Data analysis skills lacking among finance teams

By Neil Amato

Keeping pace with rapid changes in technology is a cause of concern among CFOs. So, too, is talent management—finding good talent, keeping it, and nurturing it.

So with technology altering job roles, and jobs harder to fill, a skills gap has developed in finance roles related to data analysis.

Companies face a steep learning curve in harnessing their data for commercial benefit, and finance is well-positioned to be part of that movement, according to CGMA research. Finance professionals crave data analysis skills: In a 2013 survey, 85% of finance professionals said increasing their ability to work with Big Data would enhance career prospects—but they’re not always finding time to focus on strategic analysis.

Finance business partners in nearly half of companies spend the majority of their time creating and updating reports instead of analyzing and interpreting information, or interacting with the business, according to a global report by Deloitte, which shows that finance leaders want staff to focus more on analysis and interaction. In companies where analytical skills are available, finance staff spend far more time on such analysis and interaction.

In another survey, three-fourths of managers listed “identifying key data trends” as a skill important to success. Yet, just 46% said their teams possess that skill, according to a new survey report by global staffing firm Robert Half and the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), which used responses from 479 CFOs, controllers, and other executives and managers, mainly in the United States and Canada.

The leaders face significant shortages of accounting and finance staffers who have the skills required for data analytics initiatives.

They are combating this skills gap in several ways, including these top three: developing skills from within (68%), hiring from outside the company (44%), and using consultants or project professionals (39%).

However, the skills development is at times off the mark. It’s one thing to offer skills training, but the training must focus on the right skills: 14% of respondents say their companies are offering training related to business analysis.

Need for training

Companies know what they need to do, but they haven’t done it yet, said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. They have growing volumes of data, but 86% are struggling with how to turn them into valuable insight, according to the CGMA report.

Offering skills training is valuable not only to current staff but to potential hires. A different Robert Half survey showed that 64% of job seekers viewed the chance to gain new skills as very important when evaluating an opportunity. Companies that don’t have a reputation for training workers might not get the chance to hire a talented worker if that person believes better development opportunities are available elsewhere.

“Companies that are effective at staffing now are offering attractive compensation and perks,” McDonald said. “They’re offering training, and they’re presenting their culture because these individuals are not only looking at the current employer they’re auditioning with, but they’re also looking at what the job will do for their knowledge base and career. They’re getting a good feel for the culture, which is so important to employees today when they have choices.”

Money is the most-cited obstacle as it relates to hiring for a business analytics role, according to the Robert Half/IMA report. The top four challenges were lack of competitive compensation (31%), inadequate workforce planning (23%), not enough available professionals with the right skills (22%), and poor job description (16%).

In addition to better training programs and hiring practices, companies must continue to update their technology platforms to give staff the best chance to apply those data-related skills.

Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a JofA senior editor.

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