There is little doubt that larger organisations have realised the importance of engaging Business Intelligence (BI) staff to facilitate data-driven change and strategy within a company to provide a competitive edge.

What has been less obvious to some is the critical need to ensure BI staff are working co-operatively with the Finance Department and that the CTO/CIO and systems across these departments are fully integrated.

While the Finance and BI teams may function well in independent silos within your business, they are able to dramatically improve business outcomes when they work co-operatively and can often be a catalyst for enormous growth.

The question GMs and other business leaders need to ask themselves as a matter of urgency are: are my BI and Finance teams in a happy business marriage or is a messy and costly divorce looming?

The changing world of BI

BI is a rapidly emerging and highly competitive field made up of graduates and industry veterans who are learning to harness the power to data to find efficiencies and growth opportunities within businesses.

One of Australia’s largest retail travel outlets, Flight Centre Travel Group, developed its Business Intelligence (BI) team four years ago. The organisation’s GM Finance – Back Office Support & Online Travel, Camille McKee said the move recognised the need and benefits of becoming a “more data-driven company”.

“Data and data analysis had previously been available only through pre-canned reports and sourced from the IT teams,” Ms McKee explained.

“The BI team was tasked with extracting and evaluating the raw data and turning it into information which allowed them to generate insights.

“Initially this information and insight was most beneficial for the marketing department but has since been adopted by other areas of the business – mostly finance – to drive efficiencies and help decision-making.”

Flight Centre’s BI Team includes business intelligence analysts and data scientists.

Australian business intelligence and analytics firm Aginic, founded in 2014, employs more than 30 BI consultants who are drawn from a diverse range of fields.

“Our consultants are not IT people; they are accountants, mathematicians, actuaries, scientists and clinicians,” Rob Mackay, Associate Director at Aginic, explained.

“For us, the IT side of BI is relatively straightforward to learn. However, having an analytical mindset, being comfortable with numbers and knowing how to use data to solve real world problems is more difficult to teach.”

Mr Mackay said the common traits shared by good BIs included:

  • Intelligence
  • Innovation
  • Willingness to try new thing
  • Naturally curious
  • Challenges assumptions
  • Is self-reflective about their performance
  • Strong attention to detail
  • Effective technical and business communicator

He said candidates who had experience with analytics and data visualisation tools as well as ETL/data modelling receive “bonus points”.

With a conviction that data will be a major driver of change which will be invaluable in developing business strategy, Ms McKee said Flight Centre was very clear in what it was looking for when it developed its BI team. Primary requirements for candidates were:

  • Strong knowledge and experience in Transact SQL or similar
  • Understanding of basic statistical concepts and an ability to convey that to staff across a large organisation
  • Strong ability to problem-solve and think creatively 
  • Knowledge and experience in reporting applications, SSRS, OlikView, Crystal Reports, Excel and Power BI.

The BI/CTO relationship

“We often find that the businesses which have the most success with their BI journey are those which have a close alignment between the CIO and the CFO/CEO,” Mr Mackay said.

“A BI engagement should not be seen as an IT project; it’s more of a business transformation with IT as the key enabler.

“Often for organisations, the rubber hitting the road for BI is data visualisation and, longer term businesses look to analytics being more infused with their decision-making and strategy.

“The foundational components of BI and analytics enables businesses to start to explore increasingly sophisticated and advanced ways of using their data to drive this, for example within the realms of machine learning, cognitive learning and artificial intelligence.”

Ms McKee said at Flight Centre, they had found that the importance of a healthy relationship, and open lines of communication, between the BI team and CIO or CTO could not be understated.

“When looking at a data lifecycle, most steps are performed and designed by the IT department which means that data strategy, data governance and data security are generally CIO-driven initiatives,” she said.

“These initiatives impact heavily on the BI department and collaboration between the two is necessary to deliver optimal outcomes. Maintaining a good relationship between the BI team and the CIO allows for a holistic approach to operational challenges by utilising their combined experience and knowledge.”

Ms McKee said having a BI team allowed Flight Centre to undertake timely cause and effect analysis of situations which have the potential to significantly impact a business.

This included specifically:

  • Developing product strategy through seasonality
  • Understanding customer experience by mapping impacts through the customer’s journey
  • Developing insight into the client base and understanding their importance to the business.

Heading for the rocks

The effect of a company’s BI team not communicating and working cooperatively with the CIO/CTO could spell disaster.

“If they are not communicating, you run the risk of there being conflicting strategies within a company and this can result to a lack of change management strategy where business/data definitions and systems are changed or updated on either side without the other’s knowledge,” Ms McKee said.

“One of the worst outcomes of this is either side reporting different information on the same topic and both losing trust from the business because of this.

“The best outcomes are achieved where there is communication on both sides allowing for a consistent strategy. This leads to business-wide efficiencies, new innovations and previously non-realised benefits.

“By having open lines of communication, more effective solutions are developed and there is a quicker realisation of business outcomes.”

For Mr Mackay, a truly successful relationship between a BI and CTO, is all about the numbers.

“Data comes into everything,” he said. “We have a data-driven culture which supports making better decisions, investigating new ideas in a low risk manner by developing proof of concepts, and makes us able to adapt to changing trends across the industries we work in. 

“We use BI to develop an approach which sees us more as a business partner than a service provider.

“We are finding that with the current BI tools and associated infrastructure, tangible business intelligence outcomes can be achieved in a matter of days and weeks, not months and years.”

Mr Mackay advised businesses wading into the world of BI for the first time to look at what was already happening internally, suggesting that there is already some level of BI work happening, but under a different banner such as financial or operational analysis.

“In addition, don’t get too concerned initially about the tool sets you want to use,” Mr Mackay said. “A focus on driving business value often organically leads to an understanding of which tools are going to be the most useful and sustainable to the business.”

By Rebecca Willis, GM QLD Corporate & Professional Services at Davidson