In late 2013, Accenture was at an inflection point. Throughout most of its history, the firm had functioned as a consultancy. By then, however, it had evolved into a multi-dimensional business with wings devoted to consulting, strategy, technology, and operations. Accenture’s diversification forced the entire company to evolve, but it created particularly acute pressure for the finance division to adapt. That unit, as Corporate Controller and Chief Accounting Officer Richard Clark explained, had traditionally employed a single “operating model” for the entire business. Now, however, each of the firm’s branches wanted real-time and predictive information and analysis tailored to their costs and opportunities. “Our businesses,” Clark succinctly explained, “want customization.”
Under the leadership of newly appointed CFO David Rowland, Accenture’s finance division therefore launched “Finance 2020”—a vision that aimed to position the unit as both a world-class accounting team and an innovative partner for Accenture’s diverse businesses. With that end in mind, the core of the plan revolved around an “unwavering focus on fundamentals.” The finance division paired this foundational work with the additional objectives of developing “dynamic talent and culture,” identifying “insightful solutions,” and serving as an “agile business partner” for the rest of the firm. Finally, all of this work fell under the umbrella of a “digitized” approach to finance. This reflected the team’s recognition, as Clark said, that Accenture needed to make expansive use of technology “to take [its] finance function from today to 2020.”
Accenture’s finance unit’s vision crystallized critical objectives. However, the design of the plan was just the beginning; in 2014, as Rowland, Clark, and their colleagues set out to implement the strategy, they faced a challenging set of questions. How could they build on the foundation of centralization, shared services, and innovation that the finance division had begun to establish in 2001? How could they leverage digital technology and other techniques to transform the finance unit into a catalytic change agent that could help the company optimize current business value and generate new opportunities? How could they effect a cultural shift that would transform their talented team into a dynamic capability that could help the company react to novel opportunities and challenges? Most fundamentally, how could they keep their 6,000-person unit focused on their core priorities (or, as Clark said, their “North Star”) to help the company move forward?
While Accenture’s finance division unveiled its long-term transformation strategy in 2014, it had begun to lay the foundation for reform in 2001 when the company navigated another significant transition. That July, Accenture, which had long operated as a partnership, went public. As a result, the finance division—which had previously had hundreds of separate country-level units—needed to develop a unified, centralized structure that could bind its fragmented teams together and realize the efficiencies that could come from consolidation and standardization.
Initially, the finance division focused on fairly basic processes, such as developing a central finance process model; introducing a Global SAP system, a feat the company completed in 2004 in what Clark described as one “big bang”; and solidifying control of the company’s cash. The latter process was important, Clark emphasized, because at the time, Accenture had multiple bank accounts in each country and in some cases had signatory authority spread among multiple individuals. The company therefore started to make more expansive use of regional treasury centers.
Once Accenture’s finance team had put some of these foundational controls in place, it shifted its focus to a more ambitious set of reforms that aimed to optimize current business value by bolstering efficiency. Thus, the finance division established shared service centers in cost-effective locations, such as the Philippines, India, and Prague. It also began crafting a centralized global financial reporting system. The finance team had previously wrestled with what Clark described as “too many versions of the truth,” with staff accessing data at different points and therefore bringing divergent figures to meetings. Consequently, many discussions focused on the accuracy of the data, as opposed to how best to interpret it. From the perspective of the finance department’s leaders, establishing a central reporting function—a setup they would soon expand to operations, human resources (HR), and sales—was critical to make the firm more efficient and productive.
Finally, the finance division focused on increasing process excellence and collaboration and leveraging technology. They devoted significant energy to “leaning” their processes by leveraging approaches like “six sigma.” They introduced technologies—such as Telepresence and Lync—that increased connectivity among finance staff in far-flung locations worldwide. The result of these reforms was significant. By 2013, Accenture’s finance division had not only transitioned from a highly fragmented setup in the company’s partnership system to a more integrated system; they had also become significantly more efficient and in the process dramatically decreased their spending as a percentage of the firm’s revenue. In short, they had optimized their value.
