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Q&A from ASMC PDI Panel Modernizing DoD Financial Management Reporting

The push for real-time analytics across the DoD has reached a fever pitch. Though private industry has made great strides over the last 20 years, public organizations are still struggling with the same manual processes. At a recent ASMC PDI panel entitled, "It's not you, It's PowerPoint: Why It's time to fall in love with real-time reporting" experts from public and private industry came together to discuss steps that can be taken now to improve financial management reporting at the DoD. Below are questions and answers fielded from the event.

Will you please make the slides available? 

Absolutely. The slides from our presentation can be found here. 

 

New system and tools are great; however, these things often get thrown at us, but we're left on our own when it comes to the training or learning how to use them. What steps are being taken to train end-users (and junior FMers) on how to use the tools provided and data and analytics in general? 

We always recommend your first stop be a chat with your leadership to understand what training is available. One source we hear often is Defense Acquisition University (DAU) which has financial management courses available or other resources available to you.  

Associations also provide training. The American Society of Military Comptrollers (ASMC) and the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) regularly conducts webinars on a range of topics. 

You can also leverage Google and YouTube for task specific tips. LinkedIn Learning, Tableau, Google and Microsoft are also great resources for structured courses which provide certifications. 

When it comes to contracted software, it is imperative to evaluate offerings on the training and support available in addition to the features and capabilities. At Decision Lens we developed Decision Lens University - an entire course catalog that teaches how to leverage our software and improve associated skills. We also offer custom training run by a dedicated team and provide each customer with a success manager to ensure they have the skills and tools to be successful. 

Homegrown solutions can be a bit trickier because training is wholly dependent on whoever developed the solution. Even when using widely available solutions such as Excel, if capabilities are added to change how it is used, then finding support can be a challenge. In this case, determining who developed the software and who the power users are becomes critical to figuring out how to achieve your goals. 

 

The Government restricts a lot of features based off of what is purchased, that we could use to making our slides/charts better. However, PowerBI is starting to gain traction. But Power BI does not allow anything to be transferred to a Power Point slide without taking a picture of it. 

Many organizations still rely heavily on or even require PowerPoint for presentations. We however would suggest doing as much real-time reporting as possible. There are benefits to such an approach including a reduction in time spent creating one-off slideware, re-running data after a meeting, and having subsequent follow-up meetings to update old data. In short, reporting is ideally delivered real-time– not on a static slide.  

One way to transition from slides to real-time reporting is to construct the visuals leadership is familiar with and deliver them on an easy-to-consume dashboard between meetings. The ability to switch between slides to data to drill downs of that data during presentations will demonstrate the value of real-time data and reporting.  

Don’t forget that above and beyond the benefits listed above many tools – such as PowerBI -offer custom visualizations which will assist you in telling your story more effectively than the limited universe of charts and graphs available in PowerPoint. Embedded analytics help to understand and operationalize data in context as well. Making this transition may take some time and require reinforcing the benefits of real-time reporting, but it will ultimately result in a superior process that benefits everyone. 

Find software that is flexible for passing data into third party visualization tools such as PowerBI, but also offers embedded analytics to help you visualize data in your day-to-day activities. At Decision Lens, we offer both of these options to provide maximum flexibility for users. 

 

Can you provide real-world examples of Analytics in Financial Management? 

Highlighting the difference between data and analytics is useful when answering the questions. 

  • Data. A fact or figure absent of any analysis. An example of data is temperature. 
  • Analytics. Making that data into useable knowledge and insights so that decision-makers and leadership can optimize in an efficient manner 

There are many real-world examples of analytics in FM which drive strategy. Here are just a few examples: 

  • Providing guidance on alternative courses of action (COAs) based on current spend and obligation rates 
  • Prioritizing unfunded requirements (UFRs) based on a variety of factors constrained by a budget, and;  
  • Analyzing future scenarios, such as excess funds available at year-end, or budget cuts next year. 

Ultimately, the goal is to use your financial expertise to provide guidance to leadership which they may not be well positioned to assess on their own. 

 

Where can I find examples of great budget reporting that I can use as a reference for the reports I present to my leadership? 

Great reporting can come in many shapes and forms, and it often depends on the message you are trying to convey.  Within government financial management, standardized charts and graphs are typically used, such as a stacked bar chart showing Commitments/Obligations/Expenditures across the fiscal year compared to Planned amount and OSD Benchmarks in line form.  While charts like this are certainly useful, the data portrayed can often carry more weight if it’s being shown live and in a real-time platform rather than outdated data with an “As of:” date attached. 

Decision Lens has been able to assist organizations with breaking out of the standard reporting format by incorporating actual data as it’s currently established in the platform.  Below are just some examples of the visuals and features customers use when presenting to leadership.

Sensitivity Analysis with Adjustable Criteria for 1-N List 

Animation Clip - Sensitivity Analysis

 

 

Spend Plan Tracking Showing Planned vs Obligated Amounts 

Animation Clip - Spend Plan

 

Scenario Planning Showing Updated Course of Action (COA) Compared to Baseline 

Animation Clip - Scenario Planning

Heat Map and Gantt Chart View of Projects to Evaluate and Correct Funding Bottlenecks 

Animation Clip - Schedule

 

Many of the systems we use are siloed (not integrated) and are owned/managed by different organizations/functionals. What are some realistic ways we can collaborate to correct data challenges?--this is not easy. A lot of rice bowl perspectives. 

New technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate. To take advantage of this we recommend creating an integrated product team (IPT) and governance model to drive collaboration and foster buy-in from all organizations/functions working together on the FM solution. Working with different people and systems is critical to creating an integrated solution. The goal should be to get the data to the point where it is organized and accessible to all. Creating a form of governance, such as an IPT, is an efficient forum to start talking, planning, and assessing the market and working towards the goal.   

 

Could we clarify the classifications? These should be Data, Information, and Decision Points.   

Our definitions as discussed during the presentation include: 

Data – A fact or figure absent of any analysis. It is 30 degrees outside. 

Information – Data plus some analysis. For example, it is 30 degrees outside which means it is cold and I should wear a coat. 

Knowledge- Putting information and data in its context to provide a larger understanding and create predictability. Most days in December are less than 30 degrees which is cold so whenever I leave the house in December I should wear a coat.  

Analytics and reporting - Presenting data and turning it into useable knowledge and insights so that decision-makers and leadership can operate in the abstract.  

Decision Points – When a course of action must be taken, informed by the knowledge gained from the analytics and reporting provided on the various options.  

 

I see implementations of PowerBI called Analytics, but I don't agree. It just seems to be another way of reporting data. 

Agreed. Analytics are about turning data into useable knowledge which can only be done by a subject matter expert. The combination of a financial expert such as a Comptroller, Resource Advisor, Budget Analyst, or others with software that helps them identify trends, track performance and evaluate alternative courses of action creates a powerful pairing. 

 

How can we determine if there are biases in the algorithms behind the s/w, so we understand it? 

To get a better understanding of how algorithms work, we recommend Data Science (MIT Press Essential Knowledge series)The first few chapters are a nice introduction to the kinds of algorithms most organizations are using lately and are not very technical. However, if you want to dig deeper there are more details in the book. If you’re looking for a free resource, you can read Algorithms in Layman terms from LinkedIn. These should provide insight into how algorithms are developed and give you confidence to test your algorithms to see if they produce results that match expected outcomes.