A Roadmap For Shared Financial Services
A continued focus on improving operational efficiency and reducing costs among today’s enterprises has spurred the growing adoption of shared financial services. With this new operating model, a centralized global finance department now serves business units that were previously served by their own finance departments. With shared services, a smaller and more specialized team is responsible for dealing with global finance operations. This pressure to ‘do more with less’ has the resulting impact of pushing corporates to establish best practices and leverage specialized technology to accelerate financial performance. Corporates that have successfully deployed shared services, specifically around working capital processes, have reaped benefits beyond just reductions in operational expenses.
Shared services have traditionally been implemented due to corporate initiatives around cost containment and improving efficiencies. As finance functions ranging from credit and collections, payables, time and expense and general accounting were centralized, companies began to realize that there was an opportunity to drive financial performance beyond just cost reductions.
Working capital processes, such as credit and receivables, payables and cash flow management, offer corporates the ability to drive improved profitability and shareholder value. As these functions are brought into the scope of shared services, corporates can subsequently realize sustainable results and future growth.
The road to deploying shared services is fraught with many challenges, including:
As a result of these challenges, corporates embarking on the journey towards shared financial services often see lower than expected results. Among these, the lack of specialized tools to help establish and manage shared services is a particular deficiency that prevents the formation of efficient shared services centres (SSCs). Technologies that are typically used, such as ERP systems, workflow tools and business intelligence solutions, are often deployed in a piecemeal manner, leading to fragmented business processes and objectives. This results in many shared services initiatives either eventually stalling or stagnating, even after significant initial investments. In order to ensure success, corporates have to formulate a well thought out roadmap.
Coporates that have successfully established a SSC have followed an approach that manages the transition from start-up to continuous operations with as little organizational disruption as possible. The major phases and key activities are described below:
Plan – This critical phase is where a comprehensive plan is put in place to enable long-term success. Gaining executive buy-in early in the process and sharing the vision across the company can ensure the appropriate level of attention is maintained throughout deployment.
1. Create a shared vision – This starts with presenting the business case for shared services to senior executives to gain initial buy-in and support. An important step here is to clearly articulate short-term benefits (e.g. cost reductions and operational efficiencies) and long-term benefits (e.g. reduction in days sales outstanding, improved returns from cash management and increases in free cash flow). By describing the financial benefits along with the projected payback period of the initiative, gaining and keeping executive support becomes easier.
2. Plan for delivering efficiency and value – There are three key elements to this: proper team sizing; improving process efficiencies and cycle times; and, establishing a performance management framework for finance and cash flow processes. The first entails hiring and retaining talent along with modulating team size and growth to fit current and future transactional needs. The second involves automating finance functions, such as receivables or payables, to reduce process defects and accelerating cash flow cycles. This element involves establishing appropriate service level agreements with the business units along with leveraging dashboards, analytics and pre-determined metrics to measure financial performance.
Build– This stage comprises actual activities of establishing the initial shared services operations and initial servicing of business units.
3. Build a foundation of process and technology – With a tightly integrated approach of using best practices and specialized technology, corporates can implement transaction-based services. A critical function here is to standardize the receivables and payables processes on a common platform.
4. Structure the rollout to maximize value and minimize risk – A phased implementation approach to shared services offers corporates the ability to gain incremental value in operations while minimizing risk. This methodology has three key phases: initial start-up, complete deployment and expanded revenue opportunities. The initial start-up phase comprises a pilot or proof-of-concept that entails rolling out the new business processes and specialized technology to a small number of business units. After initial results are measured, the next phase is to complete deployment of shared services to all business units. In this step, service level agreements are refined based on past experience and the team transitions from being process oriented to customer oriented. As future business growth occurs, and new business units and customers come onboard, there is also the opportunity to expand revenue opportunities.
Manage – This final phase focuses on managing ongoing shared financial services operations and establishing an environment of continuous improvement.
5. Balance efficiency with effectiveness – Shared services represent an opportunity for corporates to achieve cost containment (efficiencies) along with driving finance operations to new levels of performance (effectiveness). Every successful deployment of financial shared services should have both of these goals in mind.
6. Implement customer-centric SLAs – The measurement of shared services performance is critical to ensure success of the initiative. Service level agreements should be set up and agreed upon by both the SSCs and the business units. Corporates that have established a customer/vendor relationship between business units and SSCs respectively have seen continued success. Key performance indicators tailored to the specific services to be delivered have to be documented and periodically reviewed to make sure that objectives set forth are continuously being met by the shared services teams.
7. Continuously measure performance – Finally, with pre-established service level agreements, shared services can continue to measure performance and take corrective action whenever necessary. Metrics, such as DSO, collections efficiency and average days to pay for the credit and collections functions, can be an excellent gauge of how well the shared services operating model is working for the corporate. Performance should be measured at multiple levels including across multiple geographies, customers, suppliers, business units and individual shared services team members.
As corporates continue to adopt global SSCs, new challenges will have to be met in order to continue to drive higher levels of financial performance. These include establishing consistency in global business practices, properly dealing with issues around multiple time zones, and offsetting erosion of wage advantages from previously low cost of living regions. Technology is a key component of this and will eventually enable corporates to establish ‘virtual’ shared services where cost and performance advantages will still be achievable by a distributed workforce that is not physically located in the same area.