This article was first published in the April 2011 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, with the recovery remaining fragile, the top priorities for many entities are squeezing maximum value from inputs and minimising costs. For the finance function, this means growing demand for highly commercial accountants. Called Finance Business Partners (FBPs), they can apply their core technical knowledge to real business issues, providing analysis and insight to support the achievement of strategic objectives.
FBPs fill the most business-facing of all finance roles. Rather than focusing on statutory reporting, transaction processing, financial controls or regulatory compliance matters, FBPs have as their prime goal the supply of commercially driven analysis that will help business managers make better decisions.
FBPs sit alongside business units, rather than in a distant central finance team, to encourage close collaboration with operational personnel. Their work is typically project-based, homing in on investment decisions, cost analysis or any other area of the business where improved performance is needed.
The concept of finance business partnering has been evolving for several years, but fulfilling the role’s potential has proved challenging. One key reason is that the role requires individuals with a varied skill set; FBPs must combine technical knowledge, commercial understanding and strong softer skills.
In addition to their core financial and accounting expertise, FBPs need to be able to act like business entrepreneurs, proactively working with the organisation and taking the initiative to identify issues where finance can provide added value. This means that they need a deep understanding of the value drivers within their organisation.
FBPs must also be able to communicate clearly, explaining financial analysis in simple terms to business leaders. Influencing and conflict resolution skills are likewise important for winning the support of internal stakeholders. Finally, FBPs need to be adept in using technology so that they can conduct advanced data analysis.
A single finance individual is unlikely to develop all these capabilities automatically. Those who are newly qualified may have strong technical knowledge, but are likely to lack commercial experience. Their communication and personal skills will also probably still have some rough edges. If finance staff are to act as effective business partners, then organisations need to design talent management processes to help them develop the skills and experience required.
This is important. CFOs need to be able to provide FBPs capable of meeting the demands and expectations of the business operations they support, and who inspire trust and respect. If they do not, they may find the FBP role being passed to individuals from a commercial, non-financial background who are then taught the necessary finance fundamentals.
This would weaken the influence of finance in the organisation, and could also lead to lower quality of service because the core ability of a qualified finance professional to interpret numbers quickly and to apply highly rigorous analysis would then be lost.
The FBP talent pipeline
Effective finance business partnering requires a long-term commitment to talent management. CFOs need to look ahead when recruiting finance trainees, assessing candidates not just for their potential ability in technical accounting, but also for their behavioural characteristics to ensure that these match up with those associated with successful FBPs.
But recruiting raw talent isn’t enough. Organisations need to create structured career paths along which individuals aspiring to become FBPs can progress. These could include rotations through key finance roles and secondments to operational areas so that finance personnel experience life at the sharp end of their organisation.
Creating these career paths helps individuals understand how they need to develop in order to reach and succeed in an FBP role. Such career paths can increase motivation and potentially improve retention rates among high-performing individuals.
Future FBPs will need targeted learning and development, through traditional classroom-based learning and the use of new technology. Organisations are increasingly developing finance academies, which enable ‘at the touch of a button’ access to knowledge and research.
Sarah Perrin, journalist
What is it?
In KPMG’s view, finance business partnering is about supporting the whole business in raising standards in key decision areas, taking a forward-looking and commercial view supported by a rich consulting toolkit and high emotional intelligence to articulate different options and influence decisions.
A Finance Business Partner needs to be free from the distraction of core finance work to offer this level of support to internal customers. The larger the organisation, the greater the opportunity that exists to scale the finance business partnering solution towards a purer model with specialist provision.
Finance Business Partnering in practice
A global pharmaceutical company came to KPMG for help supporting the development of the strategy and structure of finance business partnering within the organisation and to develop a toolkit to assist FBPs with training, structures and external best practice examples.
KPMG has also recently worked with a predominantly UK-based insurance group looking to substantially increase the cost efficiency and commerciality of its finance function. A major building block in this process was the development of a commercially aligned, business-facing FBP team.
Defining role requirements
For both clients, the first step was to define the changed requirements for the FBP role through workshops and internal interviews. This was supplemented by KPMG’s industry experience and external research.
The role definition was accompanied by an analysis of the current capability. Here again, internal talent and performance management data was supplemented by external research, in particular evidence showing that accountants are over twice as likely to prefer working in a well-structured and orderly environment.
However, this preference can also compromise composure in the face of change and the ability to read others’ feelings – qualities that are key components of the FBP’s role.
This analysis convinced the UK insurer to prioritise capabilities such as leadership, commercial acumen and strategic focus, as well as strong stakeholder management and the ability to work in a matrix environment.
Structured career paths
KPMG also developed structured career paths in response to stakeholder criticism of FBPs as either too technical (not commercially aware) or too generalist (lacking the technical depth to add genuine value).
KPMG therefore worked with the client to define high-impact FBP career paths. The paths linked roles providing broad experience of key finance activities and also gave exposure to business and commercial areas of the function.