categoryStrategy Management

Finance Transformation: From Efficiency to Effectiveness

Transforming finance into an effective function capable of helping business teams execute strategy more effectively, make informed risk decisions and drive business performance isn’t just about new technology, shared services centres and centres of excellence.

As much as anything else, it is about changing old habits and behaviours. Redefining the role of finance in the business and transforming not only what the function does on a daily basis but also how it does it.

This also involves finance professionals developing an appetite for improvement, constantly self-assessing their modus operandi and establishing how they can perform their work better.

When embarking on a finance transformation journey, it is very important for the CFO to clearly define the core vision, communicate the purpose and goals of the transformation, and articulate the road map for the journey.

Following this approach helps keep the team and key stakeholders focused on the benefits the transformation will deliver.

Identify the Problem First Before Technology

In today’s fast-evolving environment where CFOs are inundated with new technologies to drive their company’s ambitions, it easier to follow the herd without first building a solid investment case.

The thinking is that if we implement a new ERP platform we have successfully transformed our finance function. This not always the case.

Although technology empowers the finance function to evolve to a modern global finance function your focus should extend beyond standardizing and streamlining workflow. New technology should enable you do what hasn’t been done before.

For example, your transactional processes (AP, AR, Journal Entries, Bank Reconciliations, Reporting and General Accounting) are all heavily manual which is causing you to close your books at least 20 days into the new month leaving little room for FP&A and business partnering.

In this instance, you would want to take advantage of a new cloud-based ERP solution that provides you with a standardized IT infrastructure and help you streamline existing decentralized and highly fragmented reporting processes.

Instead of investing in the new ERP platform just for the sake of investing, you first focus on the end-to-end processes, identify the problem(s) that need solving and look at the expected benefits beyond cost reduction.

As a result, you are now able to close your books earlier and free up finance to focus more closely on business partnering and deliver performance insights and decision support to assist in achieving the company’s growth objectives.

Headcount Reduction versus Productivity Increase

Reducing headcount, achieving transactional efficiency or improving control and governance processes should not act as the sole focus of your transformation journey. Many companies make the mistake of believing that finance transformation is all about reducing FTE costs.

Subsequently, after reducing finance headcount and making the function leaner, the workload remains the same, at worst increases, making it difficult for the remaining teams to manage the heavy workload. Ultimately, productivity deteriorates.

As much as it is important to benchmark the size and cost of your finance function, what is also key is that you clearly define finance staff roles and requirements as per your function’s vision and how it fits into the broader vision of the company.

This will help you eliminate or combine specific roles where there is duplication of effort. It also helps develop the right talent mix and capabilities.

Think Broad and Analytically

Today, companies are privy to large amounts of data (economic, customer, social media, production, market, competitor etc.) and cannot look at business performance from purely a transactional view anymore.

Rather, they must use such data to interpret strategic performance, benchmark against competitors and craft a more holistic experience for stakeholders. Instead of spending ample time discussing small variances, the focus should be on the big picture. Identifying and discussing key business drivers and big trends.

This requires investing in the finance function’s operational and commercial acumen as this is key to supporting the business across the entire value chain, from product design and development to manufacturing and from brand management to distribution, sales and after-sales.

Thus, one of the goals of your finance transformation should be to develop well-rounded professionals who are able to connect the dots, contribute alternative perspective to strategic conversations and help the business break into new markets and diversify revenue streams.

One of the challenges in many organizations is that business unit managers are self-serving and focus only on their own markets, ignoring the impact of their decisions on other business units. Finance business partners are better positioned to unite these teams.

They are analytical, broad thinkers and understand the cause-and-effect relationship of disparate business unit decisions, including the role of finance in cross-functional collaboration to improve the performance of these operating units.

Leveraging their extensive functional knowledge, business acumen, experience and relationships built from partnering with various stakeholders, FBPs are able to engage business unit leaders into more value-adding conversations.

Rather than act as a barrier and tell them what they can and cannot do, FBPs first seek to understand what is it business unit leaders want to achieve, how and why it is important and then provide informed decision support taking into account the impact on the broader strategic performance.

Change Management

Stakeholder engagement, or lack of it, can signal the difference between success and failure of any finance transformation agenda. Challenges will abound. Targets will be missed. Teams will resist change and prefer to continuously focus on what they know best.

