One of our enterprise retail partners noticed an alarming trend; too many critical, executive-level decisions were made without all of the supporting data needed to inform such decisions. The data itself was suspect, and the financial reporting systems hadn’t yet evolved to match the real-time needs of the business. Radical change eventually came via a custom set of executive data reporting solutions that laid the groundwork for a much faster, accurate financial decision-making process.
What we heard was, ‘We’re really only able to view aggregated data, which doesn’t tell us anything other than, ‘Hey, we may need to look into XYZ.’ But, because all of that data was housed in separate places and pulling from different systems (which were owned by different people/teams), getting answers to our questions often took days—and sometimes weeks—to find out what was going on.
— Doug Mitchell, Director, Product, RevUnit
There was a tremendous desire—born out of an urgent, legitimate need—to significantly improve the accuracy, efficiency, and quality of the financial decision-making process. It quickly became clear that there was a much vision worth pursuing: to create a sustainable, long-term solution that allowed senior leadership to make more well-informed decisions to move the business forward. Doing so meant creating a new system that instilled more confidence in the data, more efficiency in the team, process, and tooling, and, ultimately, more trust in the decision-making process.
The data itself was suspect, and the insights incomplete
Internal teams knew they were fighting an uphill battle; they were struggling to source, identify, and surface the most accurate data and insights to Sr. Directors and Executives on a regular basis. They had reason to question both the accuracy and completeness of the data they were relying upon to make key, financial decisions, and they suspected that they didn’t have access to all of the data points needed in order to get a real-time, accurate view of the bigger picture at any given point in time.
Consequently, analysts often spent 3-4 hours each day just trying to navigate data silos in order to compile their reports. And when analysts did locate the correct data, there were often conflicting stories and insights bubbling up to leadership. What’s more, there was little-to-no guidance at the leadership level to help leaders interpret the data once it was found.
In effect (and largely through no fault of their own), the team’s decision-making abilities had been handicapped by distrust in their own data, unnecessarily tedious and inefficient processes, and, as a result, a utilization of team member skill-set that simply wasn’t sustainable long term.
The existing reporting process was woefully inefficient
We quickly found out the existing reporting process was mostly dependent on a manual, repetitive, and tedious daily process. Most days, at least one individual on the team would show up to work early (sometimes as early as 6:00 in the morning) to build the daily financial reports. These reports were then shared with leadership each day as a PDF attachment sent via email.
There were a few issues with this approach: First, the PDF itself was typically between 20-25 pages long and contained little more than descriptive, raw data, which made it nearly impossible for viewers to find the type of actionable, concrete data points and insights that would allow them to make logical deductions and/or decisions quickly. Second, there was simply too much data to sift through, which made it both difficult and frustrating for other leaders who had no other choice but to rely on these daily reports as their singular source of new information. Finally, when there were questions about the accuracy and efficacy of the data itself (a common occurrence), the answers often took days—and sometimes weeks—to track down.
It would be nice if I could spend less time scrubbing data and more time providing strategic insight.
— Sr. Manager, Finance
There were data issues at an organizational level that complicated matters. The resulting “trickle down” effect meant that the team then had to locate and effectively manage multiple data streams, many of which had their own distinct point of origin. What’s more, the available data did not paint a complete picture. That is, there were other necessary data sets floating around that had yet to be found, catalogued, and centralized into a single source of truth.
The PDF reports, by their very nature, only allowed for basic, static comparisons of limited data sets. Even so, such comparisons were incomplete, which limited the usefulness of the reports. So, while the ability to compare and analyze historical data was sorely needed, it wasn’t something that could be done easily, quickly, or uniformly.
The team relied heavily on data tables to present information within existing reports. Doing so not only led to “data fatigue,” but overusing tables—especially when presenting large volumes of data—overwhelmed viewers, making the reports both difficult and time-consuming to review.
→ Assemble a mental model to better understand the unique needs of the various participants involved in the financial decision-making process
→ Document existing financial reporting processes, including key data dependencies and all existing systems, tools, and workflows
→ Create a prototype that could be used to test initial hypotheses, elicit additional user feedback, and drive more meaningful conversations between a variety of necessary teams
→ Outline all requirements necessary to build minimum viable product (MVP), identifying critical dependencies and potential blockers along the way
→ Document all technical requirements for MVP, including data needs, architectural decisions, and specific recommendations for the build
→ Build in two-week sprints, working collaboratively with stakeholders to determine priorities, remove blockers, and show quick progress
→ Test all critical components prior to launch, work with various teams to ensure efficient rollout across the organization
→ Document all critical platform components, including business requirements, technical architecture, and launch requirements
→ Held multiple training sessions with client stakeholders to review critical systems, operational processes, and best practices for platform usage
→ Held ongoing training sessions to answer questions, provide guidance, and collect critical feedback from client stakeholders
First, we designed and implemented a set of key data and process improvements that allowed the team to transition all financial reporting from static PDF reports to a centralized, dynamic digital platform. In doing so, we first designed and built the data architecture which was needed to consolidate more than 35 disparate data sources into a single source of financial truth for senior leaders. In addition, we jointly designed a set of foundational data governance practices and policies which were then implemented so as to create standards for how key financial data was to be collected, stored, and utilized by the team.
Second, we designed and built a set of intuitive, executive-level dashboards that made it possible for senior executives to view, sort, filter, analyze, compare, and explore critical, real-time financial data at their own pace and on their own time (as opposed to the days or weeks-long back-and-forth that often accompanied questions or requests to other analysts and teams). What’s more, for the first time, the set of custom dashboards created a level playing field, standardizing the reporting process and ensuring that all critical decision-makers were working with the same, accurate data.
Consolidated data from more than 30 disparate sources into a single source of truth
Jointly created a set of foundational data governance practices to manage data usage
Created a standard reporting experience allowing for easier comparison of KPIs
Allowed for exploration (or drilling down) of key data points in self-service fashion
Visualized historical performance trends on an ongoing, daily basis to ensure uniformity
Integrated profit data into standard reporting (previously accessible via ad-hoc requests)
Integrated re-model and competitive information into standard reporting
The new financial reporting system, including the processes, tools, data, and dashboards are now used by more than 600 leaders across the globe on a daily basis.
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