other options regularly offered. 

Beyond the technical

To truly add value to the organisation, finance professionals need more than sharp technical skills. An evidence-based approach is the foundation of business analytics, said Joe Michel, CPA, CGMA, the vice president of finance at Constellation Brands in Victor, N.Y.

“To make best use of business analytics, a finance professional should really have a disciplined, fact-based approach to analysis as a starting point,” he said. “You also have to have a solid foundation and experience with IT systems. You need to understand technology, understand the limits of that technology, and understand how to expand those limits when you need to.”

Michel added: “Be thoughtful in your approach when designing your systems. Many companies have data warehouses with information insights on market share, market trends. Try to incorporate that into the forward-looking analyses that you have.”

Tell a compelling story

In-depth knowledge of the business and the ability to tell a compelling story based on the right data are also critical.

According to Joel Reichbart, CPA, regional director–operations finance at Hilton Worldwide, presentation skills are essential as communicating the insight derived from the data is the most important part of the analysis.

He advises accountants to challenge other areas of the business and ask more questions to enable them to come up with better solutions. “If something doesn’t look right, it’s important to keep asking those questions until you get the right answer or come up with a way to change the business model, and maybe change direction,” he said.

Responsibility for discovering exactly what the company requires from business intelligence lies with the CFO, according to Elizabeth Nilsen, CPA, CGMA, the CFO of FKP Architects in Houston.

“We need to know what the metrics are that drive our organisation,” she said. “And the only way to know that is to develop a relationship with the people in the trenches, and then to answer their questions and help them find solutions.”

Once you have an understanding of the problems, Nilsen recommends trying to find financial reporting that will help gauge the significance of those concerns.

“I work very closely with my COO and my project managers, and I’m constantly revising the kind of financial information that I’m tracking and presenting to them to answer the questions that they have about their world and about the projects that they’re working on,” she said.

Related CGMA Magazine content:

6 Tips for Using Existing Data More Wisely”: Organisations are collecting more data than ever before. But often they are not using the data in the right way – if they are using them at all. Brett Knowles offers six ways to make sure you are making the most of the data you already possess.

Big Business Decisions More Often Driven by Gut and Advice Than by Data”: Executives feel more comfortable using their intuition or the advice of others instead of using data to make a big decision, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit and PwC. Companies that are highly data-driven report improvement in making critical business decisions.

Powering Talent Decisions With Data”: Performance management and business intelligence consultant Bernard Marr explains how companies can use data and analytics to improve decision-making around their most valuable business assets: talented employees.

Samantha White (swhite@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

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