CategoryPerformance Management

Finance as the Custodian of Enterprise Performance Management

The days of having CFOs responsible for only preparing the statutory financial reports of the business and play the role of the bookkeeper are long gone. Today, finance leaders are expected to play the role of the strategic advisor to senior management and the board,and help drive operational and strategic performance across the enterprise.

That is, become custodians of enterprise performance management (EPM) by taking the lead on performance management and delivering informed business insights. EPM takes a completely different approach towards measuring, monitoring and improving enterprise performance.

Instead of assessing business performance in a siloed approach, EPM ensures the business evaluates and monitors its performance holistically. Although a majority of business decisions have either positive or negative financial implications on the health of the organization, evaluating, monitoring and improving business performance extends beyond a sole focus on financial metrics.

In order to perform better in their new business performance custodian role, it is imperative that finance leaders develop knowledge and a deeper understanding what constitutes and doesn’t constitute EPM. 

A simple google search of the words “Performance Management” brings up results that associate performance management to the process of conducting employee performance appraisals and supervising employees and departments to ensure that goals and objectives are met efficiently.

As a result, many people think that performance management is a human resources process that is only people-focused and has nothing to do with finance – Human Performance Management. To a lesser extent, their thinking is correct in the sense that people are part of the process. However, to a larger extent, they are wrong.

Performance management is not entirely focused on carrying out the outdated employee annual performance appraisals or reviews based on isolated individual key performance indicators (KPIs).

Rather, performance management is the integration of multiple managerial methods and or frameworks such as strategy maps, balanced scorecards, activity based costing/management, driver-based rolling forecasts, process improvement, risk management and advanced analytics to support strategic decisions and drive performance.

This is not achievable individually, hence the key word “enterprise.”

As custodians of business performance, finance should play a leading role in implementing a robust EPM framework across the organization. The framework should enable the organization to communicate and translate its strategy into financial and non-financial metrics and targets, monitor its performance, create accountability, and focus its efforts and resources on the key business drivers.

Additionally, the EPM framework should ensure there is alignment between individual KPIs and reward and recognition systems, and corporate objectives, as opposed to mere job descriptions, in order to encourage behaviours which positively contribute to the overall strategy of the business.

When implementing the EPM framework, it is important to ask the following questions:

  1. What do we want to achieve and excel at? This helps define your goals and key value drivers.
  2. How do we know if we are actually excelling at this? This involves defining financial and non-financial KPIs, which are measures that help you understand whether you are achieving your goals
  3. What is the desired level of performance that we would like to see? Defining KPIs is not enough, you also need to define your targets that represent the level of success or failure at achieving your KPIs.
  4. What initiatives should we pursue or engage in to meet our performance targets? These are actions or projects or strategies or processes needed to achieve a target, or improve performance level.
  5. What resources and or investments are needed to achieve our target? Utilizing driver-based budgets and dynamic rolling forecasts will ensure resources are allocated strategically and efficiently.

Asking and answering the above questions helps design and implement management processes and systems that align business strategy to drive accountabilities, decision support and performance improvement.

For example, when KPIs are aligned with business strategy, decision makers will focus on the critical success factors of the organization. On the contrary, if there is lack of KPI alignment, senior management end up getting overwhelmed with an increasing number of performance reports that lack key insights necessary to move the business forward.

As custodians of enterprise performance, it’s important for finance to have the ability and capabilities to consolidate, analyze and interpret business performance in real-time. Rather than simply report on the past, finance teams must be able to explain the reasons behind the numbers (the whys and what-ifs).

Leveraging consolidation solutions enable teams to quickly model and assess the impact of alternative business scenarios and formulate appropriate solutions.  

Given the complexity of today’s business environment, finance leaders need to rise to the occasion and perform the strategic advisory role now expected of them by senior management and the board.

 

Finance Needs To Do More Than Prepare Reports

There is an ongoing discussion about the evolving role of finance and the function’s contribution towards enterprise performance improvement. Thanks to new operating models and emerging technologies, finance has been presented with an opportunity to step up and shine.

That is, focus more effort on providing effective decision support that drives organizational success and less on rote tasks that can easily be automated, outsourced or performed separately in a shared services center.

