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Visualisation for all

Visualisation tools and techniques can help Chartered Accountants unlock the value in a company’s data.

By Richard Day and Alannah Comerford

Excel has been the tool of choice for Chartered Accountants for the last two decades. While it has served us well so far, the capabilities of newer tools and the proliferation of data requires us all to look beyond our love/hate relationship with Excel. We have all experienced Excel hell in the form of crashing spreadsheets, combing through countless rows of data in the search for an anomaly or the seemingly endless wait to refresh pivots or charts created on large datasets for management reporting.

The importance of data and the vital part it plays in the role of a modern-day accountant has been recognised by Chartered Accountants Ireland through the inclusion of data analytics in the new FAE syllabus. This is an acknowledgement that engagement with data is essential if Chartered Accountants are to keep pace with technological advancements in business. It also ensures that accountants maintain their central role in the business community. This syllabus will bring the new crop of qualified Chartered Accountants into contact with Tableau, Alteryx and UiPath. It is fitting that this series of articles begins with the visualisation opportunities provided by tools such as Tableau.

Beyond Excel

Companies are gathering more data than before, and the need to consume and analyse this data is changing the business landscape. As a result, accountants need to adapt. Proficiency in Excel is no longer enough to derive value from data. The concept of data visualisation has the power to overcome some of the challenges in handling large volumes of data and can have a transformative effect when applied successfully.

Many accountants fear that data analytics and visualisation are relevant only to IT or data professionals, and that advanced technical skills are required. This is not the case. Many of the market-leading tools are user-centric to allow citizen-led development. The interface is easy to understand and there is a large library of default charts, allowing users to quickly develop interactive dashboards. Data visualisation tools make possible, with a few clicks of a mouse, what previously would have required advanced knowledge of coding in Excel. A relatively modest amount of digital upskilling and time commitment can unlock significant gains.

A game-changer

There are countless benefits to using data visualisation, but it essentially facilitates the focused and targeted analysis of information by allowing the user to customise what they see.

The power of data visualisation is such that a user can create an analysis using a simple dataset – a list of invoices, for example – and visualise this information using any attribute present in the data. One could view the data by period, day, product, customer, approver, or any other characteristic present. Some of this is possible in Excel, using charts or your favourite pivot table. The difference with using a visualisation tool is that if you pick a specific period or approver, for example, all of the other data as visualised would update dynamically to show the information for that period or approver. The knock-on effect is that unusual trends or items tend to be relatively easy to find.

In a data-rich world with countless reports, where we may not know specifically what we’re looking for, these analyses really do change the game.

Unlocking value

Data visualisation can be used to re-invent management reporting and capture insights visually, thereby enhancing the stakeholder experience. It also brings the benefit of repeatability, allowing delivery of reports in a consistent and efficient way using template dashboards that are refreshed with new data. Interactive dashboards provide the ability to drill down into the data and facilitate root cause analysis.

From an audit perspective, it has a clear use in enabling full populations rather than sample-based approach to testing. It also allows the user to generate insights and take a more proactive role in suggesting meaningful improvements or courses of action. Chartered Accountants are valued in the workplace as problem-solvers with an ability to analyse business problems and produce effective solutions; this can now be achieved through visualisation using a data-led approach.

While visualisations can unlock the value in a company’s data, the quality of a dashboard is only as good as the data used to create it. An awareness of data quality and data governance is therefore essential, and this should align well to the skills and training of Chartered Accountants.

Richard Day is Partner, Data Analytics & Assurance, at PwC Ireland.

Alannah Comerford is Senior Manager, Data Analytics & Assurance, at PwC Ireland.

This article was originally published in the December issue of Accountancy Ireland.