In recent years many finance functions aided in part by investments in new systems and business demands have been transitioning to a Business Partner (BP) model way of working.

Of course the fundamental concept of partnering is not that new to many finance professionals. It can be strongly argued that successful finance professionals have always operated as close business partners with the evidence being how many ultimately move into general management and corporate leadership roles. But equally it is true that many aspects of the traditional finance function have grown apart from the core business activities. They have become diverted from their central goal of adding business value. The distractions include:

  • today’s onerous regulatory and compliance environment,
  • the all too frequent deficiencies of legacy systems,
  • and the sheer grind of the day-to-day workload.

This means that many finance functions continue to face real challenges in making the move to a truly effective business partner model.

In out experience, at the PPI Network, we see three main challenges when trying to make the transition to a Business Partner model.

1. The Vision and Top Management Commitment!

Our experience in working with finance professionals often throws up a fundamental question – “Do our leaders really want to be challenged and given advice by their finance professionals?” We have often heard highly experienced and capable finance professionals argue that their business unit heads are not looking for a partner to provide counsel and advice. Instead they argue there is just a need for accurate and clear financial information to allow people who know their business to get on and drive it. Such questions and reflections invariably mean that the leadership group may not have been fully engaged in the business partner development process. The knowledge that some business leaders have perhaps not really bought into the model brings real doubt into the minds of prospective business partners and potentially undermines any implementation and organizational plans across the finance department.

Shared clarity of the vision and goal
As in any complex change process the need for clarity on the ultimate vision and goal and the full and unified support of the leadership team is critical for success. Leaders need to agree on what kinds of financial reports and dashboards the business actually needs. Most finance transformations require a strong discipline from business leaders in curtailing the endless demand for ad hoc reports and analyses. Anything less is likely to result in a flawed execution.

Any business partner initiative must begin with a process of full engagement with the leadership team on the rationale and logic of the business partner model. It needs to define what the business needs in terms of reports and information and it then needs to detail how the model will work and critically what the respective roles and relationship of the line and finance professionals will be. The process needs to dispel any concerns that finance will not be responsive to the business or dictating or trying to take over line responsibilities. Such a process may take time to persuade some leaders and should therefore not be rushed or dealt with in one scheduled “approval” meeting.  A full exploration of the benefits of the approach together with a detailing of the potential pitfalls, including a lack of leadership support, should be debted as a way of ensuring everyone understands their roles and is on board before any implementation process begins.

2. The New Finance Organsation

Changing the finance organization structure is a key deliverable in transitioning to an effective business partner model. In many organizations the business will have made considerable investments in systems to aid the new model. In addition to perhaps outsourcing some finance activities it will typically set up a Decision Support Unit (DSU).

Decision Support Unit
The purpose of the DSU is to generate the standardized reports that the business needs and to produce ad-hoc reports that are typically requested by finance business partners in response to business leaders needs. In effect the DSU operates as a support service to the business partners. Given that both parties operate under high pressure and with large workloads, getting the relationships working at an optimum level is a big challenge that can make or break the finance business partner model.

In our experience a number of systems difficulties can conspire against a smooth implementation. If a DSU’s ability to generate quality reports and data is hampered by poor legacy systems or delays and difficulties in system upgrades it will invariably impact on the business partners’ sense of confidence in the unit.

At PPI we have seen situations where the difficulties facing the DSU were so great it meant that business partners were spending most of their time doing spreadsheets in order to get the information that their business customers needed. Left too long and unattended this scenario can really erode trust and working relationships and eventually seriously derail any change process.

Mutual Respect & Understanding within the Finance Organisation
Trained to deliver high quality and to tight deadlines the majority of finance professionals are used to working under pressure. Many high performance professionals are also ambitious and want to get on and sometimes egos can be strong. So getting the working relationship between a Decision Support Unit and a group of Finance Business Partners (FBP’s) optimized is absolutely critical to the success of a finance re-organisation. Typically there needs to be a full and mutual understanding of roles, responsibilities and challenges to avoid any ongoing tensions or conflicts when difficulties will inevitably occur in the delivery of reports or critical information to the business customer. If not managed properly it can be very easy for roles within the finance organization to slip into negative and judgmental stereotypes about each other.

