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Good finance business partnering is as much about empathy and good conversations as it is about data. It’s an exciting direction for finance to take.

Simone Collins’s career started in audit – about as far removed from the more commercial-minded work she does today. After working briefly for the local government in Macau, she moved to the UK to study, and moved into working in business, working predominantly for telecoms and unified communications companies. That was a formative moment in her career.

“We tried to give more insights to those numbers, not just about producing a pack and walking away from it. I was doing that value-add work without knowing that’s what I was doing.”

Simone found that she had a passion for following the numbers and drilling into anything that didn’t make sense. She would look for the context of the numbers and was engaged with wider business activities. “I was doing what today, we would call finance business partnering, but the term wasn’t coined then.”

After working  in financial services for a couple of years, Simone moved onto her current role at Sony. Fast-moving consumer goods was an area that she’d always wanted to work in.

When it comes to digital finance transformation, Simone believes that technology is moving fast, and many businesses are struggling to keep up, which creates efficiency gaps. The pandemic has forced many finance functions to look closely at how they operate. “It’s moved on from just looking at a set of numbers.”

You want to be a finance business partner without going native, she says. “You’re kind of in a slight twilight zone, so to speak. You’re not just looking at expenses and the ROI. You also think about what they’re spending that money for. It makes it a much, much better business partnership, because they don’t see you as coming in and restricting what they’re trying to do. You want to try to understand what they’re doing and help them understand that every step they take will have an impact on their numbers.”

It’s beyond P&L thinking. Every operational change can be translated to a number on the P&L – business partners help them to understand how their activities play into the rest of the organisation. “It moves the role from looking at a bunch of numbers and doing nice little graphs to spending quite a lot of time talking to people.”

That people element is often overlooked in favour of the technology, but it’s really what it’s all about, says Simone. It’s as much about what you can pick up from conversations over coffee or comments in emails as in the financial data. “In terms of your approach, it’s more about collaboration.”

There are plenty of successful and not-so-successful examples of digital transformation projects that we can learn from. “It is not just automating a manual task, that’s probably the easy bit. You can remove a person from your department and shrink your cost, but you won’t get any real value from that. Automation should free up spare resource that you can upskill. It requires exploration of what it means across the business; you need to look at it from a very holistic point of view. If you change your processes, what does it mean for everybody else?”

Finance leaders are realising that people cannot work in silos. More organisations are trying to look at the opportunities the technology offers, rather than just the costs they can remove from the bottom line. All departments are producing rich data now, and all of it is relevant to the work of a modern accountant. It has to be a organisation-wide collaboration to work effectively.

“Finance becomes more and more drawn into the operation, rather than just at the reporting end of the things,” Simone says. “That’s probably where finance is heading. It’s quite a joyous way of doing business. People don’t come to you with problems anymore, they come to you with opportunities. You might spot opportunities yourself, and you can start a conversation and see where it leads.”

It all comes back to a more empathic approach to finance; it’s beneficial to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re partnering with and think about how they benefit from the changes and suggestions you’re putting forward. If you don’t get that part right, any digital transformation won’t deliver the value that you need.

“You have to be assertive enough to say: this is beneficial to the business because it gives visibility, but it’s quite painful,” Simone explains. “So how can I make it less painful for everybody? That’s where you add value; by seeing it from the other side and making the processes simpler, more standardised, and still deliver the visibility people need.”