Providing effective decision support requires a deep understanding of the business in its completeness, the cause-and-effect relationships between business units, big growth drivers and performance drivers. It’s more than producing a complete set of financials on a monthly basis.

By virtue of their training, many finance professionals possess strong technical accounting backgrounds and limited business experience. For instance, preparing external reporting financials that are IFRS-aligned comes natural to them. At any point in time, they are able to interpret a particular standard, paragraph by paragraph, without even making reference to the standard handbook itself.

There is nothing wrong with becoming an accounting standard expert. The problem arises when the entire finance team is made up of financial reporting experts who spend the majority of their time churning out reports just to meet regulatory and compliance requirements and less on driving business performance.

Month-end, quarter-end and year-end reporting are still an important part of running a successful finance organization. It’s important that the financial statements are free from material misstatements and faithfully represent the financial performance and position of the business.

However, the process should not end there. Finance should also be able to interpret the reported numbers, create meaning and simplicity from them as well as communicate a point of view about how the numbers will inform strategic decisions.

It’s therefore imperative for finance leaders to continuously assess the tasks their teams are focused on. Begin with why. For instance, why does your team produce the reports it produces on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis? What purpose do they serve in informing business decisions?

After you have answered the why question, you should be able to determine whether the activity, report or process is a value add or not.

Any activity, report or process that is not value enhancing should be discontinued completely or streamlined. This will in turn help you free up more time and channel resources towards issues and or initiatives that really matter to business partners and senior decision makers.

Given that individuals are creatures of habit, it can be difficult to let go of traditional practices or old habits.

Unfortunately, sticking with the familiar in a constantly changing environment will not do you any justice. Just because this is how you have always done things in the past and are used to does not mean you should continue on the same path of the tried-and-tested.

In addition to getting rid of old habits that are no longer able to withstand the test of time, it’s also important to ask if the company’s business model is still fit for purpose to address today’s demands and challenges, and more important, is it fit for purpose for the future? With the world changing so fast around us, a business never reaches a point where it has the ideal model.

The operating model needs to continue to evolve. Finance can help shape this model through spending time with business partners and engaging in a two-way conversation about the business and offering its perspective. Communication between finance and the business should not be limited to month-end reports only.

Leveraging our financial expertise, we can help drive change by helping the company identify sources of growth and operational improvements, allocate resources effectively and efficiently, and accelerate its performance over time.

Finance is often regarded as the purse-holder of the company, holding the power to greenlight some initiatives and redlight others.

However, in order to drive innovation and change, finance must learn to see the world not only through a finance lens but also through a business lens. Many finance professionals are conservative and risk averse in their approach. Taking risk is something perceived extraordinary. We need to transition from this kind of thinking.

There is of course balance between taking risk and mitigating risk, but if finance is inclined to opt for the later, value creation opportunities can be missed. It’s therefore critical that we do not succumb to analysis paralysis because it’s easier to lose the big picture of what is needed to drive the company’s success in a myriad of daily transactions or useless data.

In conclusion, if finance is to influence strategic decisions and add value, finance leaders should start asking if their teams are focusing on what really matters to the business or the function.

Applying Design Thinking to Finance

I recently finished reading The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger L. Martin. It’s well worth reading. Even though the book was published almost a decade ago, the ideas and principles espoused by the author are still relevant and applicable in today’s business environment.

Design thinking is a customer centric process used by designers for creative problem solving. The process utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy, intuition, systemic reasoning and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions that benefit the end user or the customer.

Finance is increasingly being called upon to provide effective business decision support. For many traditionally trained accounting and finance professionals, the request is a big ask.

Understanding and influencing the entire value creation cycle of the business is not something that they are accustomed to. Instead, many accounting and finance teams are comfortable working in financial reporting roles.

However, as businesses increasingly leverage new technologies to automate rules-based, transactional and repetitive tasks for a fraction of the full time employee salary, it’s only a matter of time before some finance team members become an endangered species.

Part of the problem is the fact that during our training, the majority of the courses we undertake make us believe that our core role is to deliver compliance-focused tasks.

Think of Financial Reporting, Taxation, Auditing and Assurance, Business Law, and Financial Accounting modules. All are compliance-focused. At the beginning of the learning, the content of each module is the basics and progresses into advanced topics towards the end.