You therefore need to keep all invested stakeholders engaged, aligned and informed of progress. Offering coaching and insight, rotating employees through a wide range of operations, exposing them to challenging projects and allowing them to experiment with new ideas and learn from mistakes all help in this front.

As long as the mistakes are within acceptable limits you want your team to feel empowered to make key performance decisions and at the same time become trusted business advisors.

Although habits and behaviours are not something that can be changed overnight, they are still key ingredients for an effective transformation. A cultural shift and buy-in is therefore imperative.

 

CFOs and Strategic Decision Making

These days there is an increasing number of articles, reports, podcasts, vblogs, eBooks etc. being churned out on the evolving role of the CFO. Though these publications and postings are worded differently, they all share one common message – Today’s and future CFO should be less of a number cruncher and more of a strategic advisor. In other words, spend more time partnering the with business helping create, preserve and sustain value.

One of the forces behind this call for change in the CFOs role is the onslaught of new technologies on the market. These new tools are helping finance chiefs to automate and streamline certain areas of their work, in turn improving the amount of time spent partnering with the business versus closing the books.

However, Are CFOs contributing enough around the strategy discussion table to merit the strategic advisor badge? Are they helping their companies execute effectively? Execution is the key factor of success yet statistics reveal that between 70%-90% of companies are failing to execute their strategy. How then is this possible if the CEO and the Board have smart, intelligent CFOs in their corner to advise them on strategic issues of the business? Have CFOs just become glorified accountants (since the majority of them are CPA, CMA, CA, ACCA, or CIMA designated) who lack a deeper understanding of the business and its value drivers?

I believe no matter how much we scream and shout about this new evolving, expansive and collaborative role of the CFO, if the results continue unconvincing then we should get off our high horses. We cannot afford to remain on this path of sameness, repeatedly claim that finance teams have a bird’s eye view of the organization and are better placed to influence results yet strategic failures continue to soar.

In today’s information age, it is much easier for finance executives to succumb to the misguided belief that the keys to strategic success is investing in more data and new technology. On the contrary, people drive strategic success. I am not against data and analytics. However, how you apply both to your business will determine whether you will succeed or not.

Unfortunately, many finance teams are still suffering from information overload and struggling to make sense of the data they are presented with. Rather than spend a greater proportion of their time increasing business acumen and providing meaningful analysis for their businesses, more time is being spent on gathering, cleansing and aggregating data from multiple sources. As a result, effective finance business partnering is faltering.

If the CFO is to meaningfully contribute around the strategy discussion table (s)he needs to improve finance’s approach to performance analysis. A bottom-up approach to data analytics will not help you reap the fruits you want. This is where most CFOs are getting it wrong. They embark on a data collection agenda without first identifying and defining the problem to be solved. Data management and analytics efforts should be tied back to strategy and the key drivers of the business.

Start by asking the right key performance questions. For example; Which components of our strategic decision making are currently not being supported by digital technologies? What is the worst that can happen to us should we fail to embrace data analytics? What is the best way to align internal and external data sources to strengthen analytics and insights? Which business functions or areas would benefit from digital technologies and newer analytical capabilities to support strategic decision making?

Asking more of these questions will help you recognize areas of the business that are problematic which in turn helps you to focus your analysis in these areas, identify critical drivers of value and provide fresh insights that support strategic decision making. The organization is then able to develop new capabilities and competences needed in relation to changing circumstances, environmental factors and trends and ultimately execute its strategy effectively.

What decision makers want from finance are real-time, reliable and actionable insights that help them make better decisions. In fact, valuable strategic decision support goes beyond calculating the profit and loss and then presenting the financial statements to C-Suite members and the board. The CFO has to be able to tell the full story behind the numbers, know how the organization arrived at those results and provide actionable recommendations from the analysis of the results.

The expectation now is for the CFO to wear many hats. IT, Procurement, Investor Relations, Risk Management, HR, Sustainability are now under the purview of the CFO in many organizations. However, I don’t think a CFO can be an expert in all of these areas at once. This therefore requires her/him to be surrounded by a great team since s(he) is only as good as the team that is behind him.

