Data & AI

Chemistry between IBM and Umicore for future-ready finances

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With society moving at an ever-faster pace on an increasingly global scale, keeping track of the financial part of your company’s story is no walk in the park. Especially not for a multi-billion, multinational company like Umicore. However, with the right tools at the right place at the right moment, some of the obstacles that lie on the way to a future-ready finance department can be overcome more easily. We sat together with Xavier Van Houte, ‎Senior Manager Group Control and Consolidation at Umicore, to discuss how he sees the finance department at Umicore evolve towards the future, and how IBM applications like Cognos Controller, Cognos TM1 and Cognos Disclosure Management can help facilitate that journey.

A multi-faceted company calls for solid consolidation

Umicore is active on a global scale, focusing on clean, sustainable materials technology and recycling, applying itself to materials science, chemistry and metallurgy. The group’s activities are organized in three business groups, each of which is further divided into different market-oriented business units. The group has industrial sites on all continents, and provides services to a worldwide client base. “Add to this complexity a total turnover of €10.4 billion in 2015 alone, and it becomes apparent that a strong consolidation engine is of the utmost importance to guarantee accurate, consistent consolidation,” says Xavier Van Houte, ‎Senior Manager Group Control and Consolidation. “Moreover, even little gains with regard to speed and accuracy can have a big impact on such a large scale”. For consolidation purposes, Umicore has been using the Cognos Controller application for a decade now, and overall, that has been a very positive experience, Xavier confirms. “Gone are the days of inefficient and cumbersome spreadsheets. Our goal really was to have a more accurate and robust consolidation process. In that way, Cognos Controller can really be seen as the facilitator of certain measures we had always wished to implement in the company.”

Quantum leaps with IBM

Innovation has always been at the heart of Umicore. The group’s focus on innovative sustainability guarantees products and services that are future-ready. However, having products and services that are future-ready does not necessarily imply that your company’s business processes are future-ready as well. It is with this consideration in mind that Umicore approached IBM, when the time came to take the consolidation process to the next, future-proof level. “Compared to what we did in the past, we really made a quantum leap with Cognos Controller,” Xavier Van Houte tells us. “We were looking for a reliable and strong partner, so our choice for IBM was as obvious as it was well thought out. For one, it goes without saying that IBM’s reputation as one of the largest enterprise software providers in the world contributed to our choice. But that’s not the only reason for this partnership: the global product portfolio of IBM is extensive, and if we decide to choose other products from that portfolio, integration should not pose too big of an obstacle. That is what we’re currently doing with Cognos TM1 and Cognos Disclosure Management – we want the applications in our portfolio to grow in full harmony.” As businesses and sectors are continuously evolving, it was important for Umicore to work with tools that are adapted to fast-paced circumstances. “We’re always looking for the tool that is the most proactive, future-oriented and user-friendly. On that point, the fact that the Cognos applications are business-oriented rather than IT-oriented is a big advantage. And although there always remains room for further improvements, at the moment, we’re really glad with what Cognos Controller delivers.”

A tailored solution for every problem

Of course, a drastic change like transforming your finance processes does not happen overnight, especially for a company as big and multi-faceted as Umicore. There are several other change projects running simultaneously apart from the transformation of the consolidation process. That is part of the reason why Umicore adopted the strategy not to rush things too quickly, and opted for a steady implementation and a gradual evolution of the tool once it is put in place. “That’s perfectly possible with an application like Cognos Controller: although there are a lot of dimensions to the tool, there’s a solid base to be found in the strong consolidation engine, allowing for a pace of upgrading and updating adapted to your own preferences.”

Xavier Van Houte does believe that the Cognos Controller should be used for the consolidation process exclusively. “Fortunately, IBM’s product portfolio contains other applications that are optimized for their specific purposes, and are furthermore relatively easy to integrate. At the moment, there are two other projects that are being implemented in phases. The first one is Cognos TM1, and the second one, to be implemented in a later phase, is the Cognos Disclosure Management tool.

The treatment that data deserves
“For TM1, we’re currently in the first phases of setting up. In later phases, we’ll start working with the planning, budgeting, and forecasting functions. The goal of Cognos TM1 for us is to really dive into the data gathered through Cognos Controller. As such, we can minimize the time dedicated to the gathering of data, leaving more time for what really matters, i.e. the analysis of the data gathered within a constantly evolving business environment (specifically on cost analysis and enterprise planning processes), and that’s what we’re planning to do with the TM1 application.”
Moreover, the powerful engine behind TM1 ensures that even very large and complex data sets – like those produced by a multinational as Umicore – can be handled without a problem. In that sense, Cognos TM1 not only saves time by eliminating tedious tasks, it also creates added speed and agility. It aligns the company’s resources and initiatives with corporate objectives and market events, thereby creating more realistic KPIs that are in line with business-oriented KPIs.

Reporting in the right lingo

In the near future, Umicore also plans to integrate Cognos Disclosure Management in their portfolio, with the goal of taking their reporting processes to the next level, by combining authentic company data and financial reporting with narrative analyses. “With a company as complex and comprehensive as ours, both geographically, structurally as well as activity-wise, it is important that there is a certain degree of automation in the reporting, and that we can draw from a number of different data sources – financial as well as non-financial – from all across the company, to create that reporting in a standardized manner. Moreover, it’s absolutely necessary that different departments get tailor-made reports that they understand, i.e. that are written with the kind of vocabulary they use every day.” This will ensure a better integration of the finance side of the story into the overall picture of Umicore.

“The way we see it, is that Cognos Disclosure Management can really help us create a safe, efficient environment in which it is possible to get different departments on the same wavelength, by transforming financial data into concrete, custom-made, standardized reports suited for the specific departments. In a sense, users of the Cognos applications throughout the company are simultaneously ‘suppliers’ and ‘customers’ of the application. Xavier Van Houte explains: “Employees across different departments and business units provide us with the raw data; at the other end of the chain, once the data is processed and ran through the different Cognos applications, we can provide these same employees with the necessary data analysis and narrative reporting they need. Reporting that will, by the way, be much more reliable and robust than before.”

All eyes on mobile for the future

As far as the future is concerned, Xavier Van Houte sees a lot of potential in the mobile possibilities offered by the different applications. “Right now, we’re in the analytical stage of our journey, really focusing on optimizing our data gathering and processing. Our ambition is to focus on the availability of the output of our Cognos applications. We want to get it on mobile, on tablet… In a sense, we want to create a kind of ‘ad hoc library’, from which everyone can quickly take whatever type of processed data they need, at any moment, and on any device.”

Some road signs for the financial transformation journey

Despite there being convenient applications in place that can help you along the way on your financial transformation journey the decision to take off on the journey is quite a profound one to take. However, with big data seeping through the whole economy, it is not only the multinationals that benefit from financial data analytics – increasingly, SMEs are confronted with ever growing data sets as well. Change management is of course crucial: having the right people in the right places is key, and getting teams on the same wavelength is of the utmost importance. Apart from that, here are some questions to be asked for helping you along the way:

– How does my company process financial data? Are there ways in which that data could create more added value than it does now?
– How much time is spent today in gathering financial data? How much time is spent on the analysis of that data?
– At the moment, are there improvements your company can make when integrating financial KPIs with performance KPIs?
– Do I lose a lot of time creating reports? Are they creating effective impacts on the organization, or do they just end up in a drawer or on a shelf to gather dust?

Thinking about these questions could already get you really far in creating an image of what it is exactly that your company needs. If you want to find out more about how IBM solutions can help your finance transformation, please visit this site.

Brand Amplification Lead Benelux

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