Author: Simone Collins, ACCA and FPAC
Some years ago, I joined a small company and was asked by a colleague – what is a finance business partner? He had not come across this term before.
I always revisit this question – sometimes when it is the busiest time. Every time, I come to the same conclusion. It is not just a function or a role but an approach and almost akin to a philosophy or way of working.
Finance business partner as a function
The Charted Accountants Ireland has this definition:
“Finance business partners are accountants who work closely with a particular business unit creating a real and active partnership with both operations and management. Their role is to provide ‘real time’ support and analysis, to be a trusted adviser and to add value that will assist in decision making.”
It is true that finance business partners (FBPs) provide a link between management and operations. FBPs translate qualitative elements into quantitative elements. However, they do not necessarily all begin their careers as accountants nor are always accountants. FBPs will need basic understanding of accounting and finance. However, FBPs perform a role that is beyond accounting. They analyse financial information to support the business in storytelling and decision making.
In a typical job specification, you will find these common terms: support, challenge, process improvement, analysis, own, ambassador, build relationship, liaise, report, identify opportunities. Most of these describe what an FBP does but they do not represent the FBP philosophy.
Finance business partner as a philosophy – collaboration, observation and communication
A business partner is a partnership within the organisation. For this partnership to be successful, an organisation needs to have a collaborative attitude.
From an FBP perspective, it is about building relationship and helping the stakeholders understand the financial implication and, in some cases, the operational implication of their decisions. FBPs take a helicopter view of the situation and link the dots together for the business.
For the relationship to be fruitful, FBPs need to move away from the traditional thinking of what the scope of a finance department covers. FBPs are not just management accountants who tell the story of why something has happened. FBPs are not just involved in forecasting and planning. FBP takes a more observant attitude and looks for value add opportunities. With this mindset, FBPs become inquisitive as they learn about the organisation and explore where they can add value. This philosophy of value creation prompts the FBPs to explore how digital transformation can bring in efficiency that allow FBPs to take on value-add analysis.
A key philosophy of FBP is communication. FBPs needs to engage their stakeholders so that they can support them in developing business growth. Communication comes in the form of story telling, influencing as well as support. Story telling connects the organisation strategy with the financial performance. Influencing helps the align the strategy to the objectives at all levels. FBPs support the business through monitoring of the financial performance of the strategy and where course correction is needed, this is communication in a timely and constructive way.
Can you teach a chef to have a good taste palette?
This may come as a strange question to ask. However, the FBP philosophy is like a taste palette that can come naturally to some people but not to others. This however does not mean it cannot be nurtured. An organisation that operates with an FBP philosophy embeds this thinking in their ways of working. Overtime this becomes second nature to the organisation.
As we become more and more “digital” in our ways of working, it is important that FBPs do not fall into the trap of distancing their stakeholders but rather stay in touch with them and develop the rapport of collaboration, observation and communication. A successful partnership manifests itself through projects that are more collaborative and inclusive where you will not see silo operations. This inclusiveness is not just including finance department but also other parts of the business such as operations, human resources, information systems etc. Such organisations also tend to be more agile and harmonious in their operations. This is because of the contribution from the different parts of the business. FBPs in this environment are likely to have a wider breadth of knowledge which enables them to better support decision making. Successful FBPs will find their work varied and that they are not just involved in matters finance related. In some cases, they take on a lynchpin role as they are engaged in the different facets of the organisation. This cements the philosophy of collaboration, observation and communication.
Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any companies that the author has been and is working for.