Who’s responsible for the data you need in order to give your organization an accurate snapshot of where it is and how it’s performing, as well as actionable insight that will help it achieve its goals?

This question, and its answer, are critical in today’s increasingly data-rich business environment — and according to Accenture managing director Paul Boulanger, there is only one right answer.

The best CFOs, in the highest-performing financial organizations, own the data they use, and they manage it aggressively.

If, for example, an organization hasn’t surrounded something as seemingly geeky and as IT-centric as coding transactions with a lot of discipline, its CFO can’t compare the cost of goods sold across manufacturing facilities because he won’t have comparable numbers. Then, says Boulanger, finance has to do tons of reconciliation to compare differences, wasting both time and resources while failing to add value.

A new Accenture report released last week — “Delivering Value in a Complex World,” based on an online survey of more than 530 senior finance executives and approximately 300 C-level finance customers — is intended to identify practices that differentiate “high performance” finance organizations.  Compared with its last comparable survey in 2008, the report finds that finance is becoming increasingly strategic, aligning better with the C-suite and with business goals, and improving its capabilities. And, according to the report, one of the key factors that distinguish high-performing finance organizations is the way data is managed.

Boulanger suggests these actions around data management for CFOs who wish to increase their strategic role in the organization and optimize the finance function:

Seize control. This means limiting the number of people who can manage data structures and hierarchies. “In some companies,” Boulanger says, “everyone can make modifications to the data. Companies that have figured it out consolidate those rights in a team that owns those structures. If someone wants to make a change, it goes through the team, and that team is not a rubber stamp.” For example, if someone wants to deal with a new vendor, the team has to approve, and it has to control the vendor code in the chart of accounts. This allows the company to easily and accurately assess its spend. “A lot of companies can’t figure out who they spend money on,” says Boulanger, and sometimes different business units are spending different amounts of money for the same services supplied by the same vendor. (This is especially true in the software-as-a-service world.)

Consolidate and standardize. Boulanger notes that companies that have grown through acquisition often fail to integrate fully the data and systems of the acquired entity with their own, frequently balking at the not inconsiderable cost of doing so. These companies, asserts Boulanger, “end up with higher personnel and operational costs. “Financial masters,” Boulanger says, “run their back office real well and work hard to consolidate their data.” Companies that haven’t standardized their data feeds struggle to consolidate data, and therefore struggle with the close, spending an inordinate amount of finance’s resources on a process that, while necessary, does not drive growth. A lack of IT integration, he says, frequently points to a broader failure to run an integrated business.

Hackett Group financial advisory principal Tom Willman puts it more bluntly: “Some CFOs say, ‘My business is too complex to standardize globally.’ Bull. That’s a failure of management.”

Willman points out that the best-performing financial organizations have far fewer applications per $1 billion in revenue than laggards. “A more fragmented IT architecture leads to more errors,” says Willman. “You’re always asking whose numbers are right. Why do transformation efforts fail? Weak governance. Weak ownership. Weak training.”

Data governance, Willman says, needs to be enterprisewide, not an IT function. “IT builds the tools and architecture,” he says, “but it can’t tell the business how the data should look. The business must own the data.” That way, he says, the CFO can align reporting around the business’s strategic objectives, as opposed to producing “250-page reporting packages and hoping leaders can find out what they need.”

“CFOs,” advises Boulanger, “need to think expansively and partner with the IT organization to see that the data is under control.”

Today, data is the business, and the CFO suite can no longer operate either as a concierge service, offering up data for other functions to interpret, or as a repository where data goes to a sterile death buried in a budget or report.

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