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June 4, 2019

It’s 5 am and You’re Already Late. How to Avoid Starting Your Day Writing Reports.

By: Shawn Parks

That wasn’t in the job description

It was Jeff’s turn to grab coffee. On Monday, the financial planning and analysis (FP&A) team of three took turns getting liquid motivation for its 5 a.m. meeting.

Yes, 5 in the morning. But why the meeting?

  • What was the emergency? There wasn’t one. This wasn’t a fire drill.
  • Working on an international project? Same time zone as where the team lived—U.S. Eastern Standard Time
  • Annual or quarterly budget meeting? Nope, every Monday.
  • Boss is a tyrant? Actually, the vice president (VP) of FP&A is a really nice guy.
  • Is this normal? It happens more than you think.

There had to be a reason for Jeff’s 4 a.m. alarm and subsequent Starbucks run.

The story is that was the only way the team could get its analysis prepared and sent off for the weekly leadership meeting. The team works for a Fortune 100 retailer, and every week at 10 a.m., the executives reviewed the status of their thousands of stores. It took the team between an hour and a half to three hours per week to analyze the data, make calculations, find insights, manually write reports, and create slides. Because the window to produce the reports was extremely narrow, the early meeting was the team’s primary course of action.

There is a better way to automate reporting

The FP&A VP (again, great human being) is actually the savior of this situation. He felt bad the team was in nearly four hours before anyone else in the building. He said he wanted to help the team “reallocate its time for more sleep, not more work.” Beyond that, he fundamentally knew there was a better way: intelligent automation. As a manager for the same retailer, both before and as a VP, he won awards for digital transformation. Among other projects, he discovered that natural language generation (NLG) could take the retailer’s financial data and turn it into an easy-to-read summary.

“Working with Narrative Science drives overarching consistency. The way we now look at metrics cuts across a majority of business lines. I am very much attuned to the value that it is bringing to the organization. It allows us to speak with one voice and enables everyone on the team to be aligned in driving toward the same goal.” – VP of FP&A, Fortune 100 Retailer

Naturally, the greatest value the technology provides is time-savings. The morale of the team has improved as it has a less aggressive start to the week. Beyond that, the broader impact of NLG is on the consistency that the automated commentary drives. This was actually an unplanned benefit achieved after the first project. What began as a project to solve for efficiency has now become a mechanism for consistency and a metric-driven culture. And there is room for additional growth.

Consistency supersedes time

Fast forward: for two years and counting the VP of FP&A has used Quill to automate his reporting. There are currently four use cases that are written with NLG. He and the team are working to expand this to other reports in their group and in other departments. They are also working on a project using the same intelligent automation platform to instantly generate stories in their Tableau dashboard. This business intelligence (BI) extension would bring the output to thousands of people in the company.

There is nothing wrong with a 4 a.m. alarm. The early morning hours are a great time to workout, get your kids ready for school, or simply ease into the day and enjoy your coffee.  Just don’t expect to see Jeff and the team for a few more hours.