Finance is the key to driving business agility—but it needs the right tools

Mark Bodger, director at ICit Business Solutions, looks at the key role accountants play in the business of the future

Agility is an often used but little understood concept in the business world. It’s neither easy to achieve nor evenly distributed across a typical organisation. However, one thing is clear: agility is an essential component of success for today’s post-pandemic organisations.

Organisations capable of maintaining staff productivity whilst adapting to fast-evolving customer demands are most likely to be in the driving seat today. And it is the finance department that could be the key to their ongoing success. But only if teams have the tools to support an active financial planning strategy which will democratise data-driven insight across the enterprise.

From static to active planning

Even before the pandemic, digital transformation was forcing organisations to change. It’s part of the reason why, as of 2017, only 60 Fortune 500-listed companies from 1955 were still at the top of their game. Digital change opens the door to more efficient business processes, new routes to market and innovative customer-facing experiences.

As the pandemic has ruthlessly demonstrated, digital can also be the difference between success and failure. Organisations able to switch to mass remote working and find new ways to reach their customers online survived the unprecedented strain on their business during 2020. Others did not, or were forced to accept government support. It remains to be seen how many will survive once that support is fully withdrawn.

Agility in these conditions has frequently become a proxy for success. But what does it mean in practice? From a corporate strategy perspective it means active rather than static planning. It means replacing the old “plan, execute, plan again” paradigm—top down, siloed, slow and limited—with a more collaborative, continuous, and comprehensive approach. It is helping organisations all over the world to make better decisions faster, based on current data and insights, and to address new market opportunities more effectively.

Why finance?

So what’s this got to do with the finance team? Well, there’s a reason why the function has always been at the heart of any business. Whether it’s releasing funds for day-to-day operational activities, or funding R&D and innovation, there isn’t a single part of the organisation that finance doesn’t touch. Even as companies evolve to more distributed decision-making cultures, finance still has a uniquely important role. That’s why it will remain a key player in active planning. In fact, their combination of operational insight and data analytics nous makes finance teams perfectly positioned to execute on this.

However, to drive greater business agility, some things must change. Finance has traditionally been a gatekeeper of data rather than a value creator. This is exemplified by the annual budgeting process—a mainstay of static planning. Using manually aggregated data and consolidated spreadsheets, finance teams would make sense of the previous year, asses their progress, calculate the current financial position of the business and plan next year’s objectives. After a tortuous process of negotiation to satisfy the budgeting priorities of stakeholders from elsewhere in the business, the budget would be agreed and then usually ignored until the following year.

It doesn’t take much to see why this kind of approach is a poor fit for business agility. The assumptions on which budgets are based have usually changed before the final document has even been approved. And even if the data isn’t stale, it may not have been accurate in the first place. Spreadsheets are regularly used beyond their intended, fairly limited, capabilities—adding human error, and failing to provide real-time intelligence about past and present business performance.

The right tools

On the other hand, there is a fantastic opportunity for finance teams to drive agility for their organisation if they have the right tools to achieve visibility, insight, control and measurement. This will provide operational awareness that no other team can come close to, right down to the granular detail of roles, responsibilities and critical dependencies.

With the right enterprise planning capabilities, they can manage faster, more responsive planning cycles based on fresher, richer data inputs. They can run flexible, what-if scenarios to inform future strategy. They can engage more proactively with other functions by helping them plan more effectively and draw shadow planning back into the light. And they can generate greater foresight into challenges and opportunities, based not just on financial but other operational data from across the business.

Ultimately there’s an opportunity not just to promote finance as the primary driver of agility in the business, but for the function to use its position to democratise decision making by distributing knowledge to wherever it’s required. It’s about a business that can unite around a single version of the truth and a coherent vision of the future, based on data-driven insight from across the organisation. The finance team is and will always be at the centre of these efforts. But its ability to unlock the strategic potential of active planning makes this a journey everyone in the business should be on board for.

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