Strategic business intelligence for a mobile future
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The world has gone mad over mobile -- or that’s what the explosion of smartphones and tablets would have you believe. A recent Accenture white paper put it this way: "We believe that, within the next five years, mobile applications for business will completely transform the way companies operate, manage and monitor the workplace."
I was skeptical, so I called Accenture’s David Axson, long known in the corporate finance community as a guru on enterprise performance management. “A large impact comes in terms of process efficiency," Axson said. "If you are a corporate finance planner and analyst, the true value you deliver is providing insight to non-finance managers about what’s behind the numbers." We’re not there yet, he said, because finance people still spend too much time and effort on spreadsheets and bar graphs. But finance managers generating meaningful conversations about the underlying drivers -- that’s the game-changing magic of mobility.
Here’s why it works: The information delivery mechanisms of mobility—tablets and smartphones—help ensure everyone is looking at the same version of the performance picture. People don’t waste time debating whose numbers are right. Mobile technology allows people to have anytime, anywhere access to the official version of the financial truth.
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"Through mobile devices, access to information can be both simple and secure, providing a flow of data equal to that available through a workstation without the geographical and technological limitations of workstation access," Axson said. So a financial executive working in a mobile information environment can ensure version control and engage counterparts in rich scenario planning.
Mobile business applications in motion
Here’s an example: A controller from headquarters visits the head office of a regional operation. He checks out the office’s sales growth on his iPad, noticing worrisome signs of revenue deterioration. So he asks the regional manager, who is next to him, for a quick look at the revenue run rate and operating performance metrics, perhaps examining on-time deliveries or the rate of product returns. "What are the underlying issues?" the controller might ask. “Do we need to hire more sales or service reps?"
"That’s where it becomes truly interesting -- the realm of decision-centric enterprise performance management," said Axson, pointing to the "proactive collaboration" that mobile devices makes possible by erasing physical boundaries and allowing people to access data together. "The performance becomes clearer within the mobile environment."
Or let’s say an American chief operating officer (COO) visits an Asian business division for a scheduled business review and to meet the top three customers. "That COO wants to have time-relevant conversations with these customers," Axson said. "The ideal situation: ‘I see you booked a big order with us last night. What’s going on in your market? How can we help your bolster your strong position?"
Before the mobility revolution, the COO would have walked into the customer meeting with printed reports that were out of date before his town car left the headquarters’ parking lot.
Moving too fast?
And curiosity is growing among senior finance executives about mobility and performance analysis, according to Brian Kalish, director at the Association for Finance Professionals, an organization for corporate finance and treasury professionals in Bethesda, Md. But he also senses caution.
"People are worried because the technology is changing so quickly," Kalish said. "Three years ago, we didn’t have tablet computing in the senior management arena. Today, we are delivering ‘board books’ on iPads," he said, referring to the voluminous packets of information provided to executives for meetings.
"You can produce incredible reams of data, but is it telling anything meaningful to anybody?"
For a chief financial officer (CFO), it’s a tricky call: how to make the right investments at the right time in systems integration, data protection and new performance dashboards that are suitable for C-suite and field-based users, not to mention training and change management. "What concerns finance executives right now is becoming dependent on a technology that then changes quickly," Kalish said. "As you create more points of failure, you have to plan for more things that could go wrong." The bad news, according to APQC research, is that most finance shops are still struggling to adapt financial management systems and processes to new requirements.
The value of mobile business applications
On the bright side, tablets highlight the true value of the financial performance analyst. "You need to be much more than a brilliant quant. You need to be a great public speaker," Kalish said, a compelling storyteller who can weave a rich tapestry that mobilizes people to act in ways that boost shareholder value. Mobility helps finance underscore the value it brings to the decision table.
"No question, mobility is a paradigm shift in every sense of the word for managers who are accountable for corporate performance," said Howard Dresner, the consultant and author credited with coining the term business intelligence. "There’s never a reason not to know something." But Dresner worries that finance departments are asleep at the switch. His research shows that they aren’t open to embracing mobile devices to enable real-time communication about performance management options and risks.
Yet pioneers are lighting the trail. Take Curtis Neumann, a financial systems analyst at San Francisco-based Union Bank. "This is about financial analysts out in the field with real-time information. Whatever you can put in a [data cube]—for example, information about sales, costs and profit—can be accessed by a mobile device that’s talking to a server," Neumann said.
But a word to the wise. When he was the legendary CFO of Intel, Andy Bryant, now chairman, said in an address: "If you, as a finance analyst who is trying to assist operating leaders, cannot go into a meeting and help these people gain a better understanding of the what's really behind the financial analysis and forecasts—in operational terms—then you are not being useful. And they will start trying to do it themselves. And you won't get called back to the next meeting. "