Datawatch: Handle data in the right analytic tool - James Eliason

Efficient data management directly affects the bottom line. This is why reliably sourcing, collating and understanding data is such an important aspect of the chief financial officer's role. James Eliason, CFO at Datawatch, discusses how his company's data preparation tools can offer protection while saving time and money.

Data does not guarantee insight. To add real value, it needs to be collated and comprehended in a way that is relevant to running a business. Being able to interpret the results and predict how these figures are likely to change in the future can elevate a CFO from simply reporting the numbers to the operations department to actively guiding best business practice.

"You've got to be forward-thinking," says James Eliason, CFO at Datawatch. "You've got to have tools that help you use data - historical and real time - to predict what may happen. You need to be prescriptive. That's a value-added resource to leverage; it's a mindset."

While Datawatch cannot guarantee shifting the mindset of every CFO, it can provide the tools to make this more likely. Datawatch Monarch the company's self-service data-preparation platform runs as an application on desktops, and allows a file or web page to be dragged and dropped on to the canvas. From there, it automatically extracts data into analytics-ready rows and columns.

"We make our products easy to use," Eliason says. "What used to take five commands and a little bit of code writing is now point and click. The usability is about making it much easier for the layperson to use."

The self-service analytics capabilities provided by the product allow faster insights and an equipped staff force. With 100 prebuilt manipulation functions, data can be easily masked without learning a new script language or complex flow diagrams.

According to the company's statistics, 80% of an analyst's time is spent on data preparation with only 12% of enterprise data used in decision-making. That makes for sobering statistics, especially when considering that data will grow by 800% over the next five years, and 90% of it will be multistructured.

To add to the sheer volume of data, technological advancements have also increased the number of different management systems in use at one organisation.

"Think of large, multinational corporations with multiple back-office systems, SAT systems, Oracle systems," Eliason says. "They're not all integrated and even doing simple things like consolidating your numbers can be an Excel exercise fraught with errors. It takes time, let alone the reconciliations that you will have to do. Even closing basic cell ledgers becomes very problematic.

"Instead of having to manually retype data, our product takes multistructured data, such as from a PDF, and delivers it quickly and easily, without having to worry whether you have retyped the data correctly."

A home example

A recently enacted law in Massachusetts in the US - home to Datawatch's headquarters - gave Eliason the direct opportunity to reap the rewards of his company's product in house. The law dictates that companies retain three years of salary data. Datawatch had recently changed salary service providers, switching to a cloud-based system, but needed to get hold of much of its old information. Its previous provider was happy to help - for $50,000.

"We used our own product and technical services," Eliason says "and did it in a half a day for less than $1,000."

The cost saving speaks for itself but this type of tool can help finance departments in other ways too. It improves operational productivity by capturing, sharing and analysing data from legacy systems; consolidating transaction reports for performance analysis; and pulling key data from core processing systems for financial analysis, operations management and external reporting.

This makes it easier to streamline business processes by extracting, analysing and distributing hundreds of brokerage reports and text-based transmission files on a daily basis. Customers are more satisfied as they have online access to their statements or are able to cross-reference and retrieve claims, benefits and policies online.

Datawatch Monarch has evolved substantially from its origin 20 years ago. It was introduced to unlock mainframe print spool data to use for other analytic tasks. "It was a very hard thing to do," Eliason says, "and the product did it really well."

In the past five years, the company has focused on developing server technology to automate processes. "Once you've built the model," Eliason says, "and it knows the data sources to get, you can run our server products, which basically automate the processes. It can just do it at the frequency you want: daily, weekly, monthly."

Guiding principles

Efficiency and simplicity are key guiding principles in the development of Datawatch's products, but another essential aspect is having in-built, audit-trail-governance capabilities.

The model a company employs to manage its data is not static; it constantly grows and changes as other users tap into the data sources to add to and edit them. "An audit trail captures every key stroke to tell where the data comes from," Eliason says.

A staff member - such as a chief product officer, for example - could take their expenses versus the budget and, with Datawatch Monarch, perform various analyses to complete a report for the CEO. It would show where all the data came from and what had been done to it. "It's essentially a governance path," Eliason adds.

This data-tracking capability ensures regulatory compliance by making archived statements and trade confirmations available for analysis and data visualisation; offers ready access to audit needs such as trial balances for loans, overdraft reports, kiting suspect reports and reports from third-party data processing firms; and helps to detect fraud, manage risk and leverage emerging opportunities.

In companies requiring large data deployments, the IT department invariably has to get involved. "We're very near and dear to IT," Eliason says. Datawatch's products help the IT department act responsively in providing the necessary business intelligence information to analysts. However, when the cost of data breaches can run into the millions of dollars, it is essential that IT products, such as Datawatch Monarch, have built-in security features like good data governance.

Look into the future

A challenge for many companies is accurately predicting their revenue. It is important for analysts to understand current and historic pipelines, and know how to use them presciently.

Using the example of Salesforce, a point-in-time tool, Eliason says: "Once a salesperson changes it, you can't go back and get the data, so we take snapshots weekly. Over time, you can layer those snapshots to get a bigger picture of where the pipeline is and what it is likely to reach."

With these powerful capabilities, it is unsurprising that Datawatch Monarch takes care of all the data for companies such as EQUIFAX and Mastercard. Most notable is its partnership with IBM's Watson and Cognos applications. "We are the data-prep engine for anyone using these analytics solutions," Eliason says. "IBM is plugging us into deployments for multistructured and semi-structured data-prep capabilities."

The basic guiding principles of simplicity and efficiency will continue to drive the company's evolution of its products in an expanding market. "We feel we are the data-prep experts," Eliason says. "We've been doing it for 20 years; we do the hard stuff really well, and you could argue that, in the past two years, we've come upstream and also do the easy stuff really well."

James Eliason, CFO at Datawatch.