Business intelligence sounds like something every company would want, but what does it mean in practice? We spoke to Paul Marten, Senior Finance Controller for Microsoft’s UK Business and Support unit to find out how he is using Microsoft’s own BI software to transform the role of finance.

Over the last eight years, finance’s role has changed from ‘process and control’ to ‘business partner’. My team and I have been empowered by business intelligence technology to think more broadly, present information more effectively and provide more insight to our business partners.

Making sense of the numbers

As a finance team, one of our biggest challenges is turning all our data into valuable insights for the managers who run the different business units that make up Microsoft UK. Business intelligence allows us to standardise our reports and speed up their production.  The technology works like an efficient filter:

  • The pockets of data come in through the SAP system into SQL Server 2012.
  • From that we can create data cubes that extract key data for reporting and use this information to generate standardised reports that cover (90-95% to 80-85%) of our needs.
  • Our reports are delivered to SharePoint where business leaders can access them.
  • We can also create reports using Excel and PowerView, which we can manipulate and interrogate interactively.

As a controller, it really helps to have everything in one place. SQL Server is doing all the heavy lifting so I can concentrate on analysing the figures and not get distracted by the chore of creating reports.

Communicating what we know

General managers have access to a dashboard in SharePoint or even through a regular daily mail that lands in their inboxes that shows them a daily revenue report, scorecards for individual business units and key performance indicators. They can use the standardised reports to compare their performance with other business units and spot cross-selling opportunities.

We can also provide our business partners with real-time insights on budgets and expenses at a high level with the ability to drill down into details. In particular, managers were having trouble keeping track of travel and entertainment budgets, but now they can quickly assess individual requests in the context of previous spending and behaviour.

PowerView is a particularly useful tool: it allows you to interact with the data without having to go back to the raw data or an Excel spreadsheet. Managers are able to understand more about certain aspects of reports simply by clicking, giving them the ability to do their own analysis and reporting.

Making a tangible difference

BI lets us close our books every month in just two and a half days. This gives the business timely, reliable information in a consistent format. We used to have 15 people running 15 different reports but no more. 

Having such powerful and interactive reporting technology also allowed us to do a paperless mid-year review this year for the first time. We presented using Microsoft OneNote, where 100 people could share a document as the presenter made live updates and added comments. It worked really, really well.

Making more of my day

Personally, I can log into SharePoint and see share price performance, revenue for the UK and comparable information about my peers in other parts of the world. It's my one pulse-check for what's going on. I can then spend more time talking about the business, which helps me stay ahead of the wave and stay conscious of what decisions are on the horizon.

As a result of using Microsoft’s own Business Intelligence software, finance has become a more valuable part of the organisation that can make a real contribution to important business decisions.

By Matthew Stibbe
CEO of Articulate Marketing