Beware the geeks - dinner guests discuss CFO's crucial role as big data chief


Turning a blind eye to big data puts your business at risk of being left behind, but CFOs need to know what they want from the data in order to help the ‘geeks’ find the right outcomes. That was one of the many useful lessons during an intimate CFO dinner hosted on 17 March 2016 at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town. See photos of the dinner here.

The dinner featured two CFOs, two CEOs, a leading consulting actuary and Aon's Glen Fagan, who had partnered with CFO South Africa to make the dinner possible. The conclusion of the stimulating, insightful and often entertaining discussion was that businesses simply cannot afford to ignore big data. As always at CFO events, new relationships were forged and South African business as a whole benefited from the mutual commitment to learning on a night where excellent food and a great atmosphere almost went unnoticed.

Although all the executives felt their organisations could do more, they were reassured by the fact that they were not alone in the race to becoming more big data savvy. Stefan Swanepoel, consulting actuary and principal partner at Directrix Risk Services, emphasised that simplicity and asking the right questions are key:

"Why do you want the data and what do you want it for? You need to marry specific business knowledge and insights with mathematical models for specific outcomes or you face the risk of stacking the evidence and finding what you're looking for rather than getting a real understanding of what the data is telling you."

Between the gentle gibes about actuaries being people who didn't have the personality to become accountants, there was a recognition that CFOs cannot be complacent and should be hiring specialists who can offer genuine insights. "Beware the geek with a model" was a warning - hiring specialists is only valuable to a CFO who knows what commercial problem they wanted to tackle with big data. It is the CFO who needs to be the big data chief.

The question 'What value can external data play?' set the dinner discussion down a path that revealed the depth of experience around the table. Executives shared insights into market and customer data, but they were cautioned by the self-proclaimed cynic, Stefan Swanepoel, that external data has the potential to add noise to your model and leave you with potentially inaccurate and false proofs.

External data has the potential to add noise to your model.

In a world that is increasingly connected, perhaps the most pivotal moment was the recognition that organisations no longer need to walk alone. Aon's Glen Fagan offered to connect the attending executives with one of the world's biggest brewers for a discussion on data collection. The executives, who come from industries which are seemingly at other ends of the spectrum, agreed they could benefit from more collaborative engagements to better understand collection and interpretation of market and customer data. Not only for the benefit of their respective organisations but also the customers themselves.

With such genuine and selfless sharing of knowledge, the evening concluded with purposeful exchanges of details. MD of CFO South Africa, Graham Fehrsen, commented that the peer to peer learning model, curated under the right circumstances, together with a partner like Aon was what CFOs had come to expect and enjoy most and the reason the platform has experienced such exceptional involvement from leading finance professionals.

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