Finance as a people function: fulcrum around which any organisation can manoeuvre and surge forward

When Dun & Bradstreet asked me to write on this subject, I was a bit surprised honestly.  Normally when one thinks of Finance, one sees it either as a technical function (accounting nuances, audits, tax, treasury) or as a process function, and more likely a combination of both.

Then it set me thinking further. Over the last couple of decades, the technical aspect of the finance function is mostly automated, and the process aspect is either outsourced or offshored. I may be massively simplifying here when I say this, but I am sure you get the drift.

In the current post Covid-19 scenario, what exactly is expected from Finance professionals? In any function, there are three important elements People, Process and Technology. While Process and Technology go hand in hand and ensure an unforeseen level of automation/outsourcing, it’s the people who are behind joining all the dots.

When you deeply think about it, you realise that the people in finance have a large role to play. To become a strategist and a better business partner, to effectively use the new technologies and big data analytics, and to present a business case in the form of a compelling story and thereby influence the direction of the business.

In my view, to excel in the current environment, finance teams will need to be a better people function and finance leaders can help their teams to achieve these through the following:

Automating Internal Processes

Ensure that all the basics are in place and that you have fully utilised the power of technology. Today companies have automated all the internal processes through RPA (or IPA or AI), ensured that there is no human touch point (Straight Through Processing), and established clear SLA’s and TAT’s with the users so that there is no need to follow up on Finance teams.

Automating all Control Elements

Automate all the control elements with maker checker distinction, convince the auditors that all the exceptions are thoroughly analysed, and establish an ongoing process to improve the control environment.

Implement Enterprise Risk Management Solutions

Implement an enterprise risk management solution that looks at all possible business risks and identify mitigation measures to make the organisation resilient to black swan events.

The above three i.e. Automation of processes, Controls and Enterprise Wide Risk Management (including fraud management, business continuity planning and disaster recovery) are what I call the basic functions of the finance teams. Today this requires very limited manpower due to the tools available in the market.

Now we move to higher order skills for the finance team members.

Understanding of Business Operations

To become a business partner, the people in finance must first understand the nuances of the business operations. The more customer oriented you are, the more you will be able to learn cross functional skills. There are many ways to learn these. It could be a buddy program, or a sabbatical or as an understudy in another function outside the organisation. Provide such learning opportunity to every member of your team.  I would urge that all the people working in Finance should have a minimum working knowledge of customer facing functions (sales, marketing, communication, etc.). This would make them appreciate the customer point of view all the time. This would also improve the cross functional collaboration and ownership mindset within Finance team members.

Big Data Analytics

Another skill set which is becoming extremely critical is big data analytics. You need to understand the user needs and co create management reports that address specific issues. Data mining is now becoming a core skill. To do that, one needs to understand the nuances of the business and the key levers that drive the business forward. Only then can you pinpoint the right KPIs to monitor. Real time reporting goes along with data analytics as there is a need to accelerate decision making. Agility is now becoming a way of life and the people in finance should become adept at an agile way of working. Out of the box thinking, project management skills and innovative/disruptive mindset are equally important to add value to the business. All of these can be acquired through deliberate learning methods.

Soft Skills

The softer skills that I want to touch upon are stakeholder management, communication with impact, negotiating with others, and influencing decision making through story telling skills. It is just not enough to provide data and insights to the stakeholders. You should also be able to develop a story so compelling that the decision becomes automatic rather than being a laboured one. Each of these skills requires patient practice to master, but can be done by a diligent person.

Share Knowledge

You should also work to enhance the knowledge quotient of finance across other parts of the organisation. Popularise self-service as a concept so that basic information and insights can be worked out by the users themselves. This would save a lot of time for the finance team and free up their time to concentrate on the strategic objectives of the organisation. This also means that the finance team member should become a good teacher and should share his knowledge across other functions.

The world is moving very fast, one needs to keep up with the pace in order to be successful. Finance Leaders today are the true strategic partners to business. I am confident that finance function today is well poised to be the fulcrum around which any organisation can manoeuvre and surge forward.