Driving Profitability Through Enhanced Expense Management Policies

I don’t know of any private or publicly listed organization that is in business only to break-even. Among others, the main goal for these entities is to deliver a profitable return to the owners of the business. This desire to make profit with the least resources inherently makes cost management across the business a strategic imperative.

As strategic business partners, finance teams are suitably positioned to help their organizations manage costs and focus spending only on those activities and/or initiatives that enable business performance.

In my experience of working with diverse organizations and business leaders, I have come to the realization that quite a number of them lack a precise understanding of what “cost management” really involves. There is a common perception that managing costs is all about cutting costs or merely a matter of buying fewer goods and services. This is seldom true.

Cost management is not simply a euphemism for “cost cutting”. The discipline is about understanding the true cost drivers of the business and ensuring that a company acquires only goods and services that it needs to execute its strategic priorities at a known and managed cost. One of the areas I see organizations often struggle with is identifying those activities, processes and investments responsible for rising cost levels.

Because of this misunderstanding of the real cost drivers, many companies end up taking the obvious route of cost control: they reduce payroll-related expenses, cut direct costs and capital expenditures. Rarely do companies focus their attention on improving indirect expense management to drive savings and boost profitability with the same resources.

Inadequate Spending Information Acting as a Barrier Against Savings Delivery

In today’s digital-enabled business environment the ability of an organization to consolidate and analyze its indirect spending patterns is key to acquiring crucial insights essential to pursue better deals with vendors. Simply having information is not enough. What golden nuggets are you harvesting from this sea of information and you are able to use them as sources of leverage when dealing directly with suppliers?

Unfortunately, in my dealings with diverse finance teams, many of them are not analyzing their organization’s spending data and are therefore losing out on achieving substantial cost savings. One of the reasons often given by these teams on why they are not able to do so is lack of time and resources needed to analyze spending data and recognize the benefits. A significant amount of their time is spent on balancing the books and justifying the numbers.

I was surprised with the manner in which procurement reports are generated and delivered in one of the companies I recently worked with. Their procurement processes are still highly manual, all invoices are stored in lever arch files and there is no spend visibility across the organization. Each business function records its own spending and there is no overall aggregation of this spending information.

As a result of these highly manual processes, it is seemingly impossible for the finance manager to obtain a clearer picture of how much is being spent on each vendor and on what, say per month, quarter, half-yearly or yearly. Technology and e-procurement systems have evolved and because of these advancements CFOs and their organizations can gather this procurement information in an accessible, easy-to-use format and in real-time.

Lack of financial resources should therefore not be given as an excuse, there are now cheaper tools that an organization can invest in and achieve its spend analytics ambitions and these SaaS and/or cloud-based solutions do not require huge initial capital outlays.

When you have ready access to information and are able to analyze your company’s’ major spending categories, you will be able prioritize the use of your scarce time and resources, consolidate spending with selected vendors, negotiate better terms and realize substantial benefits.

Close Scrutiny of Discretionary Spending

Many at times I have heard people say in order to make money you have to spend money. As much as we would like to accept this statement in its entirety and pay attention to the advice, I think we should heed the advice with a pinch of salt. Not all spending is necessary. In addition to direct expenditures which are linked directly to the goods and services a company is producing or providing there will always be discretionary expenditures not tied to business performance.

However, uncontrolled spending simply for the sake of spending often leads to depleted margins and cash woes. Am I therefore advocating against discretionary spending? No. Responding to business opportunities often calls for flexibility and judgement. There are times where the organization has to leverage its cash position, take advantage of emerging opportunities to enhance its competitive position and improve productivity.

Close scrutiny of discretionary spending on things that are perhaps nice to have, but not enabling business performance is therefore critical. Finance business partners can help instill spending discipline and good judgement across the enterprise by educating employees on the How, What and Where of spending carefully as well as setting up spending policies to encourage productivity and enhanced performance.

Spending policies play a significant role in directing employee behaviour and generating useful information on what goods and services are purchased, how and where. For example, they help an organization drive savings through documenting and substantiating purchases, discouraging excessive acquisitions and prescribing exactly where and how employees may procure items.

