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THE HIDDEN COSTS OF BIG DATA – HOW CFOS CAN HEDGE THE FINANCIAL RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH POWERING INFORMATION PROJECTS

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Isaac Kato, CFO, Verne Global

By Isaac Kato, CFO, Verne Global

Most CFOs have encountered some form of ‘big data’ over the past few years. By unlocking value from the increasingly vast data sets that most organisations have today, big data vendors promise to deliver previously unattainable business benefits that will positively impact their company’s profitability. This may sound like music to a CFO’s ears, but there is of course a catch. The scale of the projects involved means that they often come at a considerable cost.  Even after the computer systems capable of processing the data and the software development requirements have been specified and purchased, there are still operational costs to consider, particularly the cost of the electricity needed to power these systems.

Big data defined

Isaac Kato, CFO, Verne Global

Isaac Kato, CFO, Verne Global

Perhaps the best definition of big data comes from IT industry analyst firm IDC1, which says that “ultimately, big data solutions exist to improve decision making and to provide greater insights, faster, to decision makers at all levels of the organisation.”  Fundamentally, big data tools provide a way for organisations to make their data work harder for them, helping them to find out more about how their organisation is performing and ultimately take decisive actions based on that intelligence.

To provide a real-world example, ‘Avis Budget’has seen a tangible return on investment from one of its big data projects.  The vehicle rental company has implemented a marketing-led project with a database of some 40 million customers.  By crunching this data and attributing value to its customers, the project has helped the company increase revenue by $200 million.

The hidden cost of big data

Although the Avis Budget example illustrates that big data projects can provide impressive returns, it’s important not to overlook the cost of running these initiatives, which can leave a question mark over the value that they deliver.  Each project is of course different, and the cost components will vary from project to project.  While this makes it difficult to accurately pinpoint the cost of powering the IT equipment, even the most conservative estimates put this figure at approximately 15 percent of the total cost for most projects.  For some deployments this figure is much higher. For example, NASA3 predicts that its ‘Discover’ super computer system, used to model and simulate the Earth’s climate, could consume enough power to fuel 16,000 homes.

The genesis of this problem is that energy, particularly in Europe, is an expensive cost element with prices expected to rise for the foreseeable future. Organisations will have to contend with the growing challenge of addressing their exposure to energy price fluctuations and consider how they can make IT and data strategies more sustainable, reliable and ultimately more profitable in the future.

A 2012 paper4 from the EU Commission revealed that energy prices for industrial customers increased by 27% in real terms between 2005 and 2012.  The green levies imposed by governments have forced energy suppliers to raise prices. Compounding this pricing pressure, the EU Commission has itself made a unilateral and legally binding commitment5 to reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions from its 28 member states by 20 per cent by 2020.  That means that any business that emits carbon as a by-product of its operations will face even more costs in the form of explicit and implicit carbon taxes.

Despite political pressures to go green, electricity generation still creates a lot of carbon. Indeed, in some European countries6 the amount of electricity generated from coal is actually still rising, which is particularly concerning, considering that coal is the most polluting source of electricity. With this in mind, any organisation running energy intensive big data projects can expect to be under increasing scrutiny for the impact they have on the environment.

Once these considerations are combined, there’s a perfect storm where electrical supply and consumption is concerned. This drives a need for organisations that spend heavily on power – and particularly those that forecast increased use of big data projects and general IT computing load – to find ways to hedge against the financial risks associated with rising and unpredictable costs.

Big data projects can deliver improvements to business operations and increases in revenue, but these must be considered in the context of their broader costs. For projects to remain viable and deliver better value, CFOs should prioritise conversations on how and where energy is sourced and concentrate on finding ways to insulate this aspect of the business against long-term risks.  The solution here is to situate these power-hungry big data projects in locations with access to dependable, low price, and abundant renewable energy sources. After all, no carbon emissions mean no carbon taxes, and renewable energy sources are also good for financial results, as long as they are more predictably and affordably priced.

1 IDC white paper – Big Data: Trends, Strategies, and SAP Technology
2 Avis Budget’s Road to Customer Value
3 Supercomputer Powers NASA’s Climate Research
4 A stronger European industry for growth and economic recovery
5 EU greenhouse gas emissions and targets
6 Europe’s energy policy delivers the worst of all possible worlds

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How to lead a high-performing team

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How to lead a high-performing team 1

By Matthew Emerson, Founder and Managing Director, Blackmore Four

When we think about a great team, the image we conjure up almost always includes a superstar leader.  A smiling Sir Alex Ferguson guiding Manchester United to countless domestic and European successes year after year. The conductor of an orchestra, drenched in sweat, turning to take rapturous applause from an appreciative audience.  The self-styled entrepreneur-turned-CEO who has steered their company’s share price, profit margins and brand recognition to levels of international envy.  Our bias to assign the leader credit or blame for successes or failures that are actually outcomes of a team effort is strong and widespread, and results in both positive and negative outcomes for individual leaders that often overlook any team-based root causes.

