Paula Downey Jones, CFO, SmartDebit
Business partnering has been a buzz word in the Finance profession for many years now, but what does it mean in practice for SMEs and how can you transform a Finance function from a back-office role to a genuine business partner?
The role of Finance is evolving. Although the foundations of transactional bookkeeping will always be required, today’s Finance leaders and their teams have a much larger part to play in shaping strategy and improving commercial decision making. Achieving this by working alongside other departments and teams is often referred to as ‘business partnering’.
From my own experience as CFO of a growing Fintech company, financial business partnering has been critical in driving profitable growth, and over the last five years we have moved the Finance function from a bookkeeping service to a strategic business partner. I often see the test of how we are viewed by the rest of the business as how the business refers to us. If we are referred to as an Accounts team and advised about decisions after the event then we are not contributing enough to the strategic focus of the company. Success is being invited to comment and contribute to all major decisions before they happen. I also prefer us to be referred to as a Finance team as this label comes with recognition of the level we operate at.
When transforming a Finance function it is important not to lose sight of the basic operations. Invoicing and credit control, paying suppliers on time, paying employees on time and good cash flow management must work well and accurately, as without this we simply do not have credibility and cracks will appear in the financial management. Robust financial controls that are communicated and understood across the whole organisation are also essential for ensuring one of the key roles of Finance – that of safeguarding the assets – is achieved. The key to implementing and maintaining successful financial controls is gaining the buy-in from all areas of the business. To achieve this, a deep understanding of why the controls are needed is required to avoid simply being seen as a layer of bureaucracy. The media is littered with examples of what can go wrong when financial controls don’t work, and sharing these examples can help communicate the necessity for them, along with the very important and visible buy-in from top management.
Once the fundamental operations are in place, it is the role of Finance to provide a fit-for-purpose accounting system that, alongside the financial controls discussed above, ensures that data is accurate, timely and relevant. This data is the foundation needed to provide support to make good decisions, and once there is confidence in the accuracy and accessibility of financial data, the real business partnering can begin.
The first step towards business partnering is to produce concise, relevant and timely management accounts. In order to ensure these accounts are seen as valuable, and read on a regular basis, they should balance the need for transparency with keeping the information to a minimum so not to overburden the reader. Consider who the audience are and what their focus is, or should be. The three financial statements (Profit and Loss Account, Balance Sheet and Cashflow) are good for transparency and financial control, so these statements should be shared with the Board of Directors. However, it is also worth considering a one page dashboard showing key metrics and summaries which is dynamic and can be used as a quick snapshot. This gives the Finance team the opportunity to highlight key issues that are pertinent at that time.
Once the routine operations, controls and management reporting are in place, analysis and targeted reviews can start to add value. The management accounts are a great starting place to identify areas for improvement and can be used to instigate more in-depth reviews. For example, the management accounts could identify a declining profit margin in a particular area that could then prompt further reviews which, in turn, could drive operational decisions or changes to how a product is being managed.
The central role that Finance has within an organisation puts it in a unique position to identify potential, or real, issues that may not be visible to others in the business and this is where Finance can really start to add value. It is the demonstration of value-add here that can encourage the rest of the business to involve Finance in key decisions, which in turn has an improvement on the outcome. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, in that often we find we have to prove our worth before being invited in to show our worth more regularly, and this is particularly true when we are working in organisations which have only seen Finance as a back office function until now.
Financial education is hugely important for everyone in the organisation to ensure buy-in at all levels. In practical terms, this means supporting managers who are new to financial information to be able to fully understand what they are seeing, and how they can then interpret and challenge that information to ensure the best decisions are being made. It also means communicating to new starters about Finance policies such as the Expense policy or the Purchase to Pay policy. It maybe helpful for Finance to have a slot on induction programmes to guide new starters through this, and also to share the role that Finance has in creating value-add within the company at the very first opportunity so that the team is remembered when it counts.
