businesswoman looking at futuristic interface screen.

Big Data, big capabilities: How can you harness the benefits?

Professor Maureen Meadows, Centre for Business in Society

In a study funded by ICAS (the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland), Professor Maureen Meadows (Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University) and Dr Alessandro Merendino (Queen Mary University of London) explore the need for those working in the accounting and finance professions to develop new skills and capabilities to fully realise the benefits of so-called ‘Big Data’.

Big Data isn’t just for huge corporations.  But what capabilities do you need as a senior finance or accounting professional in a medium-sized organisation – and how can you best acquire them? Here we highlight some of the main findings from a recent interview-based research project and suggest our resulting ‘top 10’ tips

Adopt proof-of-concept cases, and learn from existing use cases

If you’re at an early stage of your Big Data journey, start small.  Use proof-of-concept activities to show the viability of Big Data and its value for the business.  It’s helpful to consider Big Data use cases from your own as well as other organisations, to learn about new applications of Big Data, and successful and unsuccessful practices in the community.

Build Big Data literacy

Critical thinking and creative thinking skills are essential tools as your organisation adopts new approaches based on Big Data.  Bespoke Big Data literacy training for senior finance professionals can help make a shift towards a data-driven culture.  This can combine good practices and experiences of other senior figures inside and outside the organisation.  It could include training in how to interpret Big Data analysis; ensuring access to BD experts, within and outside the finance team; and unpacking case studies on successful Big Data projects.

Build awareness of Big Data and its potential to support the organisation’s strategy

Big Data are often viewed as a specialist theme for data analysts, rather than an asset for the whole organisation including the finance team.  Treating Big Data as a cross-cutting topic can drive improvement in the finance team’s performance.  Make data strategy and data governance part of the organisational strategy.  Link any positive impacts of Big Data initiatives to KPIs, to encourage the C-Suite to pursue Big Data investments.

Focus on insights and benefits from Big Data, such as opportunities for revenue generation

Adopt a more forward-looking approach, to encourage finance teams to capitalise on newly available data and technology.  The senior team can use tools such as scenario planning to gain insights into future opportunities afforded by Big Data.

Establish metrics, KPIs and budget lines that show the value of Big Data to the organisation

Embed Big Data analytics within the organisation’s KPIs.  Big Data can inform the creation of value for the finance team and the organisation.  Establish a budget line for investments in Big Data infrastructure, and treat Big Data as an asset rather than a liability.  Create a communication plan to explain the costs, the return on investment and the benefits of Big Data for the finance team and the whole organisation.

Take an experimental and flexible approach

Improve your understanding of Big Data by adopting a ‘trial-and-error’ approach.  Use case studies from successful Big Data projects (ideally in a finance/accounting context) as evidence to educate and persuade senior professionals who are curious about the benefits and want to learn more.

Build strong connections across functional silos

A ‘silo effect’ can hinder the acquisition of Big Data capabilities.  Set up a data working group involving senior staff across the organisation as a starting point for the finance team to learn and share ideas with other teams.

Identify and fill skills gaps

Run an audit exercise in the finance team and across the organisation.  Identify gaps in capabilities at the senior level, including the Board/C-suite.  Write an upskilling plan, identifying actions to fill Big Data skills gaps.  This can include training existing staff, hiring new staff with Big Data skills or outsourcing certain roles.

Run workshops and networking events, internally and externally

Senior professionals can learn from finance teams in other organisations, including practical examples of beneficial Big Data initiatives.  Internally, the C-suite can meet to share their data needs and capabilities.  These exercises can inform a comprehensive Big Data plan, to build awareness at a senior level of Big Data’s role in creating value and improving performance.

Set up executive coaching and mentoring programmes

Coaching programmes designed for senior leaders can include sessions on the Big Data journeys of other organisations.  They can cover how to create an environment that supports Big Data,  providing opportunities to share Big Data challenges and aspirations.  Coaching is likely to be short-term and performance-driven, while a mentoring programme may more long-term and development-focussed.

The above summary appeared in CA magazine:

The authors would like to thank ICAS (the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) for their financial support for the project “Big Data, Big Capabilities: Navigating Big Data Journeys to Develop the Finance Professionals of the Future”.

To further explore the full research report, visit:

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.