This started out as a conversation about why some numbers are harder to get hold of than others.   Jonny Michael of JMCL Consulting – who provide enlightened procurement solutions – was chatting with Spitfire Analytics’ Operations Director Adam Whittick.

It came from a frustration Jonny experiences on a regular basis (he’s written about it here and here).  Finance teams being unable to put their fingers on numbers that – in his view – they should already have.  Where the conversation led as we looked at why this is the case covered some interesting and unexpected ground.

Going back to Jonny’s pain – getting hold of spend data by category of spend and by supplier (by cost-centre, by business unit, over time ideally) – of course the numbers exist, somewhere.  It’s just that they’re not necessarily in the right structure to be provided instantly in the format that an external procurement consultancy requires.

Not being in the right structure means that someone – a real-life person – has to extract, re-structure, consolidate and present them.   Which, in all probability for a lot of organisations, means combing through multiple linked spreadsheets and possibly extracting data from different systems.   It requires a knowledge of how data is held, structured and what it means in order to combine it into meaningful information.

In a busy finance team, at the wrong time of the month this takes time – which means waiting time.  Everyone thinks that they should get everything in real time nowadays, so waiting time leads to “Why can’t I have… ?” moans and whinges.

Why can’t they have it? 

If the data isn’t in the right place, right structure it’s a tough job.   This isn’t the finance team being unresponsive – it’s genuinely challenging.

Let’s put some dimensions to why this it is challenging.   In a world of spreadsheets, every variable creates another cell – e.g. cost centre, business unit, location, month, year.   That’s data spread across hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of cells that has to be extracted, consolidated and presented.

The finance function will undoubtedly industrialise processes for the KPIs that are needed every month.  But ad hoc requests….  Join the queue.

It gets worse.  Anybody who has ever provided any ad hoc information knows that if it is valuable there will be a second boot to drop.  A follow-up question.   It’s a natural consequence of getting new information – it creates new questions.   And it’s only if we’re very lucky that the answer lies in the data we’ve gathered to answer the first question.   So the wait and frustration starts again.

If getting the information is this hard, why bother?

If business performance is not interrogated, important drivers go un-monitored.  As an example, Jonny would be keen to point out that if spend is not being regularly analysed there will undoubtedly be over-spending and inefficiencies.

But What if? 

What if the data extract and consolidation meant that granular information could be grouped together in the dimensions needed?   That’s beyond the spreadsheet world but entirely in the capability of Planning Analytics – so long as the structure has been thought through.

What if information could be provided fast?  What if follow-up questions could be answered immediately?  This creates dialogue between the finance function and line of business.  New insights are surfaced and valuable information is acted on.   Better still, learnings can be factored into plans and the complex inter-relationships of business drivers can be built into scenario planning.

If information is available on tap, we can all ask “What happens if?” – we can model new futures and make better decisions.

Spitfire have a depth of understanding not only in Cognos/TM1 technologies, but also in finance and accounting. It is this combination of expertise and their ability to get to the heart of business problems that has resulted in such confidence in their delivery and capabilities. The insight and value-add they have brought is evident.

- Peter Smith, Head of Solution Delivery, Edrington

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