Ultimately, we develop a box-ticking mindset. Having such a mindset will not help differentiate the business from its competitors and create a competitive advantage. I’m not discounting the importance of financial reporting or any other compliance tasks.

They too are important. But, innovative and successful companies do not become so simply by heavily investing in compliance activities.

Innovation and efficiency do not have to be at odds

In The Design of Business, Roger L. Martin highlights that one of the reasons many businesses face a struggle to innovate and create value for their stakeholders is because of an increased reliance on analytical thinking versus intuitive thinking.

The former involves senior management attempt to base strategy on rigorous, quantitative analysis (optimally backed by decision support software). The later is centered on the primacy of creativity and innovation, the art of knowing without reasoning. Roger Martin does not advocate the adoption of one approach over the other. Instead, he advises businesses to seek a balance or reconciliation of the two.

Traditionally, finance transformation initiatives are driven by cost reduction strategies. The focus is on squeezing out as much fat as possible and achieve efficiency. Take adoption of new finance software as an example. Rather than view the adoption as an opportunity to relieve finance teams of rudimentary tasks and focus on initiatives that require critical thinking, CFOs view this as an opportunity get rid of employees and cut costs.

If a business is heavily dependent on analytical thinking, especially where performance and rewards are budget and or forecast driven, maintaining the status quo often prevails. The organization finds itself operating as it always has and is reluctant to design and redesign itself dynamically over time.

When faced with a decision about investing in a new product, market or something new and promising, but not in the current budget, the answer is always no. Many at times the argument is that if something cannot be planned and budgeted for in advance, it is not worth pursuing. This ultimately breeds conformity and stifles innovation as resources are allocated to business units based on past performance.

Finding a balance between exploration and exploitation

Balancing innovation and efficiency demands the organization’s resource allocation not to be based entirely on past performance. Rather, a portion of the resources should be distributed based on the unproved ideas and projects each business unit presents for the coming year.

One of the reasons why a number of promising projects fail to see the light of the day is because management have created a culture that first seeks a predictable outcome before paving way for the project. They seek reliability, which is in direct contrast to a designer’s mindset.

A designer seeks validity over reliability with the goal of producing outcomes that meet a desired objective. The end result is shown to be correct through the passage of time.

The current business environment is awash with mysteries, which take an infinite variety of forms. For example, we don’t know how our product and market segments will continue to perform in future. We are not certain which technologies will have an immediate impact on our business. Or we might explore the mysteries of competition and geopolitical tension.

Data on past performance might help us extrapolate future performance but the future is no guarantee.

Given that the future is a mystery, the business should embrace a new way of thinking that provides a simplified understanding of the mystery and in turn help devise an explicit, step-by-step procedure for solving the problem.

An organization may decide to focus on exploration, which involves a search for new knowledge and the reinvention of the business, or exploitation which focuses on business administration and seeks to increase payoff from existing knowledge.

Intuition, originality and hypotheses about the future are often the driving forces behind exploration. On the other hand, analysis, reasoning, historical data and mastery are the forces behind exploitation. Both approaches can create significant value, and both are important to the success of any business organization. However, organizations struggle to pursue both approaches simultaneously.

More often, an organization chooses to focus on exploitation, to the exclusion of exploration and to its own disadvantage. The solution is not to embrace the randomness of intuitive thinking and avoid analytical thinking completely. The solution lies in the organization embracing both approaches, turn away from the false certainty of the past, and instead peer into a mystery to ask what could be.

In other words, balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and business administration, and originality and mastery.

Finance plays a critical role in helping the business achieve efficiencies, redeploy the savings and redirect freed-up resources towards exploration of new opportunities.

Building design into finance

As design thinking is frequently associated with marketing and product development, finance is deemed an unlikely place to apply design thinking principles. However, design thinking can be applied to the finance function in every organization. The key is to identify and define the customers clearly and approach their needs empathetically.

Unlike the marketing function which focuses its efforts on external customers, finance’s efforts are focused on meeting the needs of its internal customers. To elevate design thinking in finance, the function should think differently about its structures, its processes, and its cultural norms.

