Implementing business partnering
Implementing business partnering is tough. Almost half (45%) of businesses in Belgium struggle with this, according to executives surveyed for this report. Difficulties in finding the right candidate are cited by more than a quarter (28%) of Belgian executives as the main barrier for effective business partnering, closely followed by insufficient support from senior management (27%) and insufficient resources (26%).
Although skills shortages are a major part of the problem, companies also face specific organisational, cultural and leadership challenges. Routine transactional work can still take up valuable time that could otherwise be spent on more value-added partnering. Many finance departments are still geared to number-crunching activities. Others struggle with inadequate technology. And some are constantly consumed with fire-fighting.
The burden on the finance function has been partially lifted by shared services, which take on many of the department’s routine tasks. More needs to happen here. When asked about the top three organisational changes that would be most important to enable business partnering to flourish in their organisation, the largest number of respondents answered the establishment, or increased use of, shared service centres (22%). These can be used to handle commoditised finance tasks, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable or payroll, removing this burden from core finance staff and enabling them to concentrate on more value-adding activities.
Sending the right messages
Change is never easy, and internal resistance to partnering can be strong. Nineteen per cent of Belgian respondents said that it would need greater support from senior management and 17% mentioned the need for greater acceptance of partnering in the organisation in order to be successful. These results underline the importance of communication and persuasion, especially from senior management. Yet few firms do a good job of highlighting the positive benefits of partnering. Only 2% of Belgian respondents said they were ‘very satisfied’ with the way their organisation articulated the benefits of partnering to managers, thereby highlighting the need for ongoing communication in this context.
Clearly, better communication is crucial. “If finance business partnering isn’t positioned as actually making a difference to the business, whether that’s improving the quality of decision-making or optimising business performance, then it’s very difficult to really sell the value of business partnering to the broader business,” says AstraZeneca’s Mr Rourke. Nathalie de Wachter, a regional finance director at the same company, advises that “it’s important to make it very clear what you expect not just from key business partners, but also from business leaders”. She adds: “We have developed communication material to support this, and we have established a network of finance business partner champions in various parts of the business to really drive our business-partnering vision forward.”
Greater clarity in accountability would help. Poor role and skills definition can result in blurred boundaries, duplicated activity and poor service. Few companies, for example, approach their internal business-partnering activities with the same rigour as when setting up the relevant service level agreements for external outsourcing or shared service centres.
Yet success is hard to measure. Few firms think they have effective metrics. Many interviewees note that if the business partner is doing his job well, he will inevitably tread on toes. “The CFO and senior finance staff might not be the most popular people in the business – particularly if they are doing their job right – by stopping the company from undertaking initiatives that are value destroying or too risky. The key is to be respected for understanding the business needs, but also for asking probing and challenging questions,” says Mr Plaschke.
Nevertheless, as many interviewees are also quick to note, if the finance department partners in the right way, other departments will see it as adding value overall, despite any tensions.
Edwards’s Mr Smith notes that, “the best finance functions are able to do that in a way that gains respect but, at the same time, really suggest ways to add value to the business. That’s how you gain respect and essentially your views are sought after. That’s the difference between a good finance department and a weaker one.”