Digital transformation is not only going to allow the NS finance department to provide its business colleagues with the right month-end figures, but also to come up with scenario analyses and predictions that will benefit the whole company.
With the upcoming transfer to S/4HANA – SAP’s new ERP system – and a company wide data modelling and BI platform, NS is planning to make real time management information dashboards available to all departments. The rail operator opted for a gradual roll-out instead of a ‘big bang’ implementation and Finance kicked off the process last January. Goals include a consolidation of systems, clearer financial reports and lower costs. Finance director Hugo Mans and IT manager Geert van der Hoek explain.
How important is the ongoing digitalisation process for the NS?
Van der Hoek: ‘It’s becoming more important by the day. Train travel is popular but we are creating very few new tracks and we are operating almost at capacity. In order to transport more passengers we will have to think smart. That means more efficient management, optimising train schedules etc. At the same time we must make sure train travel remains affordable. Digitalisation is indispensable if we want to make all this happen.’
Mans: ‘The important thing is to keep our focus firmly fixed on the customer throughout the process. One of our main goals is to increase customer satisfaction. For example, we know that being able to find a seat during rush hour is very important to a traveller. So we have put the Seat Finder app in place which tells travellers where on a busy train seats are still available. We want to forge relationships with individual travellers. Once we know more about their travel behaviour, we can send them push messages telling them the best and cheapest time to travel.’
Van der Hoek: ‘These messages allow us to influence the process and, more importantly, travellers are more likely to find a seat. And by giving them the right information, we are give travellers the opportunity to make their own call.’
Hugo Mans (52) is a chartered accountant and finance director at NS where he has taken on a number of managerial roles since 2002. His former places of work include PwC and Logica.
Geert van der Hoek (43) has a background in business administration and is an IT manager at NS where his responsibilities include Data & Analytics, CC Mobile & Digital Platforms and IT Backoffice (Finance, HR, Purchase). He was previously employed by ORMIT and Kuehne + Nagel.
What will digital transformation mean for the finance department?
Mans: ‘Finance used to be a bit of a separate world within the NS. Colleagues from other departments found it hard at times to get at the financial data and properly understand its implications. That is something we wanted to change completely. We want to be accessible to all NS departments, especially since the management of our operational KPIs, such as punctuality, and the corresponding financial figures are inextricably linked. It is up to Finance to combine the operational and financial data in order to present a clear picture. We want to give our colleagues information that they can actually use in practice.’
Can you give an example of the sort of information you mean?
Van der Hoek: ‘Not long ago, we launched a weekend travel campaign for Kruidvat customers. It proved to be a big hit. But when we analysed the data, it turned out that although the discount offer had boosted revenue it also ate into our regular takings. And the other travellers weren’t very happy about the crowded trains at the weekend. So we were able to provide a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of the effects of the campaign.’
Mans: ‘We also want to enable the board to check out certain things for themselves. It used to be the case that Finance would hand over the month-end figures and that would be that, so to speak. We are working on a dashboard that will, for instance, allow management to make a deep dive into the information presented there, based on their specific needs.’
‘We want to give our colleagues
the kind of information
they can actually use in practice’
Has the relationship between the finance and IT departments become closer?
Van der Hoek: ‘Yes, we are increasingly speaking a common language. There is a clear parallel between IT and Finance. Our attitude used to be that we would do anything business asked us to do, whatever it was. We have become more critical. When asked for IT input, we will now ask what, for instance, Finance wants to achieve. It gives us a much more meaningful brief to work with and adds value more quickly.’
Mans: ‘You will no longer catch me saying: ‘Geert, I want you and your department to build something around this or that function, hope it works out’. It’s a much more iterative process now. It involves me having to understand if my request is going to be easy or difficult for IT to execute. In this way you come to a joint decision and can back each other up if things turn out to be riskier than previously thought. And at Finance we can only monitor our own processes if we understand how the data is being fed through the IT systems.’
Van der Hoek: ‘Our worlds are converging more and more. IT and Finance are no longer separate departments but are becoming part of the business side of things. The Finance department is steadily becoming a main driver.’
Does this means finance staff will need additional skills?
Mans: ‘Yes, our people need to be more versatile and have multidisciplinary skills. We often include a member of the Finance department in the business teams so our input can help achieve their goals. You don’t need to be a dyed-in-the wool accountant but you do need analytical skills and the ability to predict developments based on the financial data.’
And meanwhile simpler tasks are being automated?
Mans: ‘Yes. Robots have already taken over a number of relatively simple and repetitive tasks from Finance staff and they are very happy about that. It frees them up for activities such as analysis and forecasting.’
‘Our analysis showed that although the discount offer
boosted revenue it also ate
into our regular takings – and caused crowded trains on busy routes to boot’
Geert van der Hoek
What does your digitalisation learning curve look like?
Van der Hoek: ‘Bringing about change is always a tough proposition, and this process is no exception. We are moving towards self-organising teams which requires a completely different approach to the job. So not only are we transforming processes and IT systems, we are also effecting change at an organisational level by upping staff skills. All in all it is a pretty big task. But we are optimistic about its chances of success, especially since our workers are very loyal to the company and committed to the passengers. As managers we spend a lot of time convincing other managers and staff of the need for digitalisation. And we’re being as transparent as possible because only then can you win people over.’
Mans: ‘We are making tracks because we see this change as a collaborative effort involving our total teams. Everybody in the teams matters and that is how we both gain speed and have fun along the way.’
Sector: Passenger transport | Workforce: 22.000 | Finance staff: 350 | Revenue 2018: € 5,9 billion | Ebitba 2018: € 116 million
Read more inspirational cases in our special THE DIGITAL CFO
The CFO's of ground-breaking corporates such as KPN, NS, Ordina, Randstad and Wolters Kluwer give insights into their own, unique approach to digitalisation. And discover how BDO's integrated approach makes the most of the opportunities which digital transformation can bring.