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Reflecting on “The Martian” and the Role of the CFO

Published: March 18, 2016
Michael is the Director of the Business Intelligence & Analytics practice at Tribridge. Read More

Many of us vaguely remember NASA’s launch of the Pathfinder on its mission to explore Mars almost two decades ago, and were reminded of it in Matt Damon’s recent movie, “The Martian.” In the movie, the Pathfinder played a critical role in allowing Mark Watney, played by Damon, to communicate with Earth, at first through pointing the camera at letters of the alphabet, and subsequently via text message as he sought to make some incredibly complex technology work together to ensure his survival.

The movie alluded to the lengthy gap between the time a message was composed and transmitted, and when it could actually be seen, read, and responded to. Depending on the position of the Earth and Mars at that time, that delay could be anywhere between four and twenty-one minutes in length. Even though it was depicted in fast-forward, that long of a delay was almost interminable when trying to carry on a conversation, let alone mount a rescue mission, and represented a sizable barrier to success.

That brings me around to the role of the CFO. The role of the CFO has matured over the years to be so much more than just the person responsible for the finances of the organization.

To be an exceptional CFO, one needs:

  • An understanding of all areas of operation of the business, and how these all work together.
  • The ability to understand how a subtle change in one area affects another area of the business, and to be able to adjust to accommodate that.
  • To be able to recommend real-time changes while coaching internal “customers” and business partners.

The faster a CFO can do these things, the more efficiently the business can operate, the more stable and predictable its cash flow can be and the greater its ability to invest money back into the business to help it thrive.

This is critically important to the business, but many CFOs do not have the mechanisms in place to let them do this in near real-time. Often times, organizations lack the capabilities to provide almost instant insight into the business. Instead, they rely on someone running a report and posting it; on generating data and dumping it to Excel and then adding formulas and creating pivot tables; or generating various data sets which they then mash up to create a report that's almost immediately outdated, and always static until it is re-run. As in “The Martian”, there is a significant time lag, in this case in getting messages about the health of the business, asking a question, and the interminable delay until a response was received.

Organizations spend thousands of dollars annually on new technologies that efficiently capture large quantities of data. We can automate the collection, storage and processing of this data, as well as the exchange and transformation of it to our trading partners. Yet we typically stop short of providing CFOs and their teams with the ability to access, analyze and use this data real-time, but instead force them to rely on reports, spreadsheets, or workbooks.

Much like Matt Damon in “The Martian,” that delay in getting real-time information is preventing us from operating as efficiently as we must in order for our organizations to not only survive, but thrive.

Some takeaways that “The Martian” left me with in regards to the role of the CFO.

Getting Information in Real-time isn't a Luxury

Matt Damon had to no choice but to rely on antiquated, 20+ year old technology providing less than timely information. Our businesses move and change quickly – getting information in near real-time and without requiring time-consuming manual manipulation in Excel is not a luxury, but a requirement for a business (and a CFO) to survive and to thrive.

We Need Consumer-Level Expectations, Rather than Corporate Expectations

A running gag in the movie was that the only music available to Damon was the mission commander's library, most notably, 70s disco music, which got old, very fast. As consumers, we expect new content of all sorts on demand, and on any device, frequently and wherever we are – or we stop using it. We demand this as consumers - why should we force our CFOs to settle for something less when it comes to the information that drives our business, or to force them to only access it via their desktop or laptop?

(Spoiler alert!) As Damon was preparing to evacuate Mars in the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), he gutted everything possible from the vehicle in order to reduce the size and mass. It worked – but he was left with a barely functional craft and one that left him in severe danger. We invest a lot in systems to collect and store data; let's not treat the analytics portion as something that we can jettison just in order to reduce some size and cost without considering the consequences, and long-term impact.

Analytics isn't an Option to be Cut

Matt Damon's character was very skilled, but also lucky. Let's not rely on luck to make our CFOs and our businesses successful.

Do some of these perspectives hit home with you? Would you like a deeper dive into some options to accelerate your success? If so, learn more about how using BI and analytics can help your organization succeed in our on-demand webinar, or contact us for a one-on-one discussion of your specific areas of concern, and viable options.

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