If the team performs well, the CFO performs well too. But for the team to perform well, training and development is important. Although the CFO remains accountable for overall performance of the function, when the finance team is talented and skilled (s)he will be confident enough to delegate certain tasks, free up enough time to partner with the business and contribute positively towards the achievement of strategic objectives.

Going forward, understanding the business across all lines, not just the financial aspects, and getting a holistic view of organizational performance will help CFOs play a crucial role in strategic decision support, close the gap between strategy formulation and execution and influence strategic performance.

A Practical Approach to Using Artificial Intelligence for CFOs – Part IV

Part IV Getting After It: Take the Next Step and Make Your Investment in AI

If you haven’t had a chance to read Part I – Leveraging AI in the CFO SuitePart II – The Benefits of AI and What You Will Need to Make It a Success and Part III Where to Invest in AI, How to Measure the Financial Impact and Select Projects yet, please do so before continuing on.

There are four major investments you’ll need to make to use AI successfully in your business.

1. Develop an AI Strategy: This investment is about learning how to apply AI to your activities and selecting your best course of action. Consider using outside experts to help augment your thinking in this area if you are just starting your AI journey.

  • The first step of strategy development includes learning about AI, determining how it will be applied to the CFO responsibility areas, assessing the value of AI application for those areas.
  • The second step is to gauge the data needs (availability, accuracy, volume) and the cost of “creating” data that can generate the output required. “Quality, effectiveness, efficiency and insight are the four key pillars that really make this valuable stuff…” according to Nick Frost, KPMG Audit Technical Lead Partner.¹ Watch for these characteristics in your data. If they aren’t present, be wary of how you use your final product.
  • Using the value noted in a. above and the cost determined in b. an AI Strategy targeting the areas where AI will have the most impact can be constructed.
  • Skill/System assessment and timeline. Determine where growth in skills and systems are needed. The scope of these needs will also help create the resources required and a timeline. From a risk perspective, consider starting small (high expected return, low initial investment) and allow for greater investment as success is realized.
  • Include a change management plan to assist employees and other stakeholders in understanding the strategy and the impact it will have on them.

2. AI Software Selection: The investment in software will include the cost of the software and the expenses of the internal and external team members working on the process.

  • Use your Strategic Plan to target AI vendors that serve the areas highest on your list.
  1. On premise or cloud solution
  2. Data storage costs
  3. Integration with current systems.
  • If AI is new to you stay small and focused on high return, bite-sized efforts you can learn from.
  • Use your network to validate claims made from vendors in terms of system results, implementation timeline and cost.
  • This investment will include the direct payments for the software and internal costs for the selection team to do their work.
  • Our “AI Capital Investment Analysis” tool will help you summarize and communicate your planned investment in AI.

3. Implementation to Operation: It is important to focus the cultural change required during this stage to create an environment that craves the new learning AI brings to the table. The combination of our team’s desire to use AI wisely and a sound AI system add up to success. If either is missing, there is a good chance your implementation will fail.

Here are the implementation steps:

  • Research and mitigate the risks related to the implementation and data management.
  • Train and hire the skills to manage the system and leverage the new capabilities created by the AI.
  • Identify and manage the risks that are likely to occur because of the implementation.
  • Procure and implement the technology that fits your strategy.
  • Monitor and adjust the AI inputs and outputs to create optimum value for the AI stakeholders.

4. Ongoing AI growth: Your AI strategy document is the road map that will be used to plan AI follow up. It is a living document that requires updating.

  • Manage the ongoing operating costs of the AI system
  • Implement AI applications per the Strategic Plan
  • Change the priorities in the Strategic Plan as necessary
  • Consider new applications (see 1 above)
  • Assess current operating AI systems for optimization annually.

Artificial Intelligence holds great promise for financial professionals. It’s a key ingredient to enhancing the business partnering momentum established in the new millennium. Creating our AI Strategy, securing the skills to choose, implementing and operating AI systems, and growing these capabilities are new challenges demanding the attention of the CFO. Developing more efficient and “smart” transaction systems while improving decision support activities are huge value drivers for businesses today. Our ability to harness the power of AI to these means will be a significant measure of our success.

We’d love to hear about your AI experience (email us at info@erpminsights.com)!