As we have already identified the sheer complexity of finance department transformations often means that there are significant shortcomings in financial systems as new ones are brought in over time. This means that the desired level of standardized information and reporting is not always immediately available to the business. As a result both the decision support and business partner teams can be working under real pressure with imperfect systems and data. With the additional pressure exerted from the business any failings in the delivery from either the decision support or business partner roles can easily corrupt working relationships.

We have seen situations where the business partner role is viewed as the “sexy” high value added role and the decision support teams are views as the “grunts” whose role is to simply serve the business partners demands and requests. Equally some decision support teams can be very critical of business partners if they don’t feel that they really understand the business or challenges and fail to push back on incessant line requests for ad-hoc reports. Left to linger and go unresolved the above can play havoc to any idea of a joined up finance service.

Team working is critical
For the business partner model to work all members of the finance team need to work as a team and recognize that they all contribute to either building or eroding the department’s brand equity. The Decision Support (DS) team need the BPs to manage their line customers and to sell the benefits of their outcomes at the same time they need the BPs to control the flow of requests from the line for “un-necessary” reports. Conversely the BP’s have to be convinced of the quality of what the DS teams produce and have the ability to request ad-hoc reports for their customers. So engaging in regular conflicts and disputes with each other and trying to apportion blame when things go wrong will do much to derail any business partner model. What is needed is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities built on a strong foundation of professional trust and teamwork. Getting all finance team members on board and supporting each other in bad as well as good times is therefore a critical organizational challenge and a vital finance leadership responsibility.

3. The Right Business Partner Skill Set & Behaviours- Building the Finance Brand

The third major challenge facing any finance team in making the transition is to equip everyone with a clear and coherent business partner skill set.

Re-branding is not enough
Too many organisations fall into the trap of simply changing their structures and rebranding people as finance business partners without really doing anything to help colleagues understand what a true BP role really entails. In effect they fall into the trap of placing “old wine in new bottles!” What is needed is a formal development process to help professionals fully understand the role and how it differs to what they have been doing previously. At PPI we call this developing a common methodology and vocabulary around the business partner role. The aim is to give every member of the finance team a clear understanding of what the BP role really entails and in turn show how they all help shape and determine, through their individual behaviours, what the collective Finance Brand will be within their organization.

Real change in style and behavior is needed
Business partnering requires a real change in style and behaviours to traditional support roles. At PPI we would say it is as much an attitude as a job description. For many quality financial professionals the challenge is how to move from operating in an “expert – we know best answer” mode to a more facilitative and consultative mode. We typically run development programmes whereby professionals actually “experience” the difference between the classic support specialist role and that of a business partner. We stress that the new role is all about securing greater acceptance to finance’s ideas and recommendations and much less to do with changing their technical expertise. This means we focus a lot on how professionals build relations and rapport with key business individuals. The ultimate goal of course is to achieve “trusted adviser” status whereby if I have a problem as a business leader the first person I will pick up the phone to will be my finance business partner.

Harnessing existing skills
To achieve this brand requires finance professionals to learn how best to harness their already considerable business analysis and diagnostic skills. We argue that unlike many HR and IT professionals, finance already have a head start as they typically possess an excellent range of “commercial skills” to aid their transition to the role of business partner. However what they often lack is a clear understanding of how to go about developing their relationship management skills in the context of the role. We help people learn these critical skills and to see the benefits that follow when influencing key managers and other stakeholders.

Building collective understanding
By exposing the finance team to such a clearly defined BP approach and skill set individuals soon begin to understand the key and sometimes, subtle differences to how they have been operating in the past. Such a process not only helps at an individual capability level; it also helps build the finance team’s collective understanding and provides a critical level of momentum around the role.  By using a commonly understood model and approach finance teams can readily review their progress and over time start further developing and enhancing their business partnering skills and approach. Without such an approach too many quality professionals are left to sink or swim when applying the BP role for themselves.

At the PPI Network we offer a range of interventions to help Finance Teams on any transformation journey. Should you wish to talk to us about any changes taking place in your finance organization feel free to contact to Gerry Buckley – - for an initial exploration of the issues.


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.