The final piece of the business partnering jigsaw is Finance driving the development of the organisation’s strategy. There is a natural flow from the annual budgeting towards strategic evolution and, as the co-ordinators of the annual budget, Finance are in a key position to also help drive the development of the company’s strategy. As we all know, the budget should be the outcome of the organisation’s strategic planning cycle, but very often it works the other way round with budgets written that can then dictate the plans due to budget constraints. This piece of the Finance functional jigsaw sits at the top of the chain, as for some organisations with a limited experience of Finance value-add, having Finance drive the development of strategy can be hard to accept. However, as Finance evolves within an organisation and it is seen as a value-adding function it becomes easier to facilitate this strategy development. A one day meeting with the whole leadership team at the beginning of the budgeting season can focus minds and either result in tweaking of the current strategy or a complete overhaul. This pre-budgeting session is important to allow the leadership team to agree and align themselves on the strategy which will then flow down throughout the organisation, and from this the budget will follow.
By working with other functions, supporting each other and driving strategy, there will be many resulting benefits. Quite often, there will be far greater empathy and lower levels of frustration. The increased level of involvement by Finance across the organisation adds interest and value, and Finance teams have far greater awareness of what is happening across the organisation which means further value can be added, and so the cycle continues perpetually. Being able to predict more and be increasingly proactive in problem solving, rather than being reactive and fighting fires, is obviously hugely satisfying. Training and mentoring colleagues within a Finance team or in other departments are massively rewarding, and ultimately help the whole organisation to deliver higher value activities, while also helping the development of both the trainer and trainee.
Paula Downey Jones FCMA is the CFO of SmartDebit, the UK’s leading Direct Debit service provider. She has over 25 years’ experience across a wide range of business scenarios including grass roots start up to finance restructuring/rescue to blue chip global expansion.
Board Report Highlights Complex Decision-Making Process Across Banking and Finance sector
‘The State Of Decision-Making’ report from Board, reveals business decisions made in silos without modern planning tools
A third (33%) of Banking & Finance decision-makers believe decisions made in silos, despite majority (63%) of decisions being implemented worldwide
More than half (57%) of Banking & Finance decision-makers rely on spreadsheets for decision-making despite modern planning tools now available
The #1 decision-making platform, has today released ‘The State Of Decision-Making’ report focussing on how UK organisations make their important business decisions.
Based on a survey of 500 senior decision-makers, across industries including, Banking & Financial Services, Consumer Goods, Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical, Professional Services, Retail, and Transport & Logistics, ‘The State Of Decision-Making’ report from Board shows that today’s business decision-making process is increasingly complex, with multiple departments and seniority levels all responsible for some form of decision-making, leading to a lack of cohesion between units and a waste of business resources.
‘The State Of Decision-Making’ research found that while a clear majority of respondents (63%) working within the banking and finance sector say the important decisions they are responsible for get implemented globally, the decision-making process itself is not joined-up across the business, with one third (33%) also saying that crucial business decisions are made in departmental silos.
The research, conducted on behalf of Board International by independent research organisation 3GEM, also asked respondents the tools they use to make decisions and, while almost every action within an organisation today will lead to the creation of new data, it seems many businesses are not using the crucial insights which data can provide to make important decisions.
More than half (55%) of respondents in the banking and finance industry said they were making business decisions based on data and insights, but ‘gut feeling’ decisions are still made by up to 44% of companies. What’s more over half (57%) of the sector’s companies still rely on spreadsheets to aid their decision-making, despite more modern and reliable tools now available.
“In today’s fast-paced, data rich and evolving business environment, making quick and effective decisions is critical to both compete and survive,” explains Gavin Fallon, Managing Director for UK, Nordics & South Africa at Board International. “Important decisions are being made at any one time across multiple business functions, but all too often, important decision-making is disconnected, modular or fragmented.”
The research also asked respondents about the challenges banking and finance decision-makers face at their organisation, with nearly a third (29%) citing a lack of available data and insights and one quarter (25%) citing the fact there are too many people in the decision-making process as their biggest frustrations. However, industry decision-makers believe that the process can be improved with the introduction of new technology, with the majority (57%) of respondents saying this would make their decision-making better, while 41% also felt increased use of data and insights would help.
