Boom in big data needs to find its way into more CFO offices

Are you getting the most out of your business' digital transformation?

Customer expectations have reached all-time highs. Personalized, intuitive and engaging experiences are the new normal. Meanwhile, your internal stakeholders require an unprecedented understanding of the customer — as well as the business — to be successful.

To make sense of it all, you need actionable data and analytics to surface the right insights, make sound business decisions and deliver powerful customer experiences.

An person monitors servers using Google’s second-generation tensor processing unit (TPU.
Source: Google

A great place to start is your finance team. Finance professionals are data-oriented by nature and already serve as the stewards of your financial data. No other organization in the enterprise has the detailed visibility into the inner workings of the business — from R&D investment, to operational efficiency, to sales — as well as the strategic understanding it takes to engage with analysts and investors.

But if you want your finance team to be effective partners in digital transformation, you need to encourage them to make the shift from reporting the business to helping run the business.

At Adobe, our finance team confronted this challenge early in our own digital transformation. We've been investing in the workflows needed to integrate disparate data sources and deliver actionable business intelligence. Here are a few of the things we've learned along the way.

1. Build on a foundation of data insights.

As more of your business becomes digital, more of it also becomes measurable. The trick is to turn digital data into insight and draw conclusions that help drive the business.

Imagine a scenario where your business is running a promotional offer targeting first-time buyers. Traditional metrics to track the promotion might be the number of new customers and resulting revenue. And a traditional model of reporting the data tells you that an increase in new customer sales is great for the business, right?

But what if — as a result of your shift to digital — you have access to data that you haven't previously tracked? Who are those customers? Would they have purchased without the promotion, anyway? Are you creating early purchases or net new purchases? What is their journey from interest to purchase? How well do they know and use your products?

Ignore the insight and you only measure returns. But handled correctly, it could be an opportunity to build customer loyalty and drive new sales. That's the kind of insight that can help you run the business and make better decisions.

2. Empower change across organizations.

In the scenario I described, which part of your organization would you expect to recognize the business insight in the data and bring it to your attention? Finance? Sales? Marketing? Customer support?

The reality for most brands and businesses is that the data you rely on for insight lives in different parts of your organization. To start, the data needs to be visible to the right teams. But making use of it requires collaboration and communication. That often requires a cultural shift. It's about each and every team believing they have the permission, influence and respect they need to think beyond the confines of their traditional roles and take broader responsibility for the business.

Identifying and communicating this sort of insight is what I expect from my finance team. It's the right thing to do. It's also more interesting and fun for everyone to have the opportunity to be a strategic part of the business.

3. Always lead with the customer.

Figuring out how to act on your data insight is often the hardest part of the equation, but I've found it's hard to go wrong if you always lead from the perspective of the customer.

In my scenario of new customer activation, this would lead to questions like:

  • How are our customers using our products?
  • What features provide them with the most value?
  • How can we help our customers learn more about our products?
  • What are the differences in usage and value by customer segments?

And, of course, it might lead you to look at your data in new ways to see if you have additional information about your new customers, or if they are using the product in unexpected ways.

The bottom line: Your finance team is a powerful resource for making the most of your digital opportunity. It has unique insight into the business, a data-oriented skill set and the strategic understanding to pull it all together. Give your team the leadership opportunity and you'll be pleased with the results.

By Mark Garrett, executive vice president and chief financial officer, Adobe, and a member of the CNBC Global CFO Council