Utilizing #PredictiveAnalytics & #BigData To Improve Accuracy of #EPM Forecasting Process

I was amazed when I read the @TidemarkEPM awesome new white paper on the “4 Steps to a Big Data Finance Strategy.” This is an area I am very passionate about; some might say, it’s become my soap-box since my days as a Business Intelligence consultant. I saw the dawn of a world where EPM, specifically, the planning and budgeting process was elevated from gut feel analytics to embracing #machinelearning as a means of understanding which drivers are statistically significant from those that have no verifiable impact , and ultimately using those to feed a more accurate forecast model.

Big Data Finance

Traditionally (even still today), finance teams sit in a conference room with Excel spreadsheets from Marketing, Customer Service etc., and basically, define the current or future plans based on past performance mixed with a sprinkle of gut feel (sometimes, it was more like a gallon of gut feel to every tablespoon of historical data). In these same meetings just one quarter later, I would shake my head when the same people questioned why they missed their targets or achieved a variance that was greater/less than the anticipated or expected value.

The new world order of Big Data Finance leverages the power of machine learned algorithms to derive true forecasted analytics. And this was a primary driver for my switching from a pure BI focus into data science. And, I have seen so many companies embrace the power of true “advanced predictive analytics” and by doing so, harness the value and benefits of doing so; and doing so, with confidence, instead of fear of this unknown statistical realm, not to mention all of the unsettled glances when you say the nebulous “#BigData” or “#predictiveAnalytics” phrases.

But I wondered, exactlyBig Data Finance, Data Types, Process Use Cases, Forecasting, Budgeting, Planning, EPM, Predictive, Model how many companies are doing this vs. the old way? And I was very surprised to learn from the white-paper that  22.7% of people view predictive capabilities as “essential” to forecasting, with 52.2% claiming it nice to have.  Surprised is an understatement; in fact, I was floored.

We aren’t just talking about including weather data when predicting consumer buying behaviors. What about the major challenge for the telecommunications / network provider with customer churn? Wouldn’t it be nice to answer the question: Who are the most profitable customers WHO have the highest likelihood of churn? And wouldn’t it be nice to not have to assign 1 to several analysts xx number of days or weeks to be able to crunch through all of the relevant data to try to get to an answer to that question? And still probably not have all of the most important internal indicators or be including indicators that have no value or significance to driving an accurate churn outcome?

What about adding in 3rd party external benchmarking data to further classify and correlate these customer indicators before you run your churn prediction model? To manually do this is daunting and so many companies, I now hypothesize, revert to the old ways of doing the forecast. Plus, I bet they have a daunting impression of the cost of big data and the time to implement because of past experiences with things like building the uber “data warehouse” to get to that panacea of the “1 single source of truth”…On the island of Dr. Disparate Data that we all dreamt of in our past lives, right?

I mean we have all heard that before and yet, how many times was it actually done successfully, within budget or in the allocated time frame? And if it was, what kind of quantifiable return on investment did you really get before annual maintenance bills flowed in? Be honest…No one is judging you; well, that is, if you learned from your mistakes or can admit that your pet project perhaps bit off too much and failed.

And what about training your people or the company to utilize said investment as part of your implementation plan? What was your budget for this training and was it successful,  or did you have to hire outside folks like consultants to do the work for you? And by doing so, how long did it actually take the break the dependency on those external resources and still be successful?

Before the days of Apache Spark and other Open Source in-memory or streaming technologies, the world of Big Data was just blossoming into what it was going to grow into as a more mature flower. On top of which, it takes a while for someone to fully grok a new technology, even with the most specialized training, especially if they aren’t organically a programmer, like many Business Intelligence implementation specialists were/are. That is because those who have past experience with something like C++, can quickly apply the same techniques to newer technologies like Scala for Apache Spark or Python and be up and running much faster vs. someone who has no background in programming trying to learn what a loop is or how to call an API to get 3rd party benchmarking data. We programmers take that for granted when applying ourselves to learning something new.

And now that these tools are more enterprise ready and friendly with new integration modules with tools like R or MATLib for the statistical analysis coupled with all of the free training offered by places like University of Berkeley (via eDX online), now is the time to adopt Big Data Finance more than ever.

In a world where the machine learning algorithm can be paired with traditional classification modeling techniques automatically, and said algorithms have been made publicly available for your analysts to use as a starting point or in their entirety for your organization, one no longer needs to be daunted by thought of implementing Big Data Finance or testing out the waters of accuracy to see if you are comfortable with the margin of error between your former forecasting methodology and this new world order.

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2015 Gartner Magic Quadrant – Boundaries Blur Between BI & Data Science

2015 Magic Quadrant Business intelligence

2015 Magic Quadrant Business intelligence

…a continuing trend which I gladly welcome… 

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

–Charles Dickens

Truer words were never spoken, whether about the current technological times or deep in our past (remember the good ole enterprise report books, aka the 120 page paper weight?)

And, this data gal couldn’t be happier with the final predictions made by Gartner in their 2015 Magic Quadrant Report for Business Intelligence. Two major trends / differentiators fall right into the sweet spot I adore:

New demands for advanced analytics 

Focus on predictive/prescriptive capabilities 

Whether you think this spells out doom for business intelligence as it exists today or not, you cannot deny that these trends in data science and big data can only force us to finally work smarter, and not harder (is that even possible??)

What are your thoughts…?