You may think big data experts are for IT, but many accounting and finance departments put "effectively analyzing a company’s business intelligence" at the top of their wish lists. And for good reason. Leveraging big data can yield powerful insights into a firm’s operations and customer trends.

Making big data truly useful for your finance team depends on your ability to identify people with the right job skills to help you decipher it. It’s no secret this is a hot topic in technology. “Many IT professionals, including chief information officers (CIOs) are looking for ways to take greater and greater advantage of big data,” according to a Robert Half blog post. “Big data is also one of the fastest-growing tech areas, with companies racing to capitalize on its potential.”

Big data experts in short supply

IT isn’t alone in the push to mine for big data gold. Finance functions also need big data experts able to tap their company’s information for insights and to develop actionable strategies. However, the skills supply has yet to meet the demand.

Building a Team to Capitalize on the Promise of Big Data, a report from Robert Half and IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) reveals that when it comes to both hard and soft skills, companies have experienced significant talent gaps between their ideal finance candidate and what they have internally within their own enterprise. The study found technical and functional skill gaps, specifically in several areas that employers need most, which include the following:

  • Identifying key data trends
  • Data mining and extraction
  • Operational analyses
  • Technological acumen
  • Statistical modeling and data analyses

The study additionally found a shortage of nontechnical skills that are imperative for success in big data. The three biggest of these are in the areas of decision analysis, process improvement, and strategic thinking and execution.

For insights on big data hiring trends in IT, please visit the Robert Half Technology page.

The push to find talent outside the finance team

Perhaps as a result, 44 percent of businesses surveyed for the report said they are trying to boost their financial teams’ analytic skills by hiring outside the company. But looking outside isn’t always easy, either. It can be challenging to find big data experts in a market where demand for these individuals outstrips supply.

So what can you do as hiring manager? Here’s a look at how to evaluate big data skills in accounting and finance job candidates, and how you may still be able to build these skills among your existing financial staff.

What big data job skills do you need?

Before you can look for promising candidates, you need to pinpoint precisely what business analytics skills your finance team needs. While a key part of the job involves data retrieval, interpretation and analysis, the perfect package of expertise goes beyond identifying and reporting on key data trends to include:

  • Functional skills such as financial analysis and planning, budgeting, forecasting, operational analysis and cost management
  • Technical skills including data mining and extraction, statistical modeling and data analysis
  • Soft skills like communication, decision analyses, strategic thinking and process improvement

The advent of big data is prompting managers to look for these qualities in today’s accounting and finance new hires. This is breathing new life into jobs such as the business analyst, opening new avenues of responsibilities and corresponding increases in salaries.

Asking the right questions

The next step is finding candidates who can bring these abilities to the table —professionals with a keen understanding of analytics who are able to apply this knowledge to your business needs.

One strategy that can help managers during their talent search is to develop a list of interview questions specifically crafted to identify professionals with the right job skills. For example, you might ask candidates to explain the following:

How do you define big data?

Describe a big data project that you worked on and the business results that you achieved in terms of data quality and data analysis. What strategies did you use to achieve those results?

What are your technical competencies and skill sets, and how do those fit with our company’s specific analytics environment and tools?

What are your communication strengths, and how do you use those skills to help management understand what your findings mean?

With your communications skills in mind, what is your solution if you develop a big data model but your end user doesn’t understand how it works?

What is the biggest data analysis challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome it?

Download the Building a Team to Capitalize on the Promise of Big Data report.

Building up big data from within

Despite its difficulties, accounting and finance departments should develop current staff members’ business analytics skills. Financial leaders reported this is the most effective way to build a team’s expertise in this area. To get around these skill gaps and ramp up in-house talent to create big data expertise, consider the following five strategies:

1. Equip your current employees to help them better understand the data that needs analyzing. Help them learn what information to look for, as well as what should raise a red flag. According to the Robert Half study, the most common types of training for these competencies are in-house, continuing professional education (CPE) and tuition reimbursement.

2. Prioritize retaining staff who already have business analytics abilities. The research found that it is harder to hire new talent than it is to keep staff who have the requisite abilities.

3. Upgrade information systems.

4. Communicate the value of big data initiatives to gain broader organizational support. The report findings revealed that the most effective retention factor was a supportive attitude from top management.

5. Offer strong benefits and compensation packages.

With proven strategies to trump the challenges of attracting and retaining big data experts from the outside — while building successful teams from within — you can maximize the potential value of big data in your finance and accounting teams.

Need more information about how to fill your accounting and finance team’s talent gap in big data skills? Contact your local Robert Half Finance & Accounting office.