In this episode of Being Planful, I welcomed Bryan Lapidus, FP&A Practice Director at the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP). Bryan has spent 20 years in the office of the CFO across both large and mid-sized companies, and in roles spanning FP&A, Treasury, Risk, and more. Now, at AFP, Bryan is responsible for creating and curating content for their members, which are FP&A professionals just like you.
During our conversation, Bryan explains how the pandemic forced Finance to work at a faster pace, and how that has now set an expectation of speed with executives and the business. He also dives into the importance of data fluency, offers his predictions on artificial intelligence and machine learning in FP&A, and warns about potential FP&A burnout as we move from the pandemic to annual planning cycles.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation. Or, you can listen to the full episode here:
Unpredictability Requires Speed
Bryan’s role at AFP gives him a unique view into the needs and concerns of FP&A professionals. As 2020 progressed and the demands on FP&A kept increasing, Bryan says he saw teams stuck in cycles of constant forecasting and re-forecasting, and it didn’t end until late summer. Burnout was a concern, but FP&A rose to the challenge. That stellar performance, however, set the bar pretty high.
“There was a real burnout factor by the beginning of summer,” Brian said. “The workload was always immense and the stress around it was high. Now, people are back in the throes of planning cycles. And what we’re seeing is that the expectation for forecast cycles for next year is going to remain at the elevated level. The pressure and the pace are not gonna decrease.”
That accelerated pace does offer benefits. Faster forecasts and re-forecasts lead to better, faster decisions that can “increase the velocity of the business,” as Bryan puts it. But it’s going to be a challenge to keep up that pace. Many teams are looking to newer tools and technologies, and to build tighter bonds with the rest of the business so information flows with less friction. But that data has to flow both ways, and Finance needs it as much as the business does. According to Bryan, “Finance is moving out of this zone of just financial data.”
The bigger picture, Bryan said, is giving FP&A more than just a financial point of view. So now, instead of expecting a single forecast, for example, the business expects multiple forecasts from multiple perspectives. Instead of one budget, there will be many. Now couple that with the need for speed and FP&A just can’t be expected to do it without help.
“You’re going to need the technology and the tools that will get you through your decision cycle faster and support you in a different way,” said Bryan. “You have to have your data in place. You have to have your systems in place that will allow you to make the decisions faster, to re-forecast faster. (You) need to be closer to the business, to get that information that only the business has, because they’re the ones who are closest to the market.”
Promote Data Fluency Across the Business
Every FP&A conversation eventually comes back to data. You don’t need more of it, of course, but you need access to the right data from across the business. And, you need to be smarter about it so FP&A knows which questions to ask.
“We do not suffer from a lack of information,” said Bryan. “Because the information is out there in so many different forms, it’s actually more important to ask the right question than it is to have the answer. Because asking the right question is going to help you navigate through this sea of data, figure out what you need, and then figure out the answer.”
The challenge for FP&A is that they need to know both the financial and business questions to ask. You have to be bilingual, Bryan said, so you can speak business and speak finance. But, unfortunately, that’s not all.
“You have to be maybe even more statistically oriented than you’ve been in the past, which makes talking to the business a lot harder,” Bryan said. “How often does the business come back to Finance and say, ‘Just give me the number’? Well, it’s not just one number. The number is based on a certain set of assumptions and we have high belief in some assumptions and less in others. There is no single answer.”
So FP&A has to know the financials, know the business, know statistics, know which questions to ask, and then they share all that knowledge. It’s what Bryan calls data fluency.
“Data fluency is the ability for individuals in a company to produce and consume data with minimal friction,” explained Bryan. “You need to have people who think data first. At your senior levels, that means decisions are made based on data. You need to have controls and processes in place for when it gets created, how it moves, who owns certain calculations.”
Upping your company’s data fluency can have some amazing benefits, especially for the individuals in FP&A who become the internal experts. But it does require some special skills. And, as Bryan puts it, “Some of this work is really, dramatically, not sexy.”
Where Machine Learning Gets Real
As Bryan continued to explain the need for deeper knowledge in data, finance, statistics, the business, and more, it’s clear that FP&A needs a helping hand. Or at least an assistant. But that’s where technology comes in, and Bryan sees machine learning as the first element of artificial intelligence that is already being put to practical use in FP&A.
“Machine learning is very understandable, it’s very real,” said Bryan. “And there are certain things that it can do better than you can.”
One reason for machine learning’s impact is the quickly fading benefits of simply relying on past results to predict future performance. “In this world of fast changing, fast pace, black swan events every few years, you have to really wonder how much the future is going to look like the past,” added Brian.
With machine learning being applied across FP&A, it’s giving professionals more time to focus on areas where they’ll make the most impact. Some of that time and effort, however, has to be focused back on yourself, Brian added. AFP has many resources to help, of course, but it’s up to you to learn the statistics, the business, and these new technologies to position yourself as a more valuable, future-proof member of the team.
“We need to be flexible, we need to be growing all the time because the technology is changing and because of that, the processes that we’re going through are changing,” said Bryan. “Being ready for the future means that we’re going to be different in the future. So, get your education, get your continuing learning, get contacts with other people who can help push you and keep you learning because we are not finished products. We are always improving.”
Subscribe to Being Planful
There was much more to our conversation, but you’ll need to listen to this episode to get all of Bryan’s valuable insights. And, I’d really recommend you check out all of the fantastic resources available at AFP.
This podcast series explores the benefits of adopting a “Planful” mindset by inviting your FP&A peers, analysts, industry experts, and more, to share their experiences and insights. Podcasting also lets us stay socially-distant while giving you a more flexible way to learn about Continuous Planning, whether it’s watching it on your phone, listening during your morning run, or tuning-in whenever it’s convenient.
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