For many within industry, the strategic finance manager has been an elusive creature – much discussed, but rarely sighted in the wild. But a look at the nominees for this year’s Accounting Excellence Award for finance team of the year convinced John Stokdyk that attitudes are changing.
Remember the dream of the strategic CFO you were all told about during qualification and in seminars and articles ever since? This professional paragon was able to keep an iron control over cash with one hand while simultaneously bringing forth double-digit revenue growth with the other. A friend and confidant to line managers, our hero is also able to speak truth unto power to ensure that the right decisions are made in the boardroom.
The trouble with the strategic CFO myth is that real life too often intrudes, with internal crises and compliance shocks like Making Tax Digital and GDPR that throw all their long-term plans into disarray.
One of the factors we noted last year in our analysis was the lack of investment in tools to help finance managers streamline their processes. Many finance teams are running systems that date back to before the global financial crisis and are so bogged down with collecting and processing basic management and compliance reports that they lack the data and time to work on more proactive, forward-looking analysis.
In spite of its stop-start evolution, Making Tax Digital appears to have triggered a shift during the past year or two. The proportion of mid-market and enterprise respondents using cloud systems increased significantly in our 2018 software survey, accompanied by increases in the use of expenses capture and forecasting tools.
But adopting new technology on its own does not deliver strategic improvements. The finance teams that were nominated for our 2018 Accounting Excellence Awards for finance teams showed us how the prevailing culture within the finance function is beginning to change.
Partnering on the rise
The most distinctive feature of the nominated companies – Perkbox, Dr Will’s and Creative England – was their enthusiasm for partnering with colleagues in other departments. As part of this approach, there was a clear awareness of the need to communicate effectively across the organisation. They were also committed to improving their processes wherever possible.
Many finance departments have built their reputations on being the gatekeepers of reliable data within the organisation, sometimes to the extent that they deny those without suitable qualifications access to that information. But modern technology makes it possible to loosen your grip on company information a little, and that’s exactly what progressive finance teams are doing.
If you are able to devise systems where collection, reporting and budgeting are more robust and automated, line managers won’t be able to destabilise the reporting infrastructure and can find answers to their queries on a “self-serve” basis.
A quick look at how the 2018 finance team nominees work offers some great examples of this approach.
Creative England is an independent agency that works to support the UK’s creative industries and typically works on a project-by-project basis to support specific sectors, new initiatives and startups.
A member of the finance team is assigned to each project team, giving it a voice and a view across all business areas so it can support each department with effective budgeting, forecasting and analysis.
The approach is evident in Creative England’s investment committee, where finance professionals feed their insights into investment appraisals. They also lend more practical and strategic support to ensure the invested companies prosper and have achieved a three-year survival rate of 83% compared to 66% average for the creative sector.
“Accounting excellence can only be achieved through effective communication and collaboration across all areas of the business. This involves both the ability to understand the goals of non-finance staff and to effectively communicate meaningful financial information to them, which enables those goals to be achieved,” the Creative England finance team told AccountingWEB.
As a young, all-natural condiments company Dr Will’s relies heavily on marketing samples of its products to retail and foodservice buyers.
To keep up with the company’s rapid growth and track performance, the finance team set out to streamline reporting. It now has a much clearer view of expenses against budgets and based on sales generated by marketing initiatives, the team can predict the total sales uplift to evaluate the success of the project.
Borrowing the objectives, key indicators and results (OKR) methodology so beloved in Silicon Valley, Dr Will’s finance managers work with different teams to achieve weekly tasks calibrated to ensure the company hits its quarterly objectives.
The team’s ethos is to automate, be efficient and keep things simple. “Any useful analysis which is done on a regular basis needs automating quickly … The data is more useful when you can look at it in real time, instead of it being outdated until you update it next month.
“Work out what you need to report or monitor and invest the time to figure out the best method for doing it before you get started.”
The winner of the 2018 award for finance team of the year was Perkbox, an online platform for delivering flexible benefits packages to employees. Because they operate in this environment, Perkbox finance managers have a built-in awareness of financial processes and data requirements and work closely with product teams to embed good design principles within their products. Not only does this approach deliver efficiencies in the back office, but it also underpins a slicker experience for customers too.
Perkbox has extended its business planning processes to more employees. While building their internal involvement and buy-in to new initiatives, collaborative planning processes also help to explain and communicate the vision to leadership and investors, the Perkbox team reports.
But the finance managers don’t just pull information in from different departments. Automated reporting helps inform decisions and align them to company strategy, while a central data team carries out dedicated analysis in each area of the business.
The analytic team carries out activities such as segmentation analysis to improve revenue targeting. And another helped the team to identify which customers were most likely to cancel their subscription, leading to more focused customer engagement.
“Accounting is about providing insights and supporting decisions not only internally but externally too,” the Perkbox team told AccountingWEB.
“It is therefore important to communicate with stakeholders well and regularly, get them involved in what you do to work better together. This may involve sharing more transparently, for example through automated financial report and dashboards, or including leaders and managers in decision-making processes including devolved budget responsibility and control.”
We couldn’t have summarised the Accounting Excellence ethos any better than that.