Articles

Improving Finance Agility to Support the Business

  • By Joanne Oh
  • Published: 11/28/2022
Digital data flow

The AFP FP&A Mini Case Study series is designed to help you build up key FP&A capabilities and skills by sharing examples of how leading practitioners have tackled challenges in their work and the lessons learned. In this case study, the regional head of FP&A at an international nonprofit organization shares how Finance collaborated cross-functionally to help the organization rapidly deliver a new digital product during the pandemic when the old format was no longer viable.

Presented at an AFP APAC roundtable, this case study contains elements that are anonymized to maintain privacy and encourage open discussion.

INSIGHT: ALIGNING AN ORGANIZATION WITH AN AGILE APPROACH REQUIRES COMMUNICATION, CROSS-FUNCTIONAL COLLABORATION, AND A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF THE NON-NEGOTIABLES.

Company Size: Large
Industry: Nonprofit
Geography: Asia-Pacific
FP&A Maturity Model: Business Partnering

Managing the growth of FP&A: FP&A plans its own growth to remain relevant to the changing operating models of business, technology and careers.

BACKGROUND: GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE COMPANY IN QUESTION

This international nonprofit organization operates in over 100 countries with a focus on cultural relations and educational opportunities. The organization’s main revenue stream is exam activity, with China and East Asia being the largest markets. It administers its own exams as well as exams for universities. The organization enjoys an excellent brand reputation and large market share.

Historically, exams have been administered in person via pen and paper, as this is the most secure way to prevent cheating and ensure that the right person is taking the exam. The downside to this approach is that it requires more logistics to execute, and it involves a lot of regional and domestic travel for the staff.

The case study was presented by the head of FP&A for the East Asia region.

CHALLENGE: THE WORK OR DIFFICULTY THAT FP&A HAD TO ADDRESS

The pandemic and lockdowns of 2020 exposed several challenges that previously were easy to ignore given the organization’s success. The immediate challenge was that the organization could not execute on its main revenue line and deliver exams in person, which challenged its financial sustainability and the viability of its global operations.

Internally, creating digital exams had been on the organization’s agenda as a potential future delivery model, but development was slow as the organization did not have a strong incentive to overhaul a successful channel.

At the same time, it was a big wake-up call to see that competitors were moving to digital products faster. In order to keep or increase its market share, the organization needed a strategy that would accelerate its own move to digital products. It needed to do this while building on its unique selling points: positive customer perception, product quality and market reach. And it needed to act with urgency as its main cash flow was cut off.

APPROACH: HOW FP&A ADDRESSED THE CHALLENGE

The entire organization needed to work quickly and cross-functionally to address the dynamic market environment, so it set up several working groups. Several teams within finance moved closer to other groups and worked with counterparts in small teams focused on specific issues:

  • Pricing new services: Finance and Business worked on the pricing and cost of online delivery. They decided on a price range and different prices for different markets. This effort required much scenario planning, including different scenarios for profitability, volumes and projections.
  • Entity management: Finance also worked with Legal in many areas, including licensing and subsidiary requirements to operate. They needed to consider the fiscal and tax perspective of moving into virtual delivery, as regulations differ from country to country when it comes to delivering online products.
  • Financial flexibility: Crucially, the finance team continued to manage working capital needs in an environment in which the organization was struggling with working capital.

“The organization kept the original financial budget as a benchmark for comparison; our budget targets never change,” the regional head of FP&A said. “In recognition of the dynamic situation, we prepared a revised budget once there was enough data to inform it; it included gross profit, operational profit and income. We prepared a monthly reforecast as the situation was evolving.

“In addition, we introduced new KPIs measuring efficiency and profitability in the new cost structure. For example, we moved away from in-person venue cost as percentage of income, to online delivery costs as percentage of income. Profitability levels went down, as we had to reduce prices and the original investment was high.

“Only a year later, we were able to establish the expected profitability for the new delivery model and establish the budget and targets for the new financial year.”

Additional teams working on the project included:

  • A new products team focused on developing, testing and marketing the product.
  • Senior management working on agreements with external partners, such as the exam board that the organization represents in the region.
  • Country and regional operational teams focused on the delivery of the new product on the ground.
  • The team that developed distant support tools and remote proctoring to ensure that the correct person is sitting at the computer to take the exam and that the person is not cheating.

For about six months, the organization worked full force to make the shift to digital happen — and it did, without problems or delay. In all areas, the key element to the organization’s success was agility.

