Optimising financial processes

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Shared Services Leaders’ Summit, Chicago 2019: Notes From the Chair

It was a privilege to co-chair the Shared Services’ Leaders Summit in Chicago last week. The event was great fun and very thought provoking. I have had many messages to the same effect, so it seems the feeling was mutual!

We discussed and brainstormed a number of issues over the two days and I think (hope!) we all came away with some new perspectives and ideas to nurture within our organizations and some specific actions to initiate.

The first thing I wanted to echo, as commented in our Day 1 review session, was that this was not ‘death by Powerpoint’ or “you should buy this/that/the other product” stream of software commercials. Indeed, I also co-chaired the London Summit in March and there was a strong feeling at both sessions that we have somehow come our of the darkness of naïve belief that new software technologies (intelligent automation) will single-handedly transform our businesses. We are entering a new age of enlightenment where organizational development, people, skills and capability, business partnering, global process collaboration, driving better business decisions from data insights all sit at the same priority table. But more of that later!

We discussed some of the most compelling digital native business models, where the innovation is not so much in technology but in a really smart approach to the customer experience and the end-to-end (global) process, combining order to cash and procure to pay into one super-effective cash generation and customer value delivery machine.


We were fortunate to have great participation from every attendee in round-table sessions which were genuinely thought provoking and stimulating. There was no promise of ‘instant gratification’ here, we had to work hard to collaborate on cause and effect, critical thinking and new ways to approach new (and old) problems. Our speakers included;

  • Jodi Ford – Director of Finance Operations at Microsoft, who talked us through her Four Pillars of Transformation and share some valuable lessons along the way.
  • Diane Gaa – Director of Continuous Improvement at Pearson, who debated some of the challenges and successes in Change Management
  • John Sparks – Senior Director, Shared Services Operations & Implementation at World Vision International, describing the Change Management approach in a global organization where many locations cannot depend on technology, power supply or access to the banking system.
  • Chris Partin – Global Process Owner, Order to Cash at Eaton, shared what works best in sustaining change in their global business
  • Dean Unrue – O2C Expert from ACCEE who shared some of the pain and progress in ‘Making Technology Work For Us’
  • Jeff Barton – Global Process Owner, Finance Processes at Amway, who shared some of the governance challenges in an ultra-large-scale finance systems landscape.
  • Laure Browne – Director, Record to Report Operations Americas, Global Finance Services at Bristol-Myers Squibb, who talked us through an insightful 2 year journey developing Business Partnering advisory skills with her team
  • Cathy Flynn – Global Process Leader, Record to Report at Eaton, who described the challenge of global process design and execution, as well as the experience in implementing the recent Lease Accounting rules.
  • Kimberly Ellison-Taylor – Executive Director, Finance Transformation at Oracle, who shared the experiences in ‘re-inventing Oracle’ and her role with the AICPA in producing the “Agile Finance Unleashed” study, “The Key Traits of Digital Finance Leaders” which you can access here 
  • Jim O’Connor – Global Finance and Global Business Services Advisory Practice Leader at The Hackett Group, who gave us a deep dive into some of the key finance metrics from the goldmine of his global Finance, Shared Services and Global Business Services benchmark data.
  • For my part, I challenged us to think about how we would design and operate a Shared Services/GBS organization if we had to start from a clean sheet of paper, in a talk entitled “Burning Down the Shared Services House”. It stimulated quite a lot of debate especially my depiction of a future ‘platform model’ where Design, Build and Operate were all combined in an Agile model.

In the spirit of accounting being as much art as science, and as an homage to one of our participants who described, with perfect dead-pan delivery, that his organization was “12 years into a 5 year change program” (you will never be forgotten, Jeff!), I summarized our Top Ten Takeaways from the event in 13 points. For your peace of mind and preservation of the natural order of things, I have reduced back to 10, below;