Any off-policy spending patterns are quickly identified and addressed. However, in implementing these spending policies care must be taken that a right balance between control and latitude is struck. You want your employees to have a sense of empowerment and responsibility.

In other words, the company’s spending policies should not be viewed as punitive measures, but rather, allow employees the appropriate degree of flexibility, and nothing extra. This fosters compliance.

The Effectiveness of Any Spending Policy Rests on Its Widespread Adoption

Implementing the right spending policies is only part of the equation. In order for policies to be effective, employees must comply with them. In most cases you will realize that an organization has well-defined policies on spending, the finance executive is leading the pack garnering support for its enterprise-wide adoption and yet despite all his efforts the positive message falls on deaf ears.

Compliance often falls short and as a result the organization fails to achieve the intended benefits. As with almost every other aspect of everyday running of the business, senior management support is central to the success of any organizations’ spending policies. Senior management determines company culture and sets the tone for employee behaviour.

No matter how hard the finance executive tries to convert the positive message of disciplined spending, if the other senior leaders are failing to set a good example then we shouldn’t be surprised to see significant low levels of employee compliance.

Many organizations often suffer from a lack of consistent approach when implementing and upholding spending policies. For instance, you will find out that there is a clear prescription of the exact steps to follow when dealing with employee expense reimbursements. By default, the approach should be the same across the enterprise but then you start noticing some employees getting reimbursed for expenses that other employees are not.

Moreover, the senior manager approves the reimbursement of an expense without seeing the backing documentation even though the policy clearly specifies that a physical receipt or invoice must support the expense claim. This inconsistency sets a bad precedence resulting in finger-pointing as well as favoritism gestures. Rather, management should take the lead by enforcing policies uniformly throughout the employee hierarchy, and by demonstrating good compliance behaviour.

Furthermore, in order to ensure effective compliance, senior management should also communicate policies effectively as well as the business rationale and the more tangible benefits that the new spending policy would provide. Employees need to know what policies they will be held accountable for and why they are being held accountable.

I don’t believe there is an employee acting in their normal capacity who would join an organization just to do wrong. Employees, generally want to do the right thing and what a better way to support this ambition other than explaining to them all the nitty-gritty of the company’s spending policies.

Ideally, once the policies are enforced it is a good idea to regularly provide employees with feedback on their performance, the benefits that are being realized as a result of the policy changes and offer rewards where necessary. Following this approach bolsters the rationale for making the decisions and gives employees an interest in the company’s performance as well as a greater incentive to do well.

As finance executives step up to an expanded, more strategic role and seek to drive profitability across their organizations, it’s critical that they establish efficient and effective means to provide employees with the right tools, processes and structures they need to successfully perform their jobs without opening the door to spendthrift behaviour, poor controls, and irregular expenditures.

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Finance Analytics: It’s Not About the Size of The Data

As the need to make impactful operational and strategic decisions in real time increases, CFOs are playing a greater role in the adoption and integration of data analytics in their organizations to support data-driven decision making.

Executives and business unit leaders are increasingly relying on insights produced by Finance to better understand enterprise performance. That is, what has happened, why it has happened, what is most likely to happen in the future, and the appropriate course of action to take.

In an era where data is proliferating in volume and variety, decision makers have realized it’s no longer enough to base key enterprise performance and risk decisions on experience and intuition alone.

Rather, this must be combined with a facts-based approach. Which means CFOs must set up modernized reporting and analytics capabilities with one of the main goals being the use of data as a tool for business decision making.

Appropriately analyzed and interpreted, data always has a story, and there’s always something to discover from it. However, many finance functions are failing to deliver value from their existing data analytics capabilities.

There is a misconception that to deliver actionable insights, the function needs more data for analysis. As a result, the supply of data keeps rising, while the ability to use it to generate informed insights lags badly.

Yet it’s not about the size of the data. It’s about translating available data and making it understandable and useful.

In other words, it’s about context and understanding that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Finance leaders should connect the dots in ways that produce valuable insights or discoveries, and determine for example:

  • What is being measured, why, and how is it measured?
  • How extensive the exploration for such discoveries was?
  • How many additional factors were also reviewed for a correlation?

