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8/19/2013
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Big Data's New Fan: Your CFO

While CEOs and CIOs fight over big data security and control issues, CFOs are making analysis plans.

A chief financial officer is a company's top bean counter -- a person who's often narrowly focused on quarterly and annual fiscal reports. So is the rise of big data a topic of interest to the CFO, or is the matter best left to other members of the C-suite? The CEO and CIO, for instance, may already be grappling with big data in a no-holds-barred smackdown.

As Hewlett Packard's Thomas Dobis sees it, CFOs should focus on big data as a way to bolster the company's bottom line. Many, in fact, are already doing so.

Dobis, acting global finance and account service line leader of business process outsourcing (BPO) at HP Enterprise Services, says CFOs are increasingly using big data analysis to control collections, customer retention, and fraud and loss, among other money-related matters. "We see CFOs making a lot of futuristic vision statements, objective statements, and trying to get more involved in the business side," said Dobis in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

[ Startup offers a new approach to data visualization. See DataMarket Aims To Be A Google For Numbers. ]

That may not be new in many organizations, of course. But what is new is the CFO's growing focus on data analysis, noted Dobis, whose role within HP's finance and accounting division is to provide transaction services to global enterprises.

Dobis sees CFOs beginning to think more about how to leverage year-over-year financial data and how to spot trends they're often too busy to notice. After all, when you're focused on the monthly and quarterly grind of financial performance and Wall Street expectations, there's little time for a deeper dive into massive data sets that seem far removed from more urgent tasks.

That's changing rapidly, however, in part because chief information officers (CIOs or IT directors) have spurred investment in big data systems within the enterprise. And once that big data platform is up and running, why not put it to good use?

"People outside the CIO suite are saying, 'OK, now everything's stabilized. I have all of this great data. What do I do with it? How can I use it to my benefit? I know I could potentially get at it, but I'm not sure how,'" said Dobis.

CFOs often use data analysis for asset recovery. HP and its outsourcing competitors, for instance, can sift through all of a client's payables in the last 10 years. Using a variety of algorithms, Dobis explained, they analyze payments that have been made and invoices that have been paid. After examining thousands, or even millions, of documents, they can spot duplicate payments. "Asset recovery is a very popular tool," Dobis said. "It's one of the first areas that the CFO goes to: duplicates."

Collections are another area where big data analysis has potential. However, CFOs might find that their in-house IT department is already stretched too thin to tackle adding responsibilities.

That's where finance outsourcing providers like HP see a large potential market. "A (CFO) may say, 'I need invoice information, I need customer behavioral information, I need some kind of analytics plotting and trending, and some kind of report writer," said Dobis. "But IT resources are always at play and never available. And your finance resources are so caught up in financial close, they don't have bandwidth to take on a big project like that."

He continued, "This is where the CFO is stepping back and saying, 'Gee, I wish I had some other alternative. I can hire consultants, but are they going to do the job for me? So more and more, they're looking to get some help."

Making decisions based on flashy macro trends while ignoring "little data" fundamentals is a recipe for failure. Also in the new, all-digital Blinded By Big Data issue of InformationWeek: How Coke Bottling's CIO manages mobile strategy. (Free registration required.)

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