The standardization and centralization process that Accenture carried out at the start of the millennium was extremely beneficial. Nonetheless, the organization had to continue to evolve to keep pace with a rapidly changing operating environment. By 2014, Accenture’s finance division had to adapt to a multi-dimensional business environment that demanded flexibility and customization. They also had to find new ways to leverage technology and engage a workforce that increasingly consisted of millennials desiring guidance, coaching, and engagement. Thus, Rowland and his team launched “Finance 2020”—a vision for the future that sought to sustain the finance division’s commitment to efficiency while simultaneously transforming the unit into a catalyst for growth and an asset that could help the company adapt in changing times.
Recognizing that the finance division had to continue to carryout its core functions efficiently, the model begins with an “unwavering focus on fundamentals.” As a result, Rowland, Clark, and their colleagues have invested in technologies—such as HANA, an in-memory database processing system—that can help them to continue to ensure strong financial processes. “We still have to have internal controls,” Clark emphasized. “We will have to manage regulatory [processes] and still have a commitment to simplification. We have a commitment to service.”
At the same time, the finance division is actively exploring and investing in tools and approaches that can help it generate new business value. A case in point is the development of a WIN Probability Prediction Tool that helps clients decide whether to pursue a new opportunity by blending data on the likelihood of success, the extent of the sales effort anticipated, and the expected profitability. Paired with the creation of new revenue modeling and analytics tools, this prediction tool is emblematic of how the finance division is transforming itself into an “agile business partner” that can help Accenture’s businesses make informed decisions and seize opportunities.
In pursuing these objectives, the finance division recognizes that it needs to leverage technology as much as possible. As Clark said, digital technology is “wrapped around everything” we do. At the same time, the finance team is not pursuing technology at the expense of talent. Soon after launching the vision, Rowland and his staff therefore carried-out a cultural assessment using the “Barrick Values Model,” which allowed them to gauge “entropy” or dysfunction in the department. “It [the assessment] comes back,” Clark elaborated, “and gives you the person’s values, what they believe the current culture is at Accenture finance, [and] what they believe…the culture needs to be… to be successful as we move [toward] a more complex business.”
The analysis yielded several valuable conclusions. One was that people wanted more recognition. As a result, at the finance department’s quarterly webcasts (which typically attract about half of the 6,000 personnel across the finance and shared services divisions), Rowland and his team now acknowledge outstanding performers from across the division. Another valuable finding was that staff wanted more coaching and mentorship; this sentiment was especially prevalent among millennials, who makeup an increasingly significant portion of the finance staff. Consequently, the finance division has invested in a coaching program that has begun with the CFO’s direct reports and will soon be disseminated throughout the unit. It has also eliminated a formal performance ranking system, instead preferring to focus on a system that highlights staff’s strengths and connects those abilities with their and the organization’s priorities. Finally, it has created digital tools—such as an online learning lab and a liquid workforce where people can post and volunteer for opportunities—that enable staff to hone their skills and contribute to organization-wide endeavors.
Taken together, these tools and coaching techniques reflected a broader recognition that as much as Finance 2020 hinges on technology and figures, it also depends on people and how they work together. “We’re on a journey,” Rowland reflected, “and it’s all about creating a culture that attracts talent…and helps us build …the next generation of a world-class finance function.”
As of the summer of 2016, Accenture was still navigating that journey. For example, it was exploring how to employ Simple Finance, a technology that would allow them to upgrade their general ledger (which currently consists of myriad sub-ledgers) by creating a single universal ledger along with parallel ledgers for different businesses. Yet even as room for improvement remained, Rowland and his staff could take pride in the fact that less than three years after they had begun a major transition, they had already leveraged modern technology, talent, and leadership to make the finance division more efficient and effective. Thus, they had not only helped to optimize the work that Accenture was already doing in consulting; as the firm’s business became multi-modal and embraced new dimensions, they had also evolved to help generate new business value and foster talent and a culture that could serve as a dynamic capability in a rapidly changing operating environment. Simply put, Accenture’s finance division had firmly planted itself in the 21st century.
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