About seven years ago, Raju Venkataraman, FCMA, CGMA, was working as the CFO of The Walt Disney Company in Southeast Asia.
One of the company divisions, the Disney Interactive Media Group, was trying to incubate a new venture: video games for mobile devices in this region. But the business team and finance team were running into frustrating inaccuracies with their financial forecasts for the new games, and sometimes even on the reporting of actuals.
“The forecasts and the actuals would not match at all,” said Venkataraman, now a consultant and leadership coach in Singapore. “We, in finance, did not have an understanding of what factors [and] drivers they took into account in saying this game will generate so much revenue in the first month, so much in the second month … We would not know how to explain it; they would not be able to explain it.”
Seeing the disconnect, Venkataraman suggested to his finance team member: “Let’s partner with the business team.”
As the two teams investigated the assumptions built into the forecasts, the finance team began to see the problem. The financial forecasts weren’t strongly linked to data from the games themselves, and the finance team did not know how to extract relevant information from the system.
Venkataraman encouraged his team to partner with the business counterparts to start extracting more useful information. “ ‘Be relatable. Be willing to learn. Spend time with the business guys,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘Learn how to tap into the system. Let’s learn how to pull data from that.’ ”
The teams started building a bridge from the games’ performance software to the company’s financial data systems. Soon enough, the finance team got to grips with this and was able to start regularly extracting real-time information about each game’s daily population of users, for example, and the amount of money that each user was spending in the games’ virtual stores.
“We fed that all into the system, and we could do better forecasting,” Venkataraman said. “And this improved the rapport of finance with the business counterparts, reduced frustration, and increased their trust in us.”
It’s an example, he said, of how finance can use technology to improve its partnerships with business counterparts and help drive better decisions in an effort to deliver better results for the company.
Other experts in the field agree. They describe a growing opportunity — and expectation — that finance will not just track transactions but will also support strategic decisions about the business itself — and that they’ll use the latest technology to do it.
“I’m watching finance transform completely,” said Sanjay Sehgal, a US-based KPMG partner working on clients’ finance transformation. “It’s more technology-enabled, heavier on data and analytics, heavier on innovative thinking.”
The demand for tech transformations of finance has accelerated amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, inflation, and the threat of a recession, said Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the executive vice-president–Business Engagement and Growth at AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.
“Suddenly, the businesses were vulnerable, and they had to constantly ask, ‘What [does] this look like ahead of us?’ ” he said.
Answering that question, he said, is going to require a finance function that has the talent and resources to utilise technology in its business partnerships.
“We call this a defining moment for finance and accounting. It’s now the moment for CFOs to really rise to that value partner role,” Hood added.
Here’s how to ensure your team is ready for a tech-based approach to business partnering.
Choose a goal
There is no technological “magic wand” for business partnering — no single product that will help every effort. Instead, Venkataraman suggested starting with an overall goal.
“With so many technologies emerging, choosing where to begin can be a big challenge,” he said.
He suggested a few broad frameworks. For example, if the goal is to reduce enterprise risk, finance might look broadly at improving data security, data quality, and the accuracy of its forecasts.
If the company wants to improve decision-making, then the focus might be to “get the right information to the right people in a timely fashion”, especially through dashboards, self-serve software, and automated reports.
If the goal is to increase overall innovation, finance might help to tap new sources of data, especially unstructured data, such as comments on social media or in emails.
Those ideas cover a wide range of technology, from machine learning to data visualisation. The key is not for finance to master each one, but to understand their breadth.
“You don’t need to know the ins and outs. You need to know the extent of capabilities that technology affords you,” Venkataraman said. “As long as you know the capabilities that technology can afford you, then you can marry your requirements with that.”
Embrace efficiency and automation
Finance can’t be a good business partner if it doesn’t have its own house in order.
“You can’t forecast off of books that aren’t accurate and reliable,” Hood said. “I would start with closing your books as fast as you can, and beginning to immediately divert your team to analysing what those numbers mean.”
Venkataraman agreed, saying: “The finance team — they’re often being asked to do more with less.” By embracing automation, “the time that you [save] can be used for adding value to the business — by playing more of the strategist and the catalyst role.”
That might include implementing new tools for robotic process automation and machine learning — but those capabilities also are being added to larger enterprise risk management (ERM) platforms. With the pace of technological change, nearly complete automation seems inevitable, Sehgal said.
“If we can have driverless cars, why can’t we have a touchless close process? Why can’t we have a touchless forecasting process?” he asked.
Know your audience
Technology can boost finance’s mission to share information and support decision-making in other parts of the business. But success still depends on relationships within the business.