Quite a number of finance organizations are organized around ongoing, permanent tasks. Roles are firmly defined, with clear responsibilities and reward incentives linked tightly to those individual responsibilities. The problem with such a structure is that it discourages employees to see the bigger picture. Individuals employees see their work as own territory to be protected by all means.

There is little to none collaboration. It’s all about “my responsibilities,” not “our responsibilities.” As a result, individuals limit their focus to those individual responsibilities, refining and perfecting outputs before sharing a complete final product with others. This can be routine production of monthly reports.

In contrast, designers are accustomed to working collaboratively with adhoc teams and clearly defined goals in a projected-oriented environment. Rather than waiting until the outcome is right, designers expose their clients to a series of prototypes that improve with each iteration.

Considering that finance business partnering extends beyond traditional month-end reporting tasks and involves working on various business related projects, sharing performance insights and creating value, CFOs should therefore foster a culture that supports project-based work and explicitly make it clear that working on a project is no less important or rewarded than running a business segment.

It is therefore imperative that finance business partners acquire design thinking capabilities that can help them develop a detailed and holistic understanding of their internal customers’ needs and frustrations, and serve them better by formulating and recommending creative and actionable solutions that deliver the desired outcomes.

Equally important too is having the courage to elicit feedback from business partners, develop mastery of the value proposition model and deliver improved solutions.

Rather than immortalizing the past, the focus should be on creating and influencing the future.

Finance Value Creation Goes Beyond Running the Financial Side of the Business

Advances in technology are helping the finance function reduce operational costs, streamline processes and improve productivity. Thanks to automation, tasks that used to take months to complete are being completed in weeks and those that took weeks to accomplish are getting done in days.

For instance, advanced analytics and robotic process automation are shortening the timelines finance teams require to produce a forecast, perform account reconciliations or close the books.

Technology is enabling more to be done with less and the trend is not expected to go away anytime time soon. A couple of years go the staff size of the finance function was big. CFOs were happy to have separate staff handle AP, AR, Payroll, Bank Reconciliations, Management Accounts etc.

Today the size of the finance function has shrunk significantly. Thanks to shared services centers, outsourcing and process automation. Robots have taken over rules-based, repetitive and transactional tasks that were once performed by humans.

Machine learning algorithms are already replicating highly analytical tasks, analyzing large data sets and churning out insights in real time to support decision making. Although the adoption of machine learning and/or AI tools is not yet widespread it’s only a matter of time before the technology becomes a part of our everyday life.

Implications for finance professionals

In order to stay current and move ahead finance teams need to evolve and adapt to the changing environment.

Some of the skills we have acquired in the past and relied on to get us to the next level are no longer sufficient in the current and future environment. As a result, we have to develop a continuous learning mindset. Learn new ways of doing things, unlearn the old habits and continue to relearn.

For instance, being detailed oriented alone used to be sufficient. Not anymore. Today finance professionals are expected to be commercially aware and broad in their thinking.

Decision makers are searching for collaborative business partners who have a deeper understanding of the operational and strategic challenges facing the business. Problem solvers able to enrich the business with insightful analysis and capable of recommending the right solutions. Team players who understand the markets in which the business operates, its products, competitor business and the drivers of performance as a whole.

Build a big picture perspective of the business

If finance is to be recognized as a valuable strategic business partner we need to build a big picture perspective of the business and be able to recognize the role and contribution of each function, individual, process and activity in achieving the objectives of the company. Knowing debits and credits alone will not take us far.

With the business environment constantly changing, we need to shift our focus from historical analysis to forward looking.

Many at times we spend a lot of time producing variance analysis reports that do not drive the right conclusions and actions out of the insights. For example, simply commenting sales for the month are up 5% or operational costs are down by $1MM is not insightful enough to support key decision making.

We need to understand what the numbers mean and the real drivers behind them. For example, did sales increase because of new customers, price increases, improved demand, enhanced marketing efforts, new product lines, entry into new markets, product bundling?

CFOs and their teams need to be doing more than running the financial side of the business – recording revenues and costs. Instead, they should help the business adapt and make insight-driven strategic turns without throwing off alignment between broad strategy and day-to-day execution.

