Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The State Of The Art In Finance

In the wake of recent accounting scandals and the increasingly competitive business environment, many CFOs and the finance organizations they lead have started to take on new strategic roles within the enterprise. They are aiming at enforcing stricter control processes to ensure legal and regulatory compliance, offering strategic insights into the internal and external business environment, and connecting the business strategy with daily operations through performance tracking.

The trend toward a more strategic role is echoed by the responses of participants in recent APQC surveys (formerly known as The American Productivity and Quality Center). Respondents indicated that, three years down the road, they would spend 30% more time on decision support and management. According to the same surveys, however, these respondents have not made much progress toward a greater strategic role. Finance organizations, no matter what their size, report to APQC that they still spend almost two-thirds of their time on transaction processing and controls and only one-third on decision support and management.

The difficulty lies in bridging the current gap between the finance function that emphasizes greater efficiency and the finance function that becomes a partner in managing the business. The best companies have found that reaching the goal of a more strategic finance function warrants a twostep approach, as follows.

1. These companies deal with the complexity of the various functions that come under the finance umbrella, making them as efficient as possible and, in the process, freeing up corporate resources for other activities. As one global treasury manager put it, “We must develop a finance function that is as efficient as it can be, replicate it globally, and then use it effectively to help us quickly establish brands and enter new markets.” Companies like this one choose a variety of approaches to streamline and automate finance functions while ensuring that they keep customers happy (in the case of shared-services arrangements).

2. With the efficiency of the transaction and control functions assured, they can turn to devising a more strategic approach for finance - not only giving finance more of a decision making responsibility in risk management and compliance, but also a proactive role in managing the daily cash position to help increase resources for quick strategic moves.

One global consumer products company took the following approach to a more strategic path for finance. In the first step, the company developed a more efficient cash management, accounts payable, and accounts receivable group of functions in its worldwide operations, based on greater transparency of information. In the second step, the company developed “straight-through processing” along every level of the finance function, leveraging its global reach to maximize cash management efficiency, foreign-exchange exposure, and the global supply chain to help fund growth, participate in new marketing and distribution arrangements, and comply with worldwide regulations.