4 Dec 2019

The identity crisis of the business controller

The identity crisis of the business controller

They hired you to report the numbers, analyse them for management, and make sure the financial transactions keep flowing. Then they centralised transaction processing in a shared service center in Krakow, taught management how to subscribe to reports from the data warehouse in the cloud, and outsourced basic financial analysis to a team in Bangalore. Your next development discussion looms large on the horizon, and “It don’t mean nothing” seems like your new refrain. Now what?


It is perhaps not quite that bad, yet. For most controllers. In most companies. But the trend is clear, and both individual business controllers and entire finance organisations need to read the writing on the wall and step up to new ways of delivering value to the company. Here are five steps to make business controlling relevant for the next decade:

1. Understand the processes

Being able to interpret the numbers, and explain them based on what SAP or HFM tells you, is no longer enough. They can do that in Bangalore. What they cannot do is be out there, with the customers, suppliers, and partners, with the people who create the products and services, and really understand the cause-and-effect relationships that drive efficiency and profitability. A business controller who knows how to analyze business and supply chain processes, measure their efficiency, and turn this information into actionable insights that make financial sense is, and will always be, extremely valuable to the company.

2. Master the environment

When you understand the business processes, and the business logic, you need to look outside the company. What is happening in your value chain, in the industry, in the economy, in society, that is relevant to the business you support? The key here is being able to combine internal, closely held numbers and metrics with relevant external data sets and observations, once again in order to generate actionable insights. The only person who actually can do this is the business controller who has the access, the understanding and the skills. And in this VUCA world of ours companies where this doesn’t get done tend to end up in trouble, so the finance function had better make sure it does get done in a timely manner.

3. Go hybrid

Being able to utilise spreadsheet macros (VBA) has already for decades been a ticket-to-play item for business controllers. Without the ability to semi-automate repetitive tasks a business controller is simply not able to cope with the required workload, and nobody wants to recruit someone whose next career step will be burn-out. These days, controllers who intend to have a life (and stay sane) need to look beyond macros and start utilising software robotics (RPA) in order to semi-automate repetitive tasks across different software applications. Without a personal virtual friend from UiPath, or the equivalent, to take some of the load off, your personal productivity will fall below the expected level of baseline efficiency. Baseline intelligent finance organisations will recognise this, and provide the training and support needed to master the required skills.

The other area where new tools and skills are needed is quickly and continuously extracting insights from weak relationships in big datasets. Nice graphs in PowerBI or Tableau will only present the information you already know is there. The insights you haven’t yet discovered are obviously difficult to visualise. At the same time, you will not be able to analyse and visualise fast enough to keep up with the firehose of high-velocity information generated by sensors and systems out there on the edge. This is where machine learning algorithms come into their own. The way to stay on top of high-volume data flows in real time is to train ML software to process the data, report statistically, and flag interesting correlations for your attention. Neither you, nor the computers, can do it on your own, but the combination is unbeatable. This means you need to get up to speed with the basic machine learning toolbox, so as not to sink beneath the flood of data.

4. Get organised

On a personal level you need to start building capabilities. This means new skills and new tools, but above all it means networks and connections. You will never be able to know everything you need to know in advance, but you can hope to know someone who knows how to find out. Do you have access to a broad range of data sets and sources? When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – who you gonna call? When the recurring tasks and reports get automated, it means you are left with the interesting, non-recurring questions. To be effective as a business controller, you need to be good at investigating new things, because otherwise you will never have anything to report.

The business controlling organisations need to start reflecting the more challenging ways in which business controlling will deliver value. As the scope broadens it is even more impossible than before for everyone to be experts on everything. We must have specialisation, and efficient networks of specialists, where any individual frontline controller as far as possible can access and channel the full power and capabilities of the entire finance function. This includes both internal and external data and expertise.

5. Take responsibility

The demand for someone to make sense of the ever-increasing torrents of data, internal and external, and turn them into actionable, business-relevant insights, has never been greater. At the same time the brilliant people in Krakow and Bangalore may finally (finally!) be freeing up some capacity at frontline business controlling. The business controllers, and business controlling organisations, now need to step up and accept responsibility for a broader range of information flows. We are looking at the third level of business controlling, beyond (but building on) the scorekeeping and business partner roles – the pathfinder level, where business controlling makes sure that whatever the decision that needs to be taken, the relevant information is there as the fact base. In order to stay relevant this is the direction where business controlling must head.

All of these skills and insights are best developed as a joint effort, benchmarking and sharing best practices. For business controlling, development takes place in the Controller Performance Programme, a consortium of companies interested in together pushing the boundaries of controlling. The Accounting Performance Programme fills a corresponding function for experts and controllers on the financial accounting side of things, including some fantastic people from Krakow. Join us!

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Anders Tallberg
Program Director, Senior Fellow
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