UK-based Marta Weglinska, FCMA, CGMA, is the finance and strategy manager for Liberty Powder Metals, which is producing powder metals for 3D printing technology. It’s a spinoff of a much larger steel company in the UK.
Designing a brand-new financial information architecture for the startup is a daunting task, so she has drawn on her experience in business partnering at the larger company, TATA Steel. She recalls previously working with a team of about ten people to assess the needs of partners across the company for a new self-service spend report for all TATA sites.
“During the design stage, we talked to each other, we talked to IT experts, and we talked to selected people within our own business units. You have to understand, ‘What does the end user really need?’ ” she said. That kind of research ensured that the new cloud-based report didn’t overwhelm its intended audience with excessive information.
“The more time you spend in this initial phase, the better the later phase will be,” she said.
Now, she’s applying those same lessons to her new job. She’s currently working to draw together disparate streams of data, especially from the manufacturing floor, so the company can understand how its production of metal powders meets up with forecasted demand and financial assumptions.
Keep it in the cloud
Cloud-based tech is a natural fit for business partnering. By choosing tools that live on the cloud, finance prepares for future connections and collaboration.
“Cloud equals collaboration,” Hood said. “If you have cloud, you can collaborate across your business and inside of your business.”
Another benefit of cloud platforms is the relative ease of integrating different applications. Various applications can now be “knit together”, even if they’re offered by different developers, Sehgal said.
But the constant migration of data also brings risks, Weglinska said. Finance has to ensure that each application and repository is storing and sharing data in a uniform way rather than relying on bespoke transformations at each stage.
“It’s about preparing the data before the migration, making sure it’s the same quality data as the one that we want to keep,” she said. She suggests using simpler tools like Excel to create prototype reports and databases, ensuring you understand the scope of needs before committing to code.
The transition to cloud software brings other new responsibilities for finance, too. Because they are often simpler to operate, the oversight of cloud applications may fall more directly on finance rather than IT.
“You see finance owning more tech solutions,” Sehgal said. “Finance doesn’t want to take [it] over. That’s not the goal. But the way the world is changing, you say, ‘Where do I need to build my skillsets?’ That affects training. That affects recruiting.”
Create a collaboration culture with communication tools
The use of digital communication and collaboration apps like Slack, Teams, Zoom, and the Google suite are now the baseline. But there’s still room to improve how they’re used in business partnerships, Hood said.
Often, these platforms have hidden features that can improve workflow. For example, meeting platforms can record and automatically transcribe meetings. Those transcripts can be catalogued for future reference, making a handy record that keeps all partners on the same page.
The basic apps are “exponentially growing in functionality”, Hood said. “If you haven’t started, dip in a little bit more.”
But it’s not just the apps themselves — it’s how you use them. Hood suggested setting guidelines for digital collaboration. For example, in an app like Slack, leaders should think about how to organise channels in a way that makes it easy for people to find relevant discussions.
“What kind of channel hierarchy do I want, to make that information findable?” he said. Employees can also use the “pinning” function to highlight important documents or messages, and they can tag documents with common search terms and hyperlinks to ensure that others have multiple ways to find needed information.
“Those are huge things that are really, really low cost,” Hood said. “That’s how you free up time.”
Build the skills
All this raises a question: Does finance currently have the talent to take on new roles in tech and business partnering?
Many teams aren’t ready, Hood said. As demand for partnership and forecasting has spiked, CFOs’ team members “were still busy trying to close the books, keep the numbers right — and many of them did not have the skills to rise up and help their CFOs”, he said.
Some of these skills can be developed in house. Hood suggested “reverse mentoring” with tech-savvy young employees sharing their ideas and advice with senior members.
Finance also can recruit for specific skills, of course. Many companies have even created new job titles: finance transformation leader, tech leader, digital leader, digital enablement officer.
But the fact is that the profession is in heated competition for talent with the tech sector, which has been hiring in huge numbers and at high salaries. To build the right team, Sehgal said, finance has to create a vision of its tech-and partnership-based future.
“We need to paint a vision for finance. We need to think about diversity of thinking,” Sehgal said. “We need to think about the tools and technologies.”
The key, Venkataraman said, is to think big, but start small and learn fast.
Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.
Finance Business Partnering: Influence to Impact
Acquire essential problem-solving skills that can positively affect all areas of the business; learn how to leverage analytics tools and techniques to aid decision-making; and become accomplished in presenting and influencing key business decision-makers.
Covers partnering both within and outside of finance, including thoughts on changing CFO priorities in the digital age, synergies between strategy and partnering, a proven partnering framework, and practical tools and techniques.