OUTCOME: WHAT CAME OF FP&A’S EFFORTS AND WHAT WAS LEARNED

Initially, the organization had a deep drop in market share, but the new product was well received by customers, and the organization has returned to its position as the leader. It was able to reverse course because it moved quickly to implement a solution. And the shift to online delivery reducing staff travel related to exams and provided an environmental benefit in line with other corporate goals.

To the regional head of FP&A, the most important outcome was a great feeling of team achievement, which the organization had never felt so strongly before. Within six months, the teams managed to implement something they had been designing for years — and all parties were involved in the process.

“I think we have experienced this in our personal and professional lives, that when we are under pressure, we excel because we are confronted with an unknown situation that focuses everyone’s attention,” the regional head of FP&A said. “For my organization, we were very comfortable where we were; we were achieving what we wanted without a lot of effort. So, there was a sense that we did not need to push ourselves to the maximum in the area of virtual products.

“The new teams were maintained but re-structured and formalized into a new multifunctional, regional ‘Innovation Team’ with participation from a number of areas. This recognizes that the challenges to increase our market share will not disappear. The focus of the team is to gather good market intelligence and create solutions in terms of product, delivery mechanism, resources and technology and cost management. FP&A plays a central role in the new team as it consolidates and analyses all the available data, transforming it into decision-making information.”

DISCUSSION: QUESTIONS AND PERSPECTIVES FROM COUNCIL MEMBERS

Q: One of the things that agile doctrines talk about is a relentless focus on the customer. How do we keep finance mindset and processes focused on serving the customer and not serving other internal finance needs?

A: The closer we are to the business, the more we realize that we need to be customer-centric. We are redefining the mission and vision of finance to be all about the customer: making sure everything works for them, making it easier, faster and more effective.

As much as possible, automate manual processes, such as your usual month-end, to free up capacity. Internally, we often find ourselves servicing other teams’ needs and continually going back to budgets. While these things are important, in order for Finance to also perform value-added work, the CFO needs to give directional guidance. When messaging comes from the top, it helps create culture change.

Q: How do you get everyone on board with a vision centered on agility? 

A: It takes communication, reinforcement, consistency and time — and clearly setting expectations. A crisis can do that; otherwise, you need to reiterate the positives that are going to come from what you are doing. Identify the why and keep coming back to it, as well as the outcome you’re trying to achieve.

If they don’t understand the why, then ask, “Why are you doing it the old way, and why do you feel that it’s more valuable?” The goal is to explain the benefits without scaring people and to let them know the consequences of not changing. When they see the benefit of moving ahead, they will.

Also, help them on their path to change. In my organization, we do this by training people to help them fill skill gaps. In fact, we have increased our training budgets — knowing that people may leave. But we feel that we are motivating people to stay at the organization as long as possible.

Q: Let’s talk about flexibility versus control because so much of what finance does is about control. Where is the balance point? 

A: The budget is a control mechanism; performance management is a control mechanism. But within FP&A processes, there are mechanisms for flexibility. The main area that we, as Finance, can be agile is in terms of resource allocation. The challenge here is that business partners often do not want to cut their budget once they have it, even if it’s in the best interest of the company. We all need to have an ability mindset to optimize the use of our resources.

Another challenge is navigating financial regulations, and Finance has to enable the business to grow and progress within a controlled framework. It’s not about breaking the rules; it’s about finding ways to make things happen, finding solutions to make a project succeed, all while keeping it within the controlled framework. 

The control-versus-agility discussion also depends on how an organization is set up. If you prioritize the customer, then a country model is more agile because you can respond more quickly and precisely. If you operate on a more regional or global level, you remove a lot of layers and reporting is more straightforward. Every organization will have a different sweet spot on this spectrum.

Also, not every process should be agile. There are times when you want a zero-defect process, and that is not the time to be agile. Finance needs to play different roles depending on the situation and understand which things are non-negotiable and which are flexible.

Discussion: Being agile is really a mindset. Our role in finance is supporting others in the business who tend to have more customer-facing roles. How do we support them and ensure that we’re getting information out at the right time, in the right format, that they can use to make the right decisions about their customers?

We need to find ways to get feedback from both customers and the people we’re supporting in the organization. We need to know if our information is actually helping or not to stop the churn of reports that we often get into a cycle of doing, and then realize, that maybe no one is using them, or that they’re not fit for purpose anymore.

Build up key FP&A capabilities and skills with AFP’s FP&A Maturity Model, a roadmap to help you and your team become leading practitioners.

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