Part of building a bigger picture perspective of the business requires a finance function that is more flexible and collaborative than in the past and knows how to manage its internal working relationships. A finance function that is capable of partnering with operations instead of always pointing out what operations is always doing wrong.

Spending the majority of our time behind our desks preparing financial statements and regulatory compliance reports will not help us become more strategic and commercially aware. We need to get interested in the affairs of the business. Avail ourselves for projects that take us out of our comfort zones. Regularly interact with colleagues outside finance to get a deeper understanding of the drivers of the business, what projects the teams are working on, how they align with the broader strategy, the risks and challenges they are facing and recommend solutions.

If you are used to sitting behind a computer all day, leaving your desk to engage with the business is initially unnerving but the more you do it the more confidence you gather. Evolving priorities require a finance professional with a well-honed ability to communicate, build trust and maintain collaborative relationships with the rest of the business.

Driving business growth versus cost cutting

Too often finance teams are focused on cost cutting activities in order to improve the bottom line instead of identifying alternative ways of driving up top line growth. Today’s global companies are operating in a world of complex supply chains, intense competition, shifting customer expectations, increased regulatory demands, emerging operating models and exposure to significant business risk. Cost reduction alone will not help the business sustain its competitive relevance in this world.

The problem with many cost optimization programmes is that they fail to deliver the expected outcomes. It is not about how much you cut the costs, rather where you channel resources to differentiate, stimulate growth and achieve strategic objectives. Finance needs to look beyond narrowly defined functional or organizational structures when identifying candidates for cost cutting and take a holistic, end-to-end view of costs across the whole organization. This will help separate the strategically-aligned good costs from the non-essential bad costs.

With the adoption of big data and analytical tools becoming mainstream, it’s not too late for finance to play catch up. Transitioning to data analytics starts with putting in place a well-structured data and information management foundation and then combining technology with the right analytics and expertise.

Only then can finance transform data into true, actionable business intelligence (on products, customers, markets, process efficiencies, supply chain, competition and business risk) that drives better informed decision making and business growth.

Traditional financial reporting does not provide the actionable information the business needs to make more informed strategic decisions. Today, the business needs to leverage both structured data (which resides in enterprise databases) and unstructured data (email, social media, internet) including analytics to generate insightful analysis that can help drive operational and strategic performance.

For example, finance should be able to collaborate with the marketing function, analyze and interpret customer data to understand customer journeys, and help the function design and implement better customer/brand strategies and responses.

Finance cannot expect to drive business growth by continuously doing the same things. It’s not about this is how we have always done things here. Ask yourselves: what is the right way of doing things in today’s disruptive world and what are the expectations of the business?

Rethinking The Use of KPIs In The Digital Era

Most companies do not deploy Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) rigorously for review or as drivers of change. This is the overall finding from a recent survey report, Leading With Next Generation Key Performance Indicators, published by MIT Sloan Management Review. The report is biased towards Sales and Marketing functions.

Changes in the business environment such as accelerating technological innovation, intensifying competitive pressure, significant emerging risks, increasing customer expectations, and complex regulations are influencing business models and causing tremendous shifts in the strategic direction of the company.

As a result, executives are struggling to balance tactical and strategic KPIs, including operational and financial KPIs that effectively capture the moment while anticipating the future.

Part of the survey findings include:

  • KPIs are not enjoying special status as either enablers or drivers of change in many companies. Instead of providing value added insight to guide and drive performance improvements, KPIs are more about “tick-box” compliance. Either that gives you a sense of the scale of key decisions made on intuition versus data-driven or it makes you realize that despite the critical role of KPIs in enabling informed decisions, many executives are still not aware of this.
  • Lack of alignment of KPIs with strategic objectives. Only 26% of the survey respondents agreed that their functional KPIs are aligned with the organization’s stated goals and strategic priorities. Such a huge disconnect explains why many companies are struggling to execute their strategy more effectively.
  • Customer-focused KPIs are increasingly becoming more important. Many companies are taking a more customer-centric approach to spur growth. As a result, they are seeking to understand customers in more holistic ways. 63% of respondents say they are now using KPIs (such as NPS, customer segmentation, customer lifetime value, brand equity, churn) to develop a single integrated view of the customer and understand the customer’s experience at each touch point including the aggregated journey.

