Now, more than ever, the FP&A profession stands to propel itself forward as the premier business partner for Commercial and Operational teams. While FP&A content trending today may center around technological advances, the focus herein will instead shift to the bedrock principle that defines the FP&A profession: striking the proper balance between analytical depth and high-level storytelling.
Based on my own experiences, I want to share three key steps to ensure that FP&A professionals find balance between using complex data mining techniques and providing precise action plans. If adopted properly, these steps can greatly strengthen FP&A professionals’ contributions as business partners; but these skills will also accelerate your potential for advancement, inside and outside of FP&A.
Why is it important?
In today’s world of massive technological advances related to artificial intelligence (AI), affordable bolt-on software applications, and mounds of data, it can be tempting for FP&A professionals to place value on crafting highly detailed analyses. While FP&A leaders must adapt to emerging technologies, it is imperative that the long-standing focus of the function remain intact: decision support. FP&A stands at the convergence of all other business functions and, thus, has the prime opportunity to connect disparate datasets together, bringing insight into opportunities to exploit or weaknesses to strengthen. This can be achieved in three steps.
Step 1. Convert data to information
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! While it may seem elementary, the emergence of global technologies (EPMs, bolt-on software packages, and AI-enhanced platforms) has, in a sense, taught FP&A professionals to rely on canned reports and data readily available. While I do not advocate inefficiency, data mining can (and often should be), well, dirty. It should require FP&A professionals to use critical thinking and data science skills to collate various datasets together to build information.
Data mining can be real work, particularly in those small-to-medium businesses without the larger systems budgets/teams. The critical element in this method is a combination of grit and insight into what data is required to best support or disprove a course of action to address the underlying root cause. Often, in my own career, I’ve witnessed occasions where FP&A presentations fall flat because the hard work to convert data to information has not occurred, often to the realization of executives and other business operators. When FP&A fails in this first step, we do a disservice to our business partners and the businesses we represent.
Step 2. Listen to what data is telling you
Once we’ve mined our datasets, the next step must be to foster intellectual curiosity to assess what the dataset is communicating to us. Often, prior to taking the first step described above, we as FP&A professionals approach a problem with a pre-conceived assumption of the root cause. While this is natural, it is critical that we don’t build a dataset to support our assumption but, instead, build our diagnosis from what our dataset is indicating. Throughout my career, I’ve often found that my own assumptions can be as easily incorrect as they are correct, based on a detailed assessment of the data.
Step 3. Communicate insights
Last (but likely most important), the final step is to produce a suitable communication to management to provide clarity to the issue, likely a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint jokes aside, FP&A professionals often falter in this last step… with unfortunate consequences. It is a common idiom that business executives have short attention spans; while that can be true, it, in no way, presumes a lack of intelligence (just the opposite in most cases).
Designing your communication strategy can be multi-faceted but should be tailored to the individual audience and center around transferring the essential content only. As FP&A professionals, it is often tempting to flaunt the datasets (since, according to the first step, effort is taken to build) and completely miss delivering the message. When communicating to business leaders, focus on crisp actions to remedy/address and pictorial representations (e.g., charts, graphs, etc.) to demonstrate the underlying dataset. Everything else should ultimately wind up in the appendix or footnotes sections.
The FP&A profession stands ready to catapult itself forward, further emphasizing the value it creates for business executives and operating leaders. To achieve this, FP&A leaders must
- grasp the level of effort required to mine data,
- be curious and allow the data’s message to stand out, and
- craft the simplest version of the message to present to operating teams.