“Businesses have to plan every day for a far more uncertain future and set themselves up to prepare for change and keep changing against the backdrop of a more volatile and uncertain marketplace than ever,” continues Fallon. “A bad decision can have wide-ranging impact across the whole organisation and no business can afford to waste time and resources on bets that may or may not come off. As the business environment increases in complexity, the ability to not just react, but predict, in real-time, becomes more important than ever.”
Reinventing Your Digital Marketing Strategy Post-Covid
By Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO Mavens & Moguls
I started a global branding and marketing firm 19 years ago. Marketing is a term that means different things to different people so it helps to clarify whether you are talking about market research, PR, social media, advertising, promotions, guerrilla marketing, strategy, analytics, SEO, SEM, B2B, B2C, content, etc. There are so many tools in the marketing toolkit today but I think it is redundant to say digital marketing because truly everything has a digital element since everyone is accessing and interacting with your brand online, through their phone or via the website at some point. In the old days there was print, TV, radio, direct mail and outdoor those were your only options but today technology runs our lives so everything is digital eventually. If digital is not part of your strategy then you would not be relevant so digital marketing is marketing in 2020.
As far as digital goes I am a big fan of SEO, social media especially LinkedIn and Content Marketing. Because we are always online now 24/7 it is easy to get sucked into it but you do not have to let it run your life! My advice is to pick a few things you enjoy doing and do them really well. You cannot be everywhere all the time so choose high impact activities that work for you and play to your strengths. It does not matter which platform you choose just pick one or 2 that are authentic to you. It should look and sound like you and the brand you have built. Whether yours is polished or more informal, chatty or academic, humorous or snarky, it is a way for your personality to come through. Everyone is not going to like you or hire you but for the ones who would be a great fit for you make sure they feel and keep a connection and give them a reason to remember you so that when they need your help they think of you first.
There have been a lot of changes in the past few months due to the virus crisis but one thing that has not changed is that smart technology still runs our lives today and it is hard to stay on top of the latest tools and platforms to take advantage of current trends so you may feel lost, confused or frustrated by all the options and noise in the market today. There will be new tools and technologies coming for sure but here are some digital strategies to include in your plans to grow your audience:
* Smart speakers and voice search are growing in importance so being able to optimize for voice search will be key to maximize the marketing and advertising opportunities on Siri, Alexa, Google Home, etc. I predict that the brands that perfect the “branded skill” with more customer-friendly, less invasive ads are going to win big. Are you prepared when customers ask your specific brand for help like “Alexa ask Nestle for an oatmeal cookie recipe” or “What is the best Mexican restaurant in Boston?” if not you are missing a big opportunity!
* Live video grabs attention – live streaming is available on every major social media platform and it is only getting bigger to hook in users with short attention spans, in a mobile first world, you have less time to grab people, attention spans are shorter than ever so video will be used even more, show don’t tell for maximum impact, rich content drives engagement.
* Interactive marketing makes it stickier — brands will drive engagement even more with polls, surveys, quizzes, contests, interactive videos, etc. to grab audience attention even quicker
* AI-powered chatbots cut costs and convert visitors into leads by encouraging themed content to answer FAQs with voice search-friendly semantic keyword phrases, is your content strategy ready?
* More confidence in trusted content, friends and influencers than advertising – the world has been moving this way for years with people seeking their friends’ and influencers’ opinions and advice online on what to buy, where to go, and what to do more than a paid ad or fancily packaged content. Customers are savvy today they are happy to buy what they want and need but they do not like to be sold things. Curated content and ideas from a trusted source beat paid content every time. Partnering and building relationships with the right influencers with content that is co-created helps brands scale and grow faster and amplify and boost their message.
* Authentic relationships beat marketing automation — technology runs our lives more than ever but it is relationships that drive business and commerce so people will find more ways to connect in-person to build trust and strengthen connections. Make sure you offer several ways to talk with them and get to know them. Algorithms can only tell you so much about a customer, transactions are driven by relationships. Use automation where you can but do not ignore the power of the personal touch.
