Asking the right questions - CFOs discuss big data

Working with big data can enable CFOs and their companies to innovate, interrogate and turn the finance department in a profit centre, rather than an expense. This only starts to yield results, though, when business intelligence allows finance bosses to “answer sufficiently interesting questions”.

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That was one of the conclusions at the inspiring Master Class of CFO South Africa’s Finance Transformation event on 22 October 2015 at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg. In a parallel exclusive round table session Microsoft South Africa’s CFO Paul Marten discussed the practicalities of big data with a carefully selected group of his peers. Moderated by our own MD Graham Fehrsen the discussion touched on Microsoft’s exciting data analysis at Spanish soccer club Real Madrid, the need to know how to make pizzas and the cold fact that finance transformation will stall if you don’t get buy in from your own people.


Meanwhile, the Master Class was kicked off with a short, very insightful presentation by Alida Taylor, a partner at CFO South Africa’s principal sponsor KPMG. She told CFOs to take charge of finance transformation, especially now big data is starting to play an increasingly big role. “If you don’t take the lead, the IT department will, but that is not right, because data and analytics should sit firmly within the business.”


CFO South Africa’s founding director Melle Eijckelhoff then called a diverse panel of experts on stage to share their insights. Servest CFO Peter Walsh frankly admitted his company could probably extract more value from big data, even though it’s a purely B2B business offering services like landscaping, security and water dispensers. “We don’t need to be at bleeding edge of big data innovation, but if we don’t innovate, we get left behind. If data allows us to get single view of a customer – especially if we offer multiple services to that client – we could grow our business.”

Zetta Solutions EPM manager Anna Puzone agreed with KPMG’s Alida Taylor that the CFO plays a pivotal role in the data revolution. “IT and the business often talk a different language. Even though it is getting smaller there is still a gap.” She stressed that big data is not just about the volume of the data, but also about the speed it changes and the way those changes can inform business decisions. “That is why I usually talk about ‘agile BI’ when talking to clients about business intelligence.”

Another panel member, Business Optics director James Saunders, implored the audience to know what they want from big data:

“We often hear executives say ‘we want big data’, but they don’t know what for. You need to be able to answer sufficiently interesting questions. Often companies think they have a big data challenge, but it turns out to be just a useful data challenge. A credit provider can see from their data if someone is likely to default. The question is: what then? That is prescriptive analyses, something I really like. When do I contact the debtor? When do I sell bad payers on?”


Berenice Francis, group commercial executive at Imperial, added that CFOs can only take advantage of big data “if you have a plan, the right data and the right people”. The technicians need to report to the CFO, she said. “IT people can be like kids in sweetshop. We need to harness their energy and relate it back to the business so it makes sense.”

The way people influence – and determine – the success of finance transformation was also a major theme during the round table discussion. Philips Southern Africa CFO Fabian Cazares admitted changing the way finance operates is still “a journey”, especially when working in different African countries that “lack integration of systems or have no systems at all”.


Zimkita Mabindla (Digby Wells), Edward Willcox (Simba) and Natasha Moodley (Yum Brands) all elaborated on their challenges to distil the right information from the available data. Natasha is involved in the rollout of Pizza Hut in south Africa and emphasised how important it is to know the business inside out. “I know how to stretch, how to top and I can ring up an item,” she says, with other CFOs around the table agreeing that a deep understanding of the business is crucial for modern finance leaders. Irene Singo, CFO at the Department of Mineral Resources, candidly shared her challenge from a government perspective, where “pockets of data” are scattered throughout divisions.

Please also have a look at the pictures of the event here.

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