Blocking, Tackling, and Data: Expense Management Lessons from the NFL

Summer is over.  The kids are back in school.  Vacations are a distant memory.  Fall is when we turn our focus on what really matters in life – how our favorite NFL team is going to do this season. But even if you don’t follow professional football, the game still has things to teach us – especially when it comes to expense management.  An effective approach to expense management – and a successful football team – will focus on three areas: speed (and saving time); certainty (and reducing errors); and insight or turning raw data into usable information and actionable intelligence.  Let’s look at each of these areas.

Related: New McKinsey & Co. Study Has Important Lessons for Telecom Cost Management

The Fastest, Most Time Efficient Team Usually Wins
In football, speed is not just important for wide receivers or running backs.  It’s wired into the game itself, which uses a 40 second play clock that makes time management and ball control critical.  This is where pre-game preparation is essential.  It’s where coaches hone their clock management skills and learn to make decisions quickly.  NFL teams all use tools and technology to be as efficient as possible – think of the 500-page playbooks that are learned in advance and the radios in headsets to reduce wasted time in player-to-coach communication.

There’s no “play clock” in expense management, but most of us have experienced the business equivalent of a two-minute drill and the frustration of not getting everything done by a certain deadline.  For many organizations, finding opportunities for cost reduction is often inefficient, labor-intensive work involving manual data entry and poring over invoices and spreadsheets.  This is where stealing a page from the NFL’s playbook makes sense.  To speed up expense management – to get meaningful results faster – you need to invest in training (making sure your team knows how to do their job), processes (to reduce the number of work steps to a minimum), and tools (i.e. software that automates cost audit activities).  Making these investments can give businesses the ability to “buy back time”, and allocate staff efforts to more strategic and value-creating activities.

Certainty: Reducing Errors, Turnovers, and Penalties
All NFL teams understand that a single error – a blown coverage, a fumble, a bad read – can be the difference between success and failure in a game.   NFL teams also know that human beings under the intense pressure of an actual game are especially prone to error.  Thus, they invest a huge amount of effort in practicing plays and drilling fundamentals.  As Perry Fewell, ex-NFL coach and current NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Administration explains, the days leading up to a game are about making everything as certain and automatic as possible, or as he says, “getting players to play the game and not think the game.”  And NFL teams are fanatical about identifying errors, using film, and grading players after each game to reduce the chance they repeat costly mistakes.

Can businesses learn from the NFL’s focus on certainty and error-reduction when it comes to expense management? We think so.  The NFL understands that any manual process is subject to error.  Businesses need to also recognize that relying on manual processes and human labor when trying to find cost savings is always risky.  Businesses have the ability through technology like an expense management SaaS to truly automate highly error-prone activities such as data entry, invoice receipt, and translation, or GL coding. And if errors do occur, using these tools makes it easier to identify root causes and eliminate business “turnovers” in the future.

Insight: Using Data Analysis to Win the Game
As long as there have been head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, and TV analysts, insight has been a big part of professional football.  But in recent years, the ways these insights are generated has become far more sophisticated.  For example, many NFL teams have embraced the need for data analytics to a degree that would be the envy of many high-tech businesses.  Through its partnership with Amazon, the NFL has created an annual “Big Data Bowl” in which teams of amateur, collegiate, and professional data analysts compete to develop new algorithms and analytic frameworks that NFL teams can use to improve their performance (you can check out some of the winning results for the 2020-21 season here).

In expense management, insight is also the name of the game.  As in the NFL, it all starts with having cost data in a format that can be analyzed easily.  The next step is to develop automated expense audits that can be performed by an expense management software platform.  Such a platform can also generate alerts that function as the expense management equivalent of your favorite TV analyst.

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