¹Eleanor O’Neill, “How is the accountancy and finance world using artificial intelligence?” CA Today, July 31, 2016

Achieving Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Today, businesses are operating in an intensely competitive environment. New products and markets are continuously being created disrupting the traditional offerings. To succeed in this environment, your business needs to shake up the status quo and avoid competing in exactly the same way as your rivals.

When it comes to competitive advantage in business, it is critical to understand that advantage over rivals is rooted in differences. Of course, no one has advantage at everything, but what is important is for the business leaders to be able to identify key asymmetries that are capable of being converted into superior advantages.

Is competitive advantage sustainable?

Your business has a competitive advantage if you’re able to produce products at a lower cost than can competitors, or deliver more perceived value than can competitors, or a mix of the two.

However, you need to understand that your product costs differ with the product and application. Your customers are geographically dispersed, have different knowledge, varying tastes and other characteristics. As a result of these subtleties, you will realize that most advantages will extend only so far.

Thus, many at times, the advantage is only on certain products and/or services and among only a specific group of customers. The group’s earning potential and desire for a unique shopping experience determines the level of value placed on your company’s products and/or services.

With customer behaviors constantly shifting, competing on price alone is no longer sufficient. Today’s customers are looking far beyond lower prices, they want value for money and an unforgettable user experience. In many industries, technology has reduced or removed market entry costs and other barriers.

Your business might be able to achieve cost leadership but how is this reflecting on your margins? Take IKEA for example, one might argue that they are doing well with a cost leadership strategy. Fair enough. But if you look closer, the company has managed to combine all three of Michael Porter’s generic strategies to deliver its value proposition and unique customer shopping experiences.

These capabilities have been honed and improved on by IKEA over the years and are very difficult for a small start-up to copy as is. A small start-up lacks the investments needed to develop the market and capabilities to achieve efficient processing and economies of scale, thus preventing him from achieving equivalent costs.

Just as in IKEA’s example above, for your competitive advantage to be sustainable, your competitors must not be in a position to easily duplicate it, or they must not be able to duplicate the resources underlying it. This kind of unique offer demands your high level creativity and the ability to imagine differences that are possible and even those that are not currently possible.

These differences must not only be unique to your own eyes, but must also be valued by the customer enough to pay for that difference.

Some differences are not attractive enough to justify the additional cost of delivering them. Instead of being appreciated by the marketplace, they are viewed a negative attribute of the offering. In long run, the company ends up losing stupendous amounts of money because it is now trying to change the minds of customers, with no certainty of success.

Isolating Mechanisms

The concept of “Isolating Mechanisms” is borrowed from biology and describes the reproductive characteristics which prevents species from fusing. Applied to business strategy, this describes unique characteristics that prevent competitors from entering your marketplace and dethroning you.

Possessing these characteristics is key to sustaining your competitive advantage. Examples of isolating mechanisms include reputations, brand names, commercial and social relationships, tacit knowledge, network effects, skills gained through knowledge, significant economies of scale and complementary services.

Isolating mechanisms enable us to shift our focus from competing on price alone and find unique ways of increasing value. Today’s competition is very intense, and by providing more value to our customers we avoid being commodities.

How do we create value?

Having an edge over customers is not the same as achieving higher profitability. Think of Uber, the ride-sharing company. The company disrupted the taxi industry with its advanced technology and applications, making a name for itself. However, although the company has been taking in more revenues, it has also been losing money like crazy.

The relationship between wealth and competitive advantage is dynamic. In other words, wealth increases when competitive advantage increases or when the demand for the resources underlying it increases. That’s why it is critical to understand all the sources of your competitive advantage.

How many times have you come across statements that read, “We are the best in the world, We are the leaders, We are number one.” If you’re one of the organizations using these rhetoric, can you easily back your statements with facts? It is one thing to say you will be the best in the world in a certain industry, it’s quite another to explain how this is reflected in costs, differentiation and focus.

It is therefore important that your strategy clearly articulates how your overall intentions are translated into competitive advantage. Advantage over rivals only becomes more valuable if the number of customers grows and/or the quantity demanded by each customer also grows.

Increased demand will lead to an improvement in long-term profits only if the business is in possession of scarce resources that enable it to create a sustainable advantage.

