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Real-time data driving businesses—and changing the CFO role

It wasn’t long ago that real-time financial information was available only to those who worked in companies with expensive data collection and analysis systems. CFOs of less-wealthy companies had to make decisions on the basis of historical information (or hunches, never a good idea). Lacking timely information, they had to forgo decisions that could have increased revenues, improved inventory management or otherwise helped their companies, because in the absence of good information, certain decisions were just too risky. The default was to make no decision, and that’s what most CFOs rightly did—but at a cost to their business.

Today, real-time information is inexpensive to obtain, and the role of CFOs has changed as a result. Having access to real-time information allows CFOs to make appropriate business decisions without the risk that used to exist. Many CFOs are taking advantage of that fact—and nowhere more than in Silicon Valley, where many businesses are driven by real-time data.

I’ve become part of that trend as a consulting CFO for some of the Valley’s up-and-comers. One of them is a social media company with data gathering systems that detail sales volumes and revenues every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The company’s accounting systems allow the executive team to see the financial status of the company in real time, at all times. As CFO, I can access this information from anywhere around the world and help the company make appropriate decisions that will immediately affect its business. For example, if we see revenues dropping, we can instantaneously initiate a promotion, sale or other activity that will drive revenues back to the target, at which time we can instantaneously cease the activity. We can see the drop and recovery all in real time and keep sales on track with the overall business plan.

What I am doing with this company is now the norm in Silicon Valley. We can expect to see more and more CFOs of businesses outside the Valley follow the same path.

The growing availability of real-time data is forcing a shift in the role of the financial executive. Today’s CFOs need to understand where to get the data, how to interpret it and how to use such real-time information to drive a business forward. If they don’t, they risk becoming a statistic themselves.

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