By Abby Lutte
Few departments are as efficiency-obsessed as finance. Whereas other teams often enjoy some flexibility in project timing, strategic activities and reporting, finance is under the radar of investors, executives, customers and partners to deliver accurate, compliant, time-restricted inputs quickly. And – in addition to completing these essential operational activities – finance leadership is also increasingly expected to provide strategic direction on innovation and growth.
Yet, while the finance organization is typically one that other teams seek to model in terms of accountability, productivity and cost structure, finance often struggles to achieve true agility in an environment that is increasingly shifting. Although the path to agility can be a lengthy one involving technological, cultural and behavioral shifts, the agile finance department not only operates at a significantly lower cost compared to the average firm, it also effectively positions itself as a conduit of growth.
Agility = Efficiency + Effectiveness
Although one might be hard-pressed to find an inefficient finance team, many finance leaders can find themselves unwittingly in the precarious position of conflating efficiency with effectiveness. Peter Drucker sums up this tension poetically: “It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right.” Encumbered with out-of-date-technology, myopically specialized staff, mismatched processes and often unwieldy reporting requirements, finance often churns its key deliverables out on schedule only to breathe a whale-sized sigh when a change of course is demanded. These are the moments when finance’s strategic outlook is particularly needed. A laser focus on the transactional requirements of finance at the expense of data inspiration and a growth mindset may be one of the key reasons why the most efficient team might miss key opportunities to contribute effectively.
True agility is achieved when effectiveness and efficiency join forces. Long gone are the days when finance’s primary role was to manage risk, police transactions and keep score. Although these functions continue to remain vital, finance leadership is now tasked with the additional weighty mission of integrating value. At once masters of technology, skilled collaborators and data savants, the agile, world-class finance leadership team is able to automate key transactional inputs and spend more time contributing to the business in a strategic way. This agile team has real-time access to insights and trends, is ready to provide strategic input at a moment’s notice and is staffed by a cadre of flexible subject matter experts who leverage each other’s core competencies fluidly. According to research by the Hackett Group, these flexible teams not only excel in transactional areas and offer strategic input—they also operate a 42% lower cost than the average company. What’s their secret?
The truly effective finance team not only orchestrates the organization’s financial inputs exceptionally well—it also takes an inspired approach to process, technology and people.
1. Foundation: Achieving Transactional Mastery
It may seem obvious, but the most agile finance organizations are true masters of the repeatable, transactional day-to-day activities and processes that formerly defined the entirety of the finance role. They are masters not only in the sense that they have developed techniques for eliminating waste and maximizing technology, data and personnel, but they have also learned to build efficiency with cross-border collaboration. This is frequently expressed in what’s become known as the Shared Services Model, particularly in larger, global organizations. Teams, regions, departments and people are organized to optimize key transactional processes and make the most of regional and local competencies. Dun & Bradstreet implemented such a model and realized a 25% reduction in resource requirements, a 17% savings in operating costs and a 5-day reduction in DSO. The Hackett Group finds that business units that function globally via a shared service model encompass 60% of operations, versus just over 40% for typical companies. Although not every process can be successfully shared, the collaboration between teams on common practices and systems often realizes exponential returns. These teams share their strengths, systems and processes—but most importantly, they share a common vision.
2. Agile Technology: The Finance Team’s Glue
What would a solid process be without the right technology? The finance chief typically has a healthy skepticism of technological investments—understanding the implications of high fixed costs and heavy implementation and maintenance expenses. The agile finance team proactively chooses the right technology stack with both direct and indirect costs in mind—in addition to ROA. Although an inexpensive solution might perform adequately, the finance chief might not be weighing the exponential costs of an extra five minutes of reporting time per staff member per hour due to system slowdowns or clunky interfaces with unnecessary steps.
Top-performing finance organizations adopt productivity-enhancing technology at twice the rate of typical companies, and high levels of automation have been proven to drive benefits such as over 40% fewer transactional errors in T&E and 50% faster cash application, according to The Hackett Group. Gartner cites numerous financial benefits to adopting flexible platforms such as Cloud services, including greater cost agility with infrastructure as a service, increased retained cash and reduced opportunity costs. Systems that enable the agile team to accomplish work goals quickly, gain centralized insight on the organization’s data and ensure smooth process flow through multiple departments will power the finance team to contribute effectively to real-time business decisions.
3. Agile Employees: The Final Frontier
The agile finance team always has one key ingredient—agile team members. “Finance must also make itself transformation-ready, by clearly defining individual accountability and the vision for finance, making sure staff understands the connection between the finance service delivery model and achieving enterprise goals, and developing a customer-centric culture where staff are willing to try new things” (Hackett Group Study). Finding these individuals may not be easy, but the influence they have on a company’s financial trajectory is profound.
Although the financial and business acumen of accountants and finance staff is incredibly valuable and difficult to recruit for, the employee who has this knowledge in addition to flexibility, a love of data and an entrepreneurial drive to innovate and collaborate is one who will ultimately drive the most business value and elevate the finance function to near-unicorn status. In a Michael Page survey on global financial leadership, nearly 45% of human resources departments cite that recruiting and developing such finance team members is within their top two priorities. According to the survey, “The ability to analyze data, to continuously adapt to a changing external and internal environment, to anticipate the cross-functional implications of organizational changes…are just some of the crucial new competencies.” Placing these team members in leadership roles, finding opportunities for them to interact with other departments and internal finance groups will help expand their influence tenfold. These are the employees and leaders who might be best suited to keep their eyes and ears on the front lines, understanding business priorities and helping their fellow team members to provide strategic insight on new developments to senior management.
Summary: Becoming Agile
The truly agile finance team isn’t built overnight. It takes time and continuous effort to engineer the hazy elements of culture, the maze of process and the complexity of technology into a flexible growth engine. Depending on your industry and company size, a tiered approach might be necessary versus a sudden overhaul.
The first step to getting there is almost always strong communication and collaboration. Build a vision for your team and involve them in making decisions. Find out both within and outside of your department what the real and perceived gaps are and work together to create a plan. Bring your knowledge of the company’s financials, data sources, strengths and risks to bear when developing your finance agility vision. You’ll reap greater rewards as a result of asking questions and discussing your future course than you might from evaluating your team based on metrics and data alone. Although getting to a place of nimble effectiveness might take time, money and a significant investment in relationships, the truly agile finance organization has the adaptability and skills to take the smallest company to new heights.