1. Continuously Improve

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. We are living in an ever-changing world where change is no longer a nice-to-have but a must. There is no guarantee that your current value proposition will continue to deliver stellar performance.

You therefore need to deepen your advantage and widen the gap between your customer’s value and cost. Many businesses are comfortable with the status quo and the way things are currently being done. The assumption is that everyone knows what they are doing. This is a very dangerous way of running the business.

Time and again, you must re-examine each aspect of your products, processes and details of how value is delivered, not just from cost controls or incentives (financial) point of view but also from the stakeholder (non-financial) point of view.

Are you carefully studying their attitudes, decisions and feelings?How strong are the isolating mechanisms surrounding key value delivery methods?

Having answers to the above questions will help you anticipate and prepare for problems before they occur.

2. Broaden the extent of advantage 

There is always a part of the market that is currently not being served and needs exploiting. Sometimes, in order to create value you don’t have to compete in exactly the same market as your current competitors.

Extending an existing competitive advantage brings your company into new fields and new competitors. What are the special skills and resources that are underlying your current advantage? Can you build on these existing strengths?

The challenge for many leaders is that when looking at their company’s capabilities, they do so only at face value or generalizations. The real danger in this is that they end up diversifying into products, markets and processes they know nothing about, or have limited knowledge of. After venturing into these new avenues and performing dismally, they wonder why this is the case.

To successfully extend your advantage, you need adequate knowledge and know-how of your new territories. Failure to have this important information at your disposal is a recipe for disastrous consequences.

You should not expect to take existing products to non-traditional customers, or create new products for existing customers, or create new products for new customers and expect overnight success if you have not first done your homework and defined the value proposition all these customers are seeking.

3. Strengthen your isolating mechanisms 

As mentioned earlier on, isolating mechanisms prevent rivals from replicating your products or service offerings, or the resources driving your advantage.

Now that you have identified and defined characteristics that are essential for your business to increase value and succeed, you need not rest on your laurels, but rather, create new ones and/or strengthen existing ones. The aim is to have as much little imitative competition as possible and have increased value flow to your business.

Depending on the nature of your business and industry, you need to locate that set of competitive advantages that allows you first to survive and then to thrive. For instance, in tech-related industries, having stronger patents, brand-name protections and copyrights works best. In other industries where the collective knowledge of groups drives performance, strengthening this isolating mechanism depends on turnover rates.

Another broad approach to strengthening isolating mechanisms is to have a moving target for imitators. This approach ensures you are always steps ahead of your competitors. By the time your rivals figure out how to replicate much of your proprietary know-how and other specialized resources it would be too late for them.

Continuously improving your products, services, processes, systems, proprietary knowledge etc. makes it very difficult for rivals to imitate and catch up with you.

Remember, no one has advantage at everything. Chances are that your rivals are already trying to differentiate and are doing it better. Don’t lose heart. As the old saying reads, “Do not put all your eggs in one basket.” That is, do not be over reliant on any one attempt to gain a single competitive advantage.

Press where you have advantages, side-step situations in which you do not have and exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and avoid leading with your own. Obstacles will always be there but you need to be adaptable so that you can react to setbacks without losing your business. It is all about where to play and how to win.

How CFOs Can Play a Greater Role in Strategy Setting & Execution

These days there is a lot of talk about the transformation of the finance organization from being a traditional back-office function to playing a more strategic advisory role. The CFO is being touted as the CEO’s wingman responsible for helping him/her execute the company’s strategy and improve performance. Once regarded as the bean-counter of the organization, finance is being demanded to partner with operations and sales and help grow the beans.

Despite the transformation of the finance organization’s role over the years, can we certainly say that CFOs and finance executives have successfully embraced their new strategic advisory role? Are they delivering reliable advice and information for the company CEO and the Board to act on? Can the CEO confidently vouch for the CFO and his abilities in helping shape and drive the company’s future direction?

Unfortunately, although progress has been made in reshaping the finance organization, there is still more room for improvement. Various research findings have revealed what many finance professionals do not like to hear – CFOs in the majority of organizations are not providing enough strategic counsel to the CEO. In these organizations, the focus is still on cost control and accurate financial reporting. There is minimal provision of forward-looking information to support decision making. The desire by the CFO to provide strategic input to board-level decision making is there, but constant unnecessary fires that need putting out are consuming much of the CFO’s energy, resources and time.

