Harnessing the capabilities of Big Data
ICAS has funded and published research into the application of Big Data capabilities in the accounting profession.
Accountants and finance professionals are experiencing significant technological changes that are transforming traditional accounting models. The growth of Big Data (BD), defined as high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets, is a critical element of this change.
BD has opened up many possibilities for the profession and can be utilised to inform better decision-making. For instance, it can be used to identify patterns in data, strengthen fraud protection, and understand market behaviour. But what BD capabilities do you need as a senior finance or accounting professional in a medium-sized organisation – and how can you best acquire them?
To answer this question, this interview and workshop-based research project by Maureen Meadows and Alessandro Merendino from Coventry University, specifically set out to:
- Analyse the BD capabilities that senior finance and accounting professionals in medium-sized UK-based organisations require to maximise the benefits of BD.
- Examine the main enablers and obstacles to the roll-out of BD capabilities.
- Propose how senior financial professionals and accountants can acquire and develop a portfolio of valuable BD capabilities.
By addressing these objectives, the study seeks to contribute to technology thought leadership and elicit a change in organisational culture, by providing evidence that helps senior finance and accounting professionals to start or strengthen their application of BD.
Some of the key findings from the project were:
- Adopt proof-of-concept cases, and learn from existing use cases
If you’re at an early stage of your BD journey, start with proof-of-concept activities to show the viability of BD and its value for the business. Ensure that data are consistent. It’s helpful to consider BD use cases from your own as well as other organisations, to learn about new applications of BD, and successful and unsuccessful practices in the community.
- Build Big Data literacy
Critical thinking and creative thinking skills are essential tools as your organisation adopts new approaches based on BD. Bespoke BD literacy training for senior finance professionals can help make a shift towards a data-driven culture. This can combine good practices and experiences of other senior figures inside and outside the organisation. It could include training in how to interpret BD analysis; ensuring access to BD experts, within and outside the finance team; and unpacking case studies on how successful BD projects have been delivered.
- Build awareness of Big Data and its potential to support the organisation’s strategy
BD are often viewed as a specialist theme for data analysts, rather than an asset for the whole organisation including the finance team. Treating BD as a cross-cutting topic can drive improvement in the finance team’s performance. Make data strategy and data governance part of the organisational strategy. Link any positive impacts of BD initiatives to KPIs, to encourage the C-Suite to pursue BD investments.
- Focus on insights and benefits from Big Data, such as opportunities for revenue generation
Adopt a more forward-looking approach, to encourage finance teams to capitalise on newly available data and technology. The senior team can use tools such as scenario planning to gain insights into future opportunities afforded by BD.
- Establish metrics, KPIs and budget lines that show the value of Big Data to the organisation
Embed BD analytics within the organisation’s KPIs. BD can inform the creation of value for the finance team and the organisation. Establish a budget line for investments in BD infrastructure, and treat BD as an asset rather than a liability. Create a communication plan to explain the costs, the return on investment and the benefits of BD for the finance team and the whole organisation.
- Take an experimental and flexible approach
Improve your understanding of BD by adopting a ‘trial-and-error’ approach. Use case studies from successful BD projects (ideally in a finance/accounting context) as evidence to educate and persuade senior professionals who are curious about the benefits and want to learn more.
Build strong connections across functional silos
A ‘silo effect’ can hinder the acquisition of BD capabilities. Set up a data working group involving senior staff across the organisation as a starting point for the finance team to learn and share ideas with other teams.
Identify and fill skills gaps
Run an audit exercise in the finance team and across the organisation. Identify gaps in capabilities at the senior level, including the board/c-suite. Write an upskilling plan, identifying actions to fill BD skills gaps. This can include training existing staff, hiring new staff with BD skills or outsourcing certain roles.
- Run workshops and networking events, internal and external
Senior professionals can learn from finance teams in other organisations, including practical examples of beneficial BD initiatives. Internally, the c-suite can meet to share their data needs and capabilities. These exercises can inform a comprehensive BD plan, to build awareness at a senior level of BD’s role in creating value and improving performance.
- Set up executive coaching and mentoring programme
Coaching programmes designed for senior leaders can include sessions on the BD journeys of other organisations. These might cover how to create an environment that supports BD, and providing opportunities to share BD challenges and aspirations. Coaching is likely to be short-term and performance-driven, while a mentoring programme may be longer-term and development-focused.