The Role of Finance Business Partnering. How are you doing?

The development of Business Partnering within the finance function has been growing rapidly in recent years. The need to demonstrate more value-added contributions beyond the consolidation and reporting of the numbers is a consistent challenge for many finance professionals. Today’s modern finance function talks of thinking innovatively and becoming a real business change agent. It aspires to generate real insights to then enable the development of value-added strategies and actions to drive business improvements for the benefit of stakeholders. Many functions will reference a strong focus on the power of simplicity and the need to do the right things whilst also employing and engaging great people.

Transitioning to a Business Partnering Model is not easy

To achieve this many finance functions have been working hard to get reporting out of the business with the use of re-organisations that involve the development of shared service centres and decision support units; thus, leaving business partners more time, to spend on the core strategic and business agenda. Yet from our experience we know that many finance teams still struggle with poor systems and that many highly trained professionals are still spending too much time working on excel spreadsheets to make up for the deficiencies in their systems and processes. Equally we know that in large finance organisations there exists the real danger of silos; where communications across the finance team can be poor and in some cases self-oriented. Any finance function is a complex organisation that encompasses many different roles and responsibilities such as management reporting, audit, tax, treasury, investor relations and compliance. The potential for functions to be disjointed, isolated and misaligned is strong. So, transitioning to a fully-fledged business partnering model and role is not an easy one.

"How do we add value as a Finance Function"

At the PPI Network, we focus on helping finance teams manage this complex change process and we frequently start by getting them to understand their “internal brand” as a function. One of the most critical questions to address in this process is ‘how do we add value as a finance function?” Typically finance operates in four key areas: Revenues, Gross Margin, Costs and Capital and understanding what their customers need in terms of useful analytical information to drive business performance is a key starting point to any form of quality service delivery. In complex businesses, finance business partners will have many customers such as Managing Directors, Heads of Function, Regional Managers, Branch or Business Unit Managers. This makes for a potentially very diverse set of needs. Influencing and working with business leaders to achieve a clear focus on which strategic themes really drive value and then building an agreed suite of standardised metrics and reports around them is vital for any form of success. We also know that some businesses love complexity and have an endless appetite for more data which complicates this issue further. Yet without such focus it will be hard for any finance team to reduce duplication, wastage and inefficiencies to then free up time to devote to true business partnering activities.

The belief that the fundamental numbers are correct is important

Any agreement on the key strategic drivers must also be underpinned throughout the business by a belief that the fundamental numbers are correct and that there is only ‘one version of the truth.” We have had many experiences where due to a range of legacy systems, under-investment in IT and poorly integrated businesses, the numbers are constantly challenged when managers come together. As one manager, we were working with commented, “we are data rich but information poor!” This makes life incredibly hard for any finance business partner to then operate in the desired role, as managers and leaders, take time to constantly question and argue about the integrity of the numbers and data. The effect can be to run business partners ragged as they struggle to rework the numbers and reports.

Being able to say "No!"

Finally, there is the immense challenge of saying “No!” Given many leaders’ constant desire for information we believe that if any finance business partner is to survive and then prosper they do need to be able to say “No.”  This is an extremely delicate subject as naturally people responsible for running a business unit have the right to ask questions and to challenge data presented to them. However, many readers will recognise the problem of endless line management requests for data that is going to involve a lot of hard work and effort and not make any real difference to the outcome. At the PPI Network, we talk a lot about the difference between being “service focused” and “subservient” and argue that finance partners must sometimes push back and challenge their customers by saying “no we don’t think that is a good idea for the following reasons………” All too often finance partners can be pushed around doing work that is not adding value but simply responding, in some cases, to the “whims” of a strong leader who has another agenda. Typically requests or demands, for yet more details and information, can in some cases be a simple stalling or blocking tactic to something that the leader does not agree with or want to have to implement! With the added issue of hierarchy being present the “No” challenge is never easy but it is one that any successful business partner needs to learn to navigate.

Checklist of Best Practice Questions

When working with Finance Business Partners we use a simple checklist of best practice questions that we think customers of finance ask themselves about their finance colleagues; use them to assess how well you’re doing?

My Finance Business Partner:

1. Provides me with value added insights on my business, industry and markets?

2. Adds continuous value-added strategic and operational advice to me?

3. Is easy to do business with? Readily accessible and provides quality advice, reports and outcomes

4. Makes me think about alternatives when making key decisions?

5. Proactively helps me avoid potential problems?

6. Makes me smarter and aids my decision-making processes?

7. Is a trusted business partner? Someone I readily turn to discuss difficult business and commercial issues


To find out more about how your finance team can develop a strong business partnering organisation and skill set contact Gerry Buckley at the PPI Network at gbuckley@theppinetwork.com.
 

About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.