There is no doubt that the modern business environment requires the organization’s CFO to be strategic in nature. With disruptive changes taking place everywhere at unprecedented levels, it is the responsibility of the CFO and his team to protect the organization against the threats, harness the opportunities and strengthen the organization’s competitiveness. This means moving beyond cost management and wearing the new strategic hat of the business. Unless the CFO and the other finance executives transform, partner with the business and facilitate meaningful strategic conversations, finance business partnering will remain a far-fetched reality for many.

What then should CFOs do to command a seat around the strategy table?

Know Their Organizations Inside Out

Many finance professionals have a narrower view of the organization. All they know are the numbers and that is it. Ask them to articulate to you their company’s mission, vision and strategy, you will be fortunate enough to get a good answer. In order to play a strategic advisory role to the CEO and the Board, CFOs must have a clearer understanding and knowledge of what the organization stands for. They need to know where the organization is coming from, the direction it is heading, what the constraints as well as a deeper understanding of its differentiating capabilities.

In today’s technological and information age, CEOs are looking for real-time insights to help them make better decisions. In order to make these decisions, they need to have accurate information on the drivers of the business (both internal and external). Thus, it is imperative for finance to know what is driving the numbers to enable the finance team tell a better story of the organization’s strategic performance. Knowing the numbers alone is not good enough. You need to have a bigger picture, knowledge and an understanding of how the different functions of the organization collaborate together to ensure successful execution of the strategy.

Adapt to The Changing Environment & Provide Reliable Insights

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the norm these days. These factors alone are disrupting business models and causing company strategies to quickly become obsolete. Strategies that might have helped you to achieve higher performance in the past are no longer sufficient to sustain that performance. The risk landscape is rapidly evolving and the number of risks influencing enterprise performance are also sky-rocketing..

CFOs and management teams therefore need to be on the guard against the disruptive forces threatening the existence of their businesses. Achieving this success means a continuous scanning of the playing field to identify and evaluate possible threats and opportunities. In this environment, it is therefore critical for finance to improve its Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) capabilities and provide reliable actionable insights to improve strategic decision making. For example, the function must be able to model various scenarios and their outcomes and evaluate their respective impact on the overall strategy of the organization. In doing so, there is need to consider all sources of data, its reliability, relevance and accuracy.

Embrace Modern Technologies

Technology and digital transformations are also constantly evolving. With these new innovations comes both risks and opportunities. As a CFO you should be asking yourself – Which technologies can the organization embrace to optimize processes and drive performance? Is our organization’s performance management framework integrated enough to support decision making.

These days technology is acting as an enabler to drive strategic execution and performance. Yes you might have standardized your processes, data management systems and implemented a cloud-based solution, but think of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Advanced Analytics, Cognitive Computing, Machine Learning, E-Commerce, and Internet of Things (IoT). What impact do these technologies have now, and in the future on your business model? Do they threaten to force your business out of existence or sustain and enhance it?

The CFO needs to partner with the CIO/CTO and establish how the information strategy fits into the bigger picture. Which areas of the business should leverage technology to drive innovation and strategic success? Since CFOs in most organizations have taken over the responsibility of IT investments, the CFO must be conversant in IT language, and be able to clearly communicate the benefits accrued to the organization from investing in any one of these new technologies. He or she must also be able to lead the conversation around the table and secure buy-in from the CEO and other senior executives.

Turn Threats into Opportunities

CFOs and finance executives are known to say no to majority of company investments which in most cases causes them to be at loggerheads with their CEOs. Many finance professionals are trained to identify risks and everything capable of going wrong which often blinds them to the bigger picture. There is nothing wrong with identifying risks but what is important is for the CFO to avoid constantly saying no to strategic investments.

Instead of only seeing the threats and keeping the company purse closed, the CFO must also be able to identify the upside of the risks. They should help the CEO take a calculated risk that is within the risk tolerance and appetite levels of the organization. In order to advance in today’s business climate, successful execution of certain strategies requires the organization to develop a certain degree of risk appetite, otherwise the organization should not expect to make great leaps forward if it is always risk averse.

What else do you think CFOs should do to be successful strategic advisers to the CEO?

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