* Big data is getting bigger but customer conversations are key to best insights for content. Talking directly to your customers to get first-hand in real-time their experience and knowledge will be a priority and competitive advantage to get the messages right.
* Content will match the buyer’s journey and understanding that journey will inform how to attract, engage and convert customers and which keywords and topics are used.
* Influencers will continue to rise in prominence so partnering and building relationships with the right influencers with content that is co-created helps brands scale and grow faster and amplify and boost their message.
Banking beyond the office
By Tim Hood is the Associate Vice President for Hyland in EMEA.
Following months of unprecedented challenges, the global financial community is beginning to get a sense of COVID’s long-term legacy. And while the current situation still has some way to run, the prospect of a rapid bounce back to the old normality looks doubtful.
Over the last six months, a wholesale review and reinvention of a raft of working practices has taken place.
Fortunately, the financial sector was able to adapt relatively quickly to this altered reality because compared to some, it was well down the path to digital transformation.
And as the work-around solutions using technology that was never intended or designed for remote working have been refined or replaced, many firms are finding that these new ways of working are actually working well.
That’s evidenced by the fact that ‘return to office’ dates keep rolling back, with a number of institutions not expecting staff to return to the office until the beginning of 2021, at the earliest.
However, the social distancing measures that remain in place will undoubtedly continue to have a major impact on the traditional office space. With almost half of British workers now working from home according to the Office for National Statistics, how many will want to return to the office, having been free of their daily commute for the last six months? In a recent survey by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), one-third said they wanted to continue working from home.
And as homeworking protocols become ever more embedded, that could see many functions where remote oversight is possible, never return permanently or totally to a central office.
So, with homeworking seemingly here to stay, for a large number of organisations the new norm is likely to be a blend of remote and office-based working.
In uncertain times, one of the most critical business skills is the ability to adapt. Just because we have always done things that way is no longer a valid line of thinking. So, when it comes to matters like remote working, it’s time for a more flexible mindset.
Some banking leaders are beginning to acknowledge the changing reality. Barclays CEO Jes Staley said that corporate offices “may be a thing of the past.” JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are also proving to be trend-setters in the reassessing the future shape of offices and flexible working.
Of course, effective remote working depends on people having access to accurate, up-to-date information.
That may require reprioritising investment to ensure more appropriate technology solutions are in place. Believe me when I say that accelerating digital transformation is no mere nicety, but a prerequisite for corporate survival over the coming months and years.
Of course, every organisation is different and will have to review its existing systems and procedures before implementing any major technological changes. But I would say that there are several core components required to help ensure future resilience.
As a minimum, there should be the establishment of a content services hub to centralise document storage and workflows in a single location, with a user interface that’s consistent – whether you are logging on from your dining table at home or at your office desk.
This will remove potential information silos where data gets stuck, and also prevent the creation of multiple document versions that inevitably follows.
Next, look to introduce intelligent automation where you can, to accelerate improvements in document storage and workflows.
Then, look at shutting down any redundant or unnecessary systems and applications. This is an opportunity to streamline operations by ensuring business-critical information, which may be spread over several dozen apps in some corporate organisations, is uniformly updated and easily accessible. When staff have to search for important documents across multiple locations, they end up frustrated and prone to making mistakes that result in delays and poor customer service.
Though the immediate response to COVID-19 may have had a short-term adverse effect on many in the financial sector, longer-term it can be the catalyst that enables the creation of a truly digital workplace that seamlessly melds together a flexible, distributed workforce with a much streamlined corporate space.
Achieving that will require organisations to carefully chose the correct technology solutions. If they can do that, then our brave new world may not be so scary after all.
Board Report Highlights Complex Decision-Making Process Across Banking and Finance sector
‘The State Of Decision-Making’ report from Board, reveals business decisions made in silos without modern planning tools A third (33%)...
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Banking beyond the office
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