Based on respondents’ answers to a specific set of questions on how well a company has aligned its use of KPIs, the report authors were able to categorize the companies into three – Measurement Leaders, Measurement Capable and Measurement Challenged.

According to the study findings, six behaviors are common to Measurement Leaders:

  1. Use KPIs to lead, as well manage, the business. Companies falling into this category treat their KPIs not simply as “numbers to hit” but as tools of transformation. KPIs are used to effectively align the organization (people and processes) and also provide predictive insight that help frame strategy and lead the company into the future.
  2. Develop an integrated view of the customer: Respondents falling into this category have shifted their focus beyond traditional financial and customer satisfaction metrics to including externally focused KPIs that enable them to better segment and engage customers. Such measures complement and build upon more internally focused process KPIs. However, an integrated customer view remains an aspiration for many businesses. For example, 41% of survey respondents are still managing digital customers separately from physical customers. Companies that are making progress in this space are experimenting with automation and machine learning technologies to develop a 360-degree view of their customers.
  3. See KPIs as data sets for machine learning: Nearly 75% of executives surveyed expect that ML/AI technologies will help them achieve strategic goals. Instead of viewing KPIs just as analytic outputs for business performance review and planning, organizations can take advantage of ML which empowers software and systems to learn from data-driven experience. This creates opportunities to use KPIs (individually and collectively) and their underlying data to teach ML algorithms to improve and optimize their performance and drive marketing activities. However, care must be taken that the KPIs used as data inputs for ML actually reflect business reality, otherwise the systems will learn from wrong inputs leading to garbage in, garbage out.
  4. Drill Down into KPI Components: Drilling down to a KPIs components is critical for effective KPIs. It helps executives see the underlying data or analytic components that are aggregated into KPIs, determine why specific KPIs have over or under-achieved and prioritize critical business issues. For example, the drilling down can be done according to different customers, segments, channels or different products. Legacy organizations with legacy IT systems and legacy financial reporting processes, however, generally lack this capability
  5. Share trusted KPI data: While it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, having shared KPIs facilitates effective cross-functional collaboration because managers can see the positive or negative impact of their own KPIs on others. This cause-and-effect relationship also enables opportunistic efficiencies and outcomes. Although transparent, shareable KPIs can create new dynamics, in some cases, conflict may arise within the organization due to overstepping of boundaries in turn affecting accountability.
  6. Aim for KPI Parsimony: There is no magic number of desirable effective KPIs for an organization. However, too many KPIs easily become unwieldy, unmanageable, and create unrealistic expectations. Too few might result in the neglect of critical business issues. In today’s digital world characterized by data proliferation, it is much easier to get carried away and succumb to “KPI creep”. Measurement leaders know what to focus on – a balanced set of vital and valuable KPIs that have massive potential to make a huge difference to their businesses. Instead of wasting resources on ordinary metrics or measures that promote bad behaviours and fail to influence the strategic priorities of the business, they understand that to be effective and account for business success, KPIs must truly be “key” performance indicators.

To obtain greater value and returns from their KPIs, the report recommends companies to identify their top 3 enterprise and top 3 functional KPIs, create a process for ongoing enterprise-wide discussion of KPIs, and treat KPIs as a special class of data asset.

Additionally, I believe company leadership should also:

  • Acknowledge that effective performance measurement requires a cultural shift. The fish rots from the head. If there is no executive sponsorship, chances are high that the use of KPIs to drive growth will remain relegated to the lower rungs of the ladder.
  • Integrate performance management with risk management. The former looks at KPIs and the latter looks at Key Risk Indicators (KRIs). Business success is also a result of making informed and intelligent risk decisions
  • Start with the WHY of data collection. While it may be true to say that data and analytics are the raw ingredients of KPIs, a company’s data needs must be supported by the key performance questions raised. It is therefore imperative to ask critical questions before accessing any new data.
  • Understand that technology is just a means to an end and not the end itself. A company does not necessarily need to invest in new technology to reap returns from its KPIs. Just because “experts” are preaching the gospel of ML/AI as the solution to modern business problems, first evaluate if your business is in dire need of such technology and cannot survive without it.

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