Dan Harris FCCA, BT’s director of finance shared services, aims to take the function beyond its accounting powerhouse roots to secure valuable business partner status
This article was first published in the November 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
The past few years have seen major changes in strategy at telecoms giant BT, including significant investment in a pay-TV service and the acquisition of network operator EE for £12.5bn in 2016. BT’s bottom line has been affected by the period of intense corporate transformation it has been experiencing, which includes identifying a new CEO.
As rumours circulate as to who that will be, the shared services leader of the UK’s fourth most valuable brand, Dan Harris FCCA, is making strides in his new role as director for finance shared services. Moving away from a traditional accounting position to lead a team of 1,200 across Europe, India and South America, Harris says that a commercial mindset is as vital in his job as in any other at the telecoms giant. He has long been interested in taking on an operational role, and as of April this year, he has taken a giant stride towards that goal.
One of Harris’s key objectives is to improve the brand of finance shared services within BT. ‘I applied for the role because I saw it as chance to own something end to end with full autonomy,’ he says. ‘It is a chance to make a material improvement across multiple customer-facing units.’
He says he is steering shared services to focus on three core pillars: value, productivity and trust. ‘We want our services to provide value; we want to be efficient and effective; and we want to provide numbers that the customer-facing units rely on, and that means having a proper control framework.’ This is part of the vision of ‘one finance’ for BT.
Since taking up his role, Harris has been visiting shared services sites across the Americas, Asia and Europe. ‘I have been discovering what the team is going through, what processes they own, manage and run,’ he explains. ‘I’m also looking at where we have opportunities to improve and standardise those processes, and how we can deliver a better service to our customers via our customer-facing units.’ He says he wants to put a ‘service wrap’ around shared services and invest more in relationship management.
The shared services brand
In any organisation finance shared services tend to be perceived by the rest of the business as accounting factories. Harris wants to get away from that view. He says: ‘There is so much more value than just being a transactional powerhouse.’
His efforts to improve the shared services function’s relationship with the rest of the business include identifying opportunities to provide more value-add activities. ‘That will give us a chance to showcase our skillset and capabilities,’ he says.
In less than a year, Harris has already made progress. He is building a new leadership team, launching a new operating model for shared services, defining today’s services scope and then working out how to evolve that over three years to become a more advanced function.
The new operating model is being built from the perspective of the requirements of the shared services management and of a wider constituency within BT, in particular the CFOs of customer-facing units and external consultants. ‘We wanted to define the external benchmarks and understand what good looks like for shared services.’
The relationship between shared services and the customer-facing units – which have their own finance teams – is pivotal to the success or otherwise of the finance function. Harris is adamant that the units should not be distracted by transactional work, which should be performed by shared services to capture economies of scale. Instead, the finance professionals in the units should be strategic business partners spending time on business insights, investment decisions and trading performance But that will work only if the CFOs of the customer-facing units believe that the shared services function is doing its job properly.
There are always questions about the activity boundaries between shared services and the rest of the business. Harris wants to offer uniform standards and scope of services to the rest of the business but appreciates that is not always possible. ‘About 80% of the process fits all customer-facing units, but 20% will have to be tailored to account for their different client base.’
Finance shared services does little tax, treasury or statutory reporting. It could become involved in the hundreds of statutory accounts that need to be prepared, but work requiring in-country accounting knowledge or tax expertise would remain with the specialist teams. ‘It is the consistent principle: remove the distraction of the basics of preparing statutory accounts and they can work on the value-add such as disclosures,’ says Harris.
Conscious of culture
Harris sees culture as playing a key role. ‘Behaviour is different across shared services locations as cultures vary,’ he says. ‘We need an understanding of how they interact with each other. We do need some business cultural values across all shared services, such as speaking out when things aren’t right. We are working on how to get the best out of different teams.’
For instance, record-to-report teams in Argentina, Hungary and India have to work together and to do that they have to understand each other’s attitudes and ways of working. At every site visit, Harris has a Q&A or town hall session, which can reveal differences: questions from shared services in India come thick and fast, while in Hungary the team is slightly more reserved.
It is not only humans who provide challenge; so do history and technology. As in many shared services, dealing with multiple systems and processes is an ongoing headache. ‘At the Bristol centre we have 93 people who need to access 126 systems,’ Harris says.
Harris aims to contribute to any finance transformation – which would include removing such variation – at BT because ‘finance has a strong voice sat around the leadership table and is able to provide input to any conversation’.
As he steps up into a significant leadership role, Harris reflects on those who have motivated him, enabling him to distinguish between a leader and a manager. ‘Leaders inspire other leaders to motivate others,’ he says. ‘Seeing that play out in real life is fascinating.’
Peter Williams, journalist
"There is so much more value to finance shared services than just being a transactional powerhouse"