The Dangers Of Disconnected Financial Data

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Unit4 CFO Gordon Stuart on new challenges in a post-Covid world.
Unit4 CFO Gordon Stuart

It’s clear that remote work, in varying versions, is here to stay. And there are many business advantages to this post-pandemic shift.

But there are also challenges, and a big chunk of them are technology related. Among the most pressing for CFOs, says Gordon Stuart, CFO of Unit4, a London-based provider of cloud-based ERP platforms, are the dangers that come up with disconnected financial data.

We spoke with Stuart about how CFOs can ensure secure and private data, the importance of avoiding “optimism bias” and the need to thoroughly explore worst case scenarios.

What have you and Unit4 done to ensure that data does not get disconnected?

The location and ownership of master data is clearly defined and perseveres in whichever system that data appears in, for example, the same person is responsible for our customer list whether it is being referenced in our CRM, our ERP or in a standalone piece of offline analyses.

We eliminate parallel variants of data by rationalizing the data flows between our systems and forcing teams to use data from the same ultimate source. If master data is updated in a system, those changes are pushed back into the source. Where data is augmented, that particular layer of changes again only exists in one system or data set, so we do not create multiple versions of the truth.

We push as much analyses as possible into systems that draw on source data, rather than following the more traditional approach of extraction, manipulation and painful reconciliation to the source data that has moved in the intervening period.

What advice do you have for other CFOs when embarking on this endeavor?

Make the time to adapt and understand how new processes and technologies will impact the company, employees and your bottom line, as the company looks to secure its data and maintain data privacy. Ensure clear ownership of data architecture and data models. Moreover, CFOs trying to match or outperform their pre-pandemic performance need to identify new tools or services such as AI and greenlight the options that will serve them well in the future.

How have you helped navigate this for Unit4?

The pre-pandemic benchmark is not necessarily how we want to move forward.  We’ve seen such a change in business models and the adoption by customers of a new “transformation” mindset that many of our previous assumptions and models have become redundant. We’ve tried to evolve and see what is needed to drive success.

Take a look at the tools in place and ask yourself and your employees do we truly need them? On the flip side, look at what tools are needed or available to your workforce and customers to ensure better outcomes. If some technologies are not available, how can you source the tools needed to improve workflow, employee experience, customer experience, data privacy and more? Understanding what can better serve your organization and customers will save you money by recognizing what tools are no longer needed and implementing the technologies that will help you with new tasks and working patterns, and to meet new performance goals.

AI and FP&A tools have helped identify where Unit4’s discretionary spend was coming from and the drivers for that spend. Having these tools in place helped Unit4 navigate the changing landscape, react and make the right decisions to unforeseen events quickly. These tools proved important in understanding where most of our money was going or how it could be reallocated.

What tips do you have for other CFOs looking to implement new technologies?

CFOs should consider potential worst-case scenarios and what happens if they come to life. Scenario planning is even more crucial now. We have seen that the unexpected can happen. CFOs should avoid “optimism bias” and properly test what a worst case could be—we naturally tend to hope for better outcomes than could eventually materialize. Companies must have scenario-planning technologies to help them navigate the unknown or pivot to new plans as needed. CFOs should then take a step back from the day-to-day operations and think about what is most critical to their companies’ goals and values and from there how they can help put those tools into effect.

When it comes to implementing new technologies, it’s important to look at the dangers they may cause. For example, if a company implements a new technology, are you in danger of creating more islands of activity? Or silos where the right people are not included or where data gets duplicated and two versions of the truth emerge? Is there potential to cause people to behave and work differently because there is a learning curve or information that they do not have access to? Understanding all the factors that may affect your company is essential. It’s important that CFOs look at the bigger picture and the organization as a whole and the data needs and structures when considering new technologies.

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