Clearly, some people are better at leading teams than others. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to try and identify the traits that distinguish effective leaders from those who consistently fail to get the best out of people they work with. Literally hundreds of research studies have attempted to see which traits predict leadership effectiveness. However, none have succeeded in identifying any set of universal traits that could reliably distinguish and predict effective leadership from the rest.

For one thing, research has shown that there is no one leadership style that works well across all situations.  A style that may be just what is needed when working with skilled and trusted colleagues to develop a team may fail badly when a newly-formed team encounters a challenging situation that requires a quick, decisive team response.

A second problem with leadership styles stems from our assumption that leader behaviour is the cause of member behaviour and team dynamics. In fact, a leader’s style may, in many circumstances, be as much a consequence of members’ behaviours as it is a cause of that behaviour.  For example, if a leader is charged with managing a team of subordinates who are both competent and cooperative, the leader is likely to be more effective responding with a considerate, participative leadership style.  However, if team members are obviously not capable in carrying out the work and, moreover, demonstrate aggression in their dealings with the leader, a much more structured, directive and autocratic style is likely to be exhibited, to varying degrees of effectiveness.  Excellent team leaders are aware of their natural styles—they know what they like to do, what they can do easily and well, and what they can accomplish.

Effective leadership

On the one hand, we tend to overattribute responsibility for collective outcomes to the team leader. Although that tendency is often exaggerated there is no doubt that what a team leader does (and doesn’t do) is highly consequential for team performance.  Instead of focusing on a leader’s generalised behaviour (style) and who they are (character, superhero), the focus should be shifted onto what it is they actually do (action).

Effective leaders focus on the four basic factors we discussed in the previous articles in this series, starting with a compelling direction and clear accountability.  The team need to know that they are a real, interdependent team and that normalised behaviours, high expectations and trusting relationships are agreed across the group.

Sometimes most of these conditions will already be in place when a team is formed and fine-tuning them will not pose much of a leadership challenge. Other times, when the focus has been on individual work not teamwork, it will take great effort to establish these four basic factors.

Behavioural leadership skills

Matthew Emerson

Matthew Emerson

Great team leaders do not rely on any single strategy for promoting high team performance. Instead, they work hard in getting all of the factors we have been discussing aligned and pulling in the same direction. However, it’s not sufficient for those who lead teams merely to know about the factors for high performance; they also need to know how to create and maintain those factors—in a word, they need to be skilled in leading teams.

Effective team leaders are skilled in executing actions that narrow the gap between what is happening in the group or its context, compared with what the leader believes should be happening.  They are also skilled at managing their emotional response, resisting the impulses of acting too quickly and dealing with one’s anxieties.

Effective leaders demonstrate their ability to tap into the collective resources and coach teams in order to exploit potential to the fullest extent.  Being able to exploit those special moments at the beginning, middle and end of task and team life cycles can prevent future breakdowns or factors that hinder high performance.

The ability to inspire others is another commonly identified, essential behavioural skill for leaders of high-performing teams.  The is no single best way to provide it, but the key is to identify which of your skills and styles can best be used to create in others the passion you feel for your work and then to hone and develop those resources as one core element in your personal repertoire of team leadership skills.

Leading high-performing teams

There is no way to “make” a team perform well, let alone sustain outstanding high performance.  Teams create their own destinies to a great extent.  After a team has launched itself on a particular path, its own actions create additional experiences which then guide members’ subsequent behaviour, which can set in motion either a cycle of ever-increasing competence and commitment or a downward spiral that ends in collective failure.

Once members have established their shared view of the world and settled into a set of behavioural routines, there is not a great deal that leaders can do to change the team’s basic direction or momentum. What leaders can do is make sure the team is set up right in the first place, action the four factors and then constantly hone and learn to develop a number of key skills specific to team leadership.

About Author:

Matthew Emerson is the Founder and Managing Director of Blackmore Four, an Essex based management consultancy working with leaders of ambitious businesses to achieve outstanding performance through periods of growth or significant change.

Starting his career at Ford Motor Company, Matthew has developed his expertise in Organisational Effectiveness in key senior HR, Organisational Development and Talent roles, predominantly in Financial Services (Credit Suisse, Barclays and DBS) and most recently as the Group Head of Talent and Performance at UBS AG.

Having worked in and across Asia for six years as well as having ‘global’ responsibility in a number of his roles, Matthew has an appreciation of international and multi-cultural working environments.  He also has a multi-sector perspective, having worked with organisations in Manufacturing, Healthcare, Education and Technology.

