In the third in our series on the strategic role of finance professionals, Tony Grundy looks at the key ingredients needed to turn the finance team into a higher value-added function
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This article was first published in the March 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
You might be familiar with the classic MBA model, ‘the seven S’s’ (strategy, structure, systems, skills, style, shared values and staff), used to analyse the environment and investigate if the company is achieving its intended objectives.
We can reduce these to five by incorporating ‘shared values’ into ‘style’, and ‘staff’ into ‘skills’, in order to simplify the model and to highlight the interdependencies of these elements. The five are defined as follows:
- Strategy – the direction of finance and how it will add value in a competitive way
- Structure – the division of responsibilities and reporting lines, and their complexity
- Systems – the financial (and potentially strategic) planning and reporting systems and processes, both IT and non-IT
- Skills – technical, commercial, strategic, communication, advisory, influencing and other interpersonal skills
- Style – the behaviour, mindsets, beliefs and underlying values of staff.
If we look at each of these in more detail, we can see some of the typical shifts that you could consider when planning the modernisation of your finance function. We illustrate these shifts using the ‘from-to’ convention.
- From transaction and reporting focus > To focus on improving performance
- From numbers, with some description > To mainly graphs, pictures, interpretation
- From existing performance taken as read > To creative challenge to highlight options to improve
- From one big report a month > To monthly reporting plus many one-off reports
There might be other elements such as whether to have all services in-house or to outsource some; how to brand the department; and how to define its role in relation to the business’s strategy regarding acquisitions, alliances, divestment, restructuring and turnaround. It may also be helpful to benchmark your new strategy against other leading companies.
- From many levels, with four or five staff at each level > To fewer levels, with at least six reports at each
- From tasks are all ongoing > To 50% ongoing tasks and 50% project work
- From fixed job descriptions > To fluid roles with periodic rotations of responsibilities
- From efficiency/accuracy-based measures > To balanced scorecard, including customer value
Change to structure is often one of the biggest hurdles to managing strategic change in the finance function, as staff in finance are often less flexible in mindset so are likely to be uncomfortable with significant change. But this nettle may need to be grasped.
- From financial and reporting systems > To also strategic planning/control
- From based purely on accounting profit > To also produce data on economic value added
- From almost all outputs numerical > To automatically producing graphs, charts etc
- From ‘dumb systems’ > To intelligent systems that automatically suggest issues
- From requiring a lot of training familiarity > To user-friendly
- From overly complex > To not overly complex yet does the job well
This may also require some close work with the IT department.
- From analytically orientated > To a balance of analytical, interpretative and creative
- From historically orientated > To also able to look forward strategically
- From weaker in helping do commercial deals > To enthused and capable of getting involved commercially
- From scorekeeping > To decision support and business cases
Training in both hard and soft skills can close most gaps but there is often a need to recruit new people with the desired skills and style, as well as managing attrition.
- From senior meetings set on ‘soak-up’ > To attendees eager to contribute and even lead thinking
- From only comfortable with financials > To comfortable also with discussions on broader business issues
- From engages only with the end results > To keen to drill down to the root causes
- From focus on the current/past > To more focused on the future and ‘the possible’
- From retreating when challenged > To able to listen but can push back when challenged
Style shifts can be tricky as they are about culture, which can be a lot slower to change than, say, structure.
The top 10
There are 10 key interdependencies within the five Ss that an FD should consider aligning. These are:
- Strategy and skills: what competences does finance need in order to deliver its strategy?
- Strategy and structure: what structure gives the right cost base?
- Strategy and systems: what systems are required to deliver the strategy of the finance function?
- Strategy and style: what shifts in style are needed, too?
- Structure and skills: how do these fit together?
- Structure and style: how consistent are these? For example, flat structure for responsiveness
- Structure and systems: are these well aligned?
- Systems and style: if we are seeking to be responsive and value added, do the systems allow that?
- Systems and skills: do we have systems good enough to help us to really perform a sharp, decision-support role?
- Skills and style: if we do have the skills, is our mindset holding us back from using these to the full?
Inevitably, there will be areas where we are much more in the domain of the ‘from’ rather than the ‘to’ and therefore need to address those strategic gaps. There are some organisational interventions that can actually mobilise change. For example, in terms of strategy, consider developing a new vision and brand for finance, supported by a review of its strategy and of what value-added activities you want to be in, potentially supported by some benchmarking against finance teams elsewhere. As regards structure, it may be useful to simplify it and even remove a layer. When it comes to skills, consider training/coaching, 360-degree feedback and performance management, recruitment and maybe redundancy. As for style, team-building workshops can help. And finally, in terms of systems, think about reengineering business processes and reviewing IT processes.
All of these interventions need to be properly project-managed – ideally by allocating them to a specific project manager. This would need to be managed at ‘meta-level’ – sometimes called ‘programme-level’ – almost certainly by the FD. Success will depend to a large degree on the extent to which this is communicated, explaining the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’.
The scale of the change required to modernise finance so that it really adds more value to the organisation may seem daunting but, with the right processes in place, there is every chance that in 18 months a carefully thought-through programme will be substantially on its way to delivering value.
An astute FD should ask themselves: is there a really big prize? How difficult will it actually be? What support do I have for it and from where? Have I truly the stomach for it?
Dr Tony Grundy is an independent consultant and trainer, and lectures at Henley Business School