Smart finance leaders are leveraging data to move their organizations forward, but it's time to take it a step further: To gain full advantage of financial data, users throughout the organization must be able to answer questions themselves, in real time, using the most relevant information available. This self-service model represents a huge cultural shift inside businesses, and finance leaders are in the perfect position to make it happen.

While financial data has been used primarily (or, often, only) by those in the finance department and the highest levels of the company, more companies are recognizing that timely access to data can help users across the organization make strategic business decisions. In fact, many companies have come to realize that expanded use of financial data — balanced with secure controls and access rights by role — is key to driving innovation and increasing competitive advantage.

While the exponential increase in data volume, velocity, and variety creates opportunities, it also creates challenges. Financial data is more useful across more business lines, but it can be difficult for IT, whose roles and responsibilities are expanding, to respond to increased requests for data. All too often, business users get stuck in a vicious cycle: requesting information from IT, waiting on IT to build reports, following-up if those reports are now stale or don’t provide the right insights, and then going through the whole process again.

Finance leaders need to uncover new tools that will provide data analysis autonomy. The answer is a cloud-based system that will enable business users to access, analyze, and apply information.

This kind of self-service model on a flexible cloud-based finance system can provide three key capabilities (among many others):

1. Speedier “time-to-answers”

Say you’re the company controller and the CFO asks you for information on financial performance mid-quarter. At many companies, it can take days or even weeks for IT to build and produce reports based on your questions — time that the CFO doesn’t have. A self-service analytics model provides the power to ask and answer questions in an agile and iterative manner, and get the CFO the information he or she needs in near real time.

2. Elimination (or, at least, breaking down) of data silos

Tools that can integrate data from many disparate sources provide business users with the ability to align data in ways they may never have thought of before. This provides a more accurate, timely, and relevant view into financial performance and how it affects, and is affected by, all lines of business in the organization.

3. Democratization of data

Where data — especially financial data — was once collected and analyzed in a departmental vacuum, smart companies understand that the more informed their employees are, the better bottom-line decisions they will make. A cloud-based self-service model enables users to get access to the information they need, when and where they need it.

Of course, access and rights management is paramount when it comes to data, but with proper governance and a data and collaboration-focused culture, a cloud-based finance system can help finance leaders position stakeholders to more effectively plan, measure performance against specific metrics, and identify areas that need additional support in order to move the company forward. This kind of expanded visibility could provide insight into, for example, a gap in headcount or skills that are limiting a team’s success on a particular project.

Finance leaders: the self-service data analytics bridge

Most companies have a huge gap between where they are now and where they want to be with a self-service model, but by encouraging users to increase their understanding of the business and market through an iterative process of asking questions, getting answers based on data, using that data to inform business strategy, finance leaders are in a prime position to help bridge that gap. This effort can be supported through collaboration with IT leaders in implementing self-service tools that are easy to use and understand, as well as by leveraging a cloud model that will increase agility and ensure security and adherence to governance policies and procedures.

Financial leaders are certainly not the only people who can help move organizations toward a self-service analytics model, but they have an opportunity to lead the charge.