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Oil prices steady as lockdowns curb U.S. stimulus optimism

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Oil prices steady as lockdowns curb U.S. stimulus optimism 2

By Noah Browning

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices were steady on Monday as support from U.S. stimulus plans and jitters about supplies competed with worries about demand due to renewed lockdowns to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

Brent crude futures for March rose 7 cents, or 0.1%, to $55.48 a barrel by 1210 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude for March was up 5 cents, or 0.1%, at $52.32.

“Sentiment was buoyed by expectations for a blockbuster coronavirus relief package … (but) the tug of war between stimulus optimism and virus woes is set to continue,” said Stephen Brennock of broker PVM.

U.S. lawmakers are set to lock horns over the size of a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package proposed by new President Joe Biden, financial stimulus that would support the economy and fuel demand.

European nations, major consumers, have imposed tough restrictions to halt the spread of the virus, while China reported a rise in new COVID-19 cases, casting a pall over demand prospects in the world’s largest energy consumer.

Barclays raised its 2021 oil price forecasts, but said rising cases in China could contribute to near-term pullbacks.

“Even though the pandemic is not yet slowing down, oil prices have good reasons to start the week with gains,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen from Rystad Energy.

Supply concerns have offered some support. Indonesia said its coast guard seized an Iranian-flagged tanker over suspected illegal fuel transfers, raising the prospect of more tensions in the oil-exporting Gulf.

“A development that always benefits prices is the market turbulence that conflicts create,” Tonhaugen added.

Libyan oil guards halted exports from several main ports in a pay dispute on Monday.

Output from Kazakhstan’s giant Tengiz field was disrupted by a power outage on Jan. 17.

(Editing by David Goodman and Edmund Blair)

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Dollar steadies; euro hurt by vaccine delays and German business morale slump

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Dollar steadies; euro hurt by vaccine delays and German business morale slump 3

By Elizabeth Howcroft

LONDON (Reuters) – The dollar steadied, the euro slipped and riskier currencies remained strong on Monday, as currency markets were torn between optimism about U.S. stimulus plans, and the reality of slow vaccine rollout and the economic impact of lockdowns in Europe.

Market sentiment had turned more cautious at the end of last week as European economic data showed that lockdown restrictions to limit the spread of the virus hurt business activity, dragging stocks lower.

The safe-haven dollar declined gradually overnight, and riskier currencies strengthened. It then recovered some losses after European markets opened, and was at 90.224 against a basket of currencies at 1152 GMT, flat on the day.

On one hand, market sentiment is supported by hopes for President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus plans, as well as the expectation that central banks will continue to provide liquidity.

But, in Europe, the extent of the risk appetite was limited by a lack of progress in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine as well the economic impact of lockdown measures.

German business morale slumped to a six-month low in January, surprising market participants who had expected the survey to show a rise.

“It’s very much a case of hopes for the future against the reality of the first quarter of this year which is going to still prove to be fairly troubled,” said Jeremy Stretch, head of G10 FX strategy at CIBC Capital Markets.

“For now at least, the optimism that we’re hoping for has been somewhat delayed and that has taken a little bit of steam out of the euro and just put a little bit of support back in the dollar but ultimately I think it is still a case of those high-beta commodity currencies, reflation currencies, will continue to perform well,” he said.

Analysts expect a broad dollar decline during 2021. The net speculative short position on the dollar grew to its largest in ten years in the week to Jan. 19, according to weekly futures data from CFTC released on Friday.

The U.S. Federal Reserve meets on Wednesday and Fed Chair Jerome Powell is expected to signal that he has no plans to wind back the Fed’s massive stimulus any time soon – news which could push the dollar down further.

“The process of tapering QE is likely to be a gradual process which could last throughout 2022, and then potentially be followed by the first rate hikes later in 2023,” wrote MUFG currency analyst Lee Hardman.

“In these circumstances, we continue to believe that it is premature to expect the US dollar to rebound now in anticipation of policy tightening ahead, and still see scope for further weakness this year,” he said.

The euro was down around 0.1% against the dollar, at $1.2153 at 1207 GMT. At the European Central Bank meeting last week, President Christine Lagarde said the bank was closely watching the euro. The euro surged 9% last year versus the dollar and reached new two and a half year highs earlier in January.

But despite this verbal intervention, traders remain bullish on the euro, expecting the bar for a rate cut to be high.

Elsewhere, the Australian dollar, which is seen as a liquid proxy for risk, was up 0.2% at 0.7726 versus the U.S. dollar at 1208 GMT.

The New Zealand dollar was up 0.5%, while the commodity-driven Norwegian crown was up 0.2% the euro.

The safe-haven Japanese yen was flat on the day at 103.815 versus the U.S. dollar.

Graphic: USD, https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/qmypmyjdxpr/USD.png

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft, editing by Ed Osmond and Chizu Nomiyama)

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