Further, to use data intelligently and influence better decision making, CFOs and their teams should recognize that most enterprise data is accumulated not to serve analytics, but as the by-product of routine tasks and activities.

Consider customer online and offline purchases data. Social media posts. Logs of customer communications for billing and other transactional purposes.

Such data is not produced for the purpose of prediction yet when analyzed, this data can reveal valuable insights that can be translated into action which delivers measurable benefits.

Often the company already has the data that it needs to answer its critical business performance questions, but little of it is being aggregated, cleaned, analyzed, and linked to decision making activities in a coherent way.

Exacerbating the issue is the mere fact that the company has a mishmash of incompatible computer systems and data formats added over the years ultimately making it difficult to perform granular analysis at a product, supplier, geographic, customer, and channel level, and many other variables.

There is nothing grand about data itself. What matters most is how you are handling the flood of data your systems are collecting daily. Yes, data can always be accumulated but as a finance leader:

  • Are you taking time to dig down into the data and observing patterns?
  • Are the observed patterns significant to altering the strategic direction of the organization?
  • Are you measuring what you really want to know, what matters for the success of the business?
  • Or you are just measuring what is easy to measure rather than what is most relevant?

CFOs do not need more data. What they need right now is the ability to aggregate, clean and analyze the existing data sitting in the company’s computer systems and understand what story it is telling them.

Before they can focus on prediction, they first need to observe what is happening and why. Bear in mind correlation does not imply causation.

Yes, you might have discovered a predictive relationship between X and Y but this does not mean one causes the other, not even indirectly.

For instance, employee training hours and sales revenue. Just because there is a high correlation between the two does not mean increase in training hours is causing a corresponding increase in sales revenue. A third variable might be driving the revenue the increase.

Jumping to conclusions too soon about causality for a correlation observed in data can lead to bad decisions and far-reaching consequences, hence finance leaders should validate whether an observed trend is real rather than misleading noise before providing any causal explanation.

Certainly, big data can be a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Not all data is created equal, or evenly valuable. There are situations where big data sets play a pivotal role, and others where small, rich data sets trump big data sets.

Before they decide to collect more data, CFOs should always remember data is comparable to an unexploited resource.

Even though data is now considered an important strategic asset for the organization, raw data is like oil that has been drilled and pulled out of the ground but not yet refined to its finer version of kerosene and gasoline.

The data oil has not yet been converted into insights that can be translated into action to cut costs, boost revenues, streamline operations, and guide the company’s strategic direction.

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Doing The Right Thing For Too Long

Markets and business models are shifting, and so should you keep up with these market changes if your business is to survive and succeed. Compared with the past, the current era of digitization represents an inflection point.

Consider individual trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Big Data, cybersecurity threats, drones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, blockchain technologies, and more.

These new technologies have significantly changed the way we connect and interact as individuals, including how businesses deliver products and services to their customers.

Reinventing your business will determine whether you succeed or fail in the digital age. As the saying goes, disrupt or be disrupted. No company, business, or industry is safe from disruption. Today, individual businesses have the potential to compete against multinational companies and win.

These businesses are quick to anticipate market changes and flexible to get ahead of the curve. Sadly, many companies are blinded by their successes and aren’t willing to disrupt themselves. They are not experiencing their desired growth trajectory because they are stuck doing the right thing for too long.

Don’t get comfortable with the status quo and allow your business to get stuck on a strategy and mindset that no longer fit the market.

Here are a few questions to ponder, the answers to which will determine the future of your business:

  • What is at the core of your strategy?
  • Are you in touch with the customers you want to serve? When customers give you negative feedback, how often do you listen and act on it?
  • Are you operating your business on the premise that you know what is best for your customers therefore they are supposed to buy whatever product or service you offer them?
  • Are you keeping up with market shifts or you only know how to grow under one set of conditions or products and services, but not how to survive and strive under another?
  • How robust and flexible is your IT infrastructure to help you innovate, perform your company’s Jobs To Be Done, and scale your business?
  • Are you creating a strong culture that is focused on customers, including a culture that not only embraces change but seeks it out?