  1. Least Cost Operator vs Value Creator? Consider business cycle and Shared Services/GBS maturity
    • We shared some research that indicated that, despite the clear ‘table stakes’ requirement for Shared Services and GBS leaders to provide a least cost operation, the aspiration of these leaders is to balance this objective with delivering and developing a reputation for value creation in the business. There was a lot of discussion on this, and we agreed that the stage in the business cycle of the corporation/enterprise and maturity of the Shared Services GBS organization itself have significant impact on the timing and approach to this.
  2. Global Process (Experience) Owner? Leader? Enabler?
    • Global Process Ownership (GPO) has been a key trend for a number of years, with the job title of some variant of “Global Process Owner” in use at a majority of large organizations. However, its becoming clear that delivering on the promise is far from easy, and many organizations are struggling with execution. The fact is that ‘ownership’ of a complex end to end process that spans the organization and many towers of executive ‘Heads of State’ in a business was always going to be a challenge. Claims of ‘ownership’ may also create some unnecessary friction in some parts of the organization.  There are a number of variations on the job title and mandate to try and address this, but the critical enabler comes down to the capabilities and skills required to drive end-to-end process collaboration, optimization, transformation and change. With the right ‘business partnering’ skills, the transformative value of end-to-end process innovation and execution can become very tangible.
    • In the GPO discussion, there has been much debate about the level of alignment and integration required between the process improvement, design & innovation stream with the service delivery/operation stream. Balancing today’s urgent operational issues with tomorrow’s important innovation needs is a challenge. There are different reporting models which have been proven to work, but closely aligned efforts are critical.
  3. Digital Strategy
    • We discussed Digital Strategy, and whether there should even be one. Maybe a better way of thinking about this is a Business Strategy which includes Digital. In participating in strategy development and aligning with it, Shared Services and GBS should consider the Consumer of the enterprise as well as the economic Customer, as convenience & intimacy for the consumer are the new opportunities we must grasp to thrive in an ever more competitive landscape.
  4. Barriers to Change
    • Change Management was a big topic at the Summit, with growing awareness that with more and more frequent change, in an agile business, more effort needs to be focussed on the topic. Some great lessons were shared, and some warnings, not least to beware the power of SLAs that support the old world and on which management in your own organization and your service partners may be measured and rewarded against! Sometimes, we need to cast away the old measures to reduce friction on the new processes and workstreams. We need to remember that resistance to change is often ‘fear of loss’, whether that be loss of power, status, independence, perceived success, comfort of old measures etc.
  5. Business Partnering & New Skills
    • Stimulated both by the Bristol-Myers Squibb interview and the Shared Services Leaders research, it is clear that we are entering a new world where the narrow-path transaction processing skills need augmenting with broader, advisory capabilities with skills in business engagement (talking to management across the business), business partnering, consultative behaviours, critical thinking, challenging the status quo, problem solving, diagnosis and collaboratively ‘re-imagining processes’. These are not ‘ivory tower’ or desk skills, these represent the essence of what has been called MBWA (‘management by walking about’). 
  6. Change is a Process not a Project
    • We all smiled ruefully at the “12 Years into a 5 Year Change Program” comment, as most of us have been through some variant of that. Whilst Change Management is universally regarded as critical, very few organizations appear to have a systematic, repeatable approach to it. However we agreed we need innovation in our Change Management approach, addressing engagement, understanding, communication, feedback, training, for all participants and stakeholders, not just the executives. Think about the most effective communication/interaction channels, think social. I is not just a broadcast medium that is required, There were some interesting stories shared including the apparent success of using the restroom walls as a communication and feedback channel. Enough said!
    • Change Management needs to start at the outset of any initiative, not just when it is a BIG project or when we realise there will be acceptance issues. We should be clear on Ownership and measures of Success so we know what ‘Good looks like’.
  7. Data Driven Decision Making
    • With the shift to Business Partnering skills and operating models, data (meaningful insightful information, not the raw confused stuff) becomes the primary tool on which to base communication, critical thinking, analysis and creative collaboration up and down the global end-to-end process. With 80% of finance effort spent acquiring and preparing data for reporting, leaving as little as 20% for value added analysis and decision making, effective self-service advanced data insights delivered by process aware services are a critical enabler. We discussed the use of 6 Sigma and LEAN approaches to help drive out waste based on data.
  8. “ELIMINATION is the best form of AUTOMATION”
    • This caught the mood of the summit and it was agreed that the FIRST question on any analysis of a process, set of working practices or group of tasks should be “What can we ELIMINATE, before we TRANSFORM and AUTOMATE”. The best in class digital native processes we explored on Day 1, reverberate this thinking far more than the simply application of the technology.
  9. Governance over Technology
    • We had a fascinating panel session on this topic, and there was a lot of resonance around some key questions. How to select the right tool from the toolbox? How to avoid the scenario with RPA or any technology “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? How to develop a Centre of Excellence that isn’t too self-absorbed? Maybe rather than an RPA or Intelligent Automation CoE, we need a ‘Rapid Response Automation CoE”? How do we manage system landscape evolution and consolidation, especially in an acquisitive company? What should be delivered by Core IT and what should be delivered by SS/GBS? Governance structures, Steering Committees and Change Control Boards, whilst they can be frustrating, are regarded as essential to manage sustainable change and evolution in automation.
  10. Foundations of the Future SS/GBS Business Model?
    • In “Burning Down The House” we discussed digital transformation, business models and business processes, consumer and market imperatives, human skills and capability, T-Shaped people, efficient task execution (silo) focus vs big picture thinking, the role of Intelligent Automation, RPA, AI and Machine Learning, “Humanistic Automation”, the hidden dangers of data bias and the technology disappointment cycle. We also discussed a new ‘platform model’ for the core business processes of the new ‘”House”, combining Design, Build, Operate with Agile/DevOps structures for Consumer Experience, Process Capability, Hardcore Technology and a “Mission Control” governing capability that operates like a Super-GPO, covering design, build and service delivery. It is worth thinking about, even if we don’t make that move immediately. It may stimulate some game changing insights about our business processes.

If you want copies of the presentation material, you need to register on “Sharespace” at SharedServicesLink at

Thanks again for all your participation, and I look forward to seeing you next time.