Given our world is changing faster, it’s imperative to continuously look for signs that things are changing and think about how those shifts would play out in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term, not forgetting the impact on the execution of your strategy and enterprise performance.

The signs can reveal individually. At times, they are part of a wider trend.

Nonetheless, how you adapt will determine whether you succeed or fail. Keep learning. Learn about innovations in your industry and beyond. Try out new business models and technologies and embrace a philosophy of constant change.

Once you understand how the market is changing and evolving, you can develop the right product or service and strategy that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

We often talk of the ability to “connect the dots” and “take a helicopter view of the business” as key ingredients for success. But how often are business leaders and their teams doing this?

Across the organization, a culture of “them versus us” prevails. Important decisions are made at a functional level with little or no consideration of their impact at the enterprise level.

Having the ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is essential for determining the right path or course of action to pursue.

So, how do you spot market transitions and develop a clear sense of where the market is going?

  • Be curious and hungry for new ideas. Continuously ask tons of key performance questions and pay attention to what’s around you.
  • From time to time, challenge conventional wisdom. It’s easy to stick with what you know about your business model, customers, competitors, markets, or industry but dare to pivot when conditions change.
  • Don’t be nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what you’ve built in the present. Always be curious about the future and develop a willingness to take calculated risks.
  • Ask existing and would-be customers how they feel about your company’s products, services, and strategy. Instead of turning to sources that reinforce your existing point of view, seek multiple perspectives and cross-reference them as new facts come in.
  • Develop an ability to handle multiple random data points at once. This will help you generate critical market, customer, and business performance insights and make smarter, informed decisions. Be careful to distinguish between the signal and the noise since data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “confirmation” that protects your business model.

Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on.

  • Look for patterns and abnormalities that might suggest something is going on, including any interdependencies.
  • Anticipate all the various scenarios of what could happen.
  • Plan your course of action in response to what’s happening in real time.

As the signals of a market shift increase, the need to act becomes more imperative. Note, monitoring and identifying market shifts, and effectively taking the appropriate course of action is a matter of timing.

If you continue doing the right thing for too long and lack the boldness to disrupt both the market and your own organization, you risk being disrupted and left behind. There is no company that is too big to fail. Neither is there a startup that is too small to succeed.

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How Feasible Are Your Strategic Objectives?

Every organization sets out its goals and objectives, to accomplish its mission and vision. The two often seem like two interchangeable phrases but there is a distinction.

A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and vague. An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal.

It is every leader’s job to create a coherent set of feasible objectives or what Richard Rumelt calls proximate objectives. Objectives that define targets the organization is fairly expected to achieve, even overwhelm.

This is essential for ensuring energy and resources are focused on one, or a very few, critical objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of positive outcomes.

An effective strategy defines a critical challenge or opportunity and clearly articulates how the organization is going to play to win or perform customers’ Jobs to Be Done.

Thus, the objectives an effective strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.

On the contrary, a bad strategy results in the setting of bad strategic objectives.

Long lists of “things to be done,” are often labeled wrongly as strategies or objectives. Or the desired outcome is simply rehashed with no explanation of how this will be accomplished.

It doesn’t matter how well-thought your strategy is in response to an identified challenge or opportunity. If the resultant strategic objectives are merely a list of things to do, or just as difficult to achieve as the identified key challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.

In today’s highly competitive, uncertain, dynamic, and complex environment in which a leader’s ability to look further ahead is diminished, it is better to focus on a few pivotal items through taking strong positions, creating options, and building advantage.

First identify the key challenges or opportunities for the business. Look very closely at the changes happening within your business, where you might get an added advantage over competition.

Next, create a list of the issues, including the actions your company should take.

Then, trim the original list to a noticeably short list of pivotal issues and proximate objectives by identifying one or two feasible objective(s), when achieved, would make the biggest difference. Remember, the identified objectives should be more like tasks and less like goals.

Now, focus on the objectives by channeling skills and available resources to accomplish the overall goal.

Once accomplished, new opportunities will open up resulting in the creation of more ambitious objectives. This cycle will help you develop a system that enables the setting of feasible strategic objectives.

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