Who wants to work with you? The case for business partnering…

Business partnering is one of the phrases very much in vogue in finance at the moment. A quick review of recruitment websites will show employers will pay a premium for the transferable skills to deliver effective business partnering. In this article I will have a look at what it is, how it might be of particular use in housing associations (a good example which reads across to both the private, public and third sectors) and unpack the barriers . Finally, it is worth saying that other teams such as HR, IT and are business partnering too. Whilst I won’t consider these areas in detail please do bear in mind the read across.

Is business partnering new? Its been around in various guises and various disciplines at least since the 1960s, and its not unique to the accountancy profession. But its more than a buzz word. It is a refocus around the culture and relationship between finance and the rest of the business, and less on the reports churned out. A successful business partner is seen as an extra member of the operational team. They should see their internal colleague as a key customer, in addition to the auditors or the Board! Its built around meeting face to face with operations in an organised way to discuss operational performance, deliver insight, help them resolve overspends and support the team to forecast effectively. The emphasis should be on empowering the operational team, mutual problem solving, coproduction and mutual accountability, and not a service which is “done to” colleagues.

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Simple business partnering model

So what is the business case for investing time and effort in this approach?

Firstly, given automation and the continuing technological innovation in my profession, finance teams which simply process invoices and do not add value cannot be sustainable. Neither are teams helping if they bewilder colleagues with useless info or design clumsy processes in ignorance of their colleagues’ needs. Businesses are entitled to expect more, particularly in such uncertain times. As a sector we need to demonstrate value for money and respond effectively to external shocks. Business partnering should increase both financial agility and organisational coping skills.

There is also a benefit to the finance team. The in-depth knowledge of what’s going on frontline is immensely helpful to accountants when resolving most queries. The time in getting to know the internal customer should make subsequent finance problem solving much easier. Get it right and the invest of time more than pays back, on both sides — operations and finance. And for both teams its good to feel connected to and valued by other team colleagues!

More strategically, housing associations are a people-based business, expert in working with vulnerable people, a wide breadth of stakeholders and in complex communities they absolutely have the culture to allow it to thrive. They also have a complex and long-term business model, often with complex treasury and construction structures and contracts, so it looks an essential match from a business risk perspective too. And I will argue to anyone the concept of effective service charges or project management is impossible without a business partnering approach.

However, its not as mature in some housing associations as might be expected. Adoption is patchy. Why is this? Let me offer a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, it requires robust data and robustness at a level of detail beyond that needed for the year end audit. To business partner well finance teams cannot get away with plonking huge areas of spend in a “big bath”. The detailed analysis needs to be there, and it needs to stand up to sustained interrogation. In particular, housing associations operate across regions and patches in complicated ways, and it requires a very strong set of disciplines and controls to create the necessary granularity.

There may be a similar reluctance from operations to invest time and effort in understanding the finances and accepting ownership. Over the years I’ve occasionally heard operational colleagues state they hate numbers or wished finance was nothing to do with them, for example. Let’s not go there with that, but it is telling that this is socially acceptable to say, even in jest. No manager would dare say they don’t do people, surely? Certainly, the presence of a profit or bonus motive seems to concentrate the minds more in other sectors. Business partnering will help address any operational complacency and support a stronger culture of accountability and value for money.

It may also be about the sector being slightly cut off from other sectors, with some noble exceptions. Housing associations typically talk closely with each other, but it isn’t as easy to keep up with innovation from outside. This groupthink becomes more acute when housing associations continue to recruit largely from within the sector.

Finally, consider how housing associations seek to innovate. There is rightly a concentration on front line service, but the “back office” as a route to improve the business is underexplored. Finance teams are generally functional and solid, and not perceived as drivers for excellence. They are not usually so broken that a fundamental rework is required, and whilst they may get an occasional MOT in a routine internal audit or a cursory investment via a software upgrade, their wholescale review is something we never quite get around to doing. It comes down to where organisations see the urgent priority, and perhaps a review of finance functions isn’t as exciting as mergers and acquisitions.

But my final point is that it’s a worthwhile investment. Maybe your team is functioning OK. Have a look at it though. Does it know about or do enough for its internal customer? If not — you won’t be only one. In fact, enhancing the business partnering may be an exciting opportunity to unlock value from and future proof the team and its function, and the rest of the business, all at the same time. You team probably has some transferable skill and commercial understanding to do it. You absolutely can start small and build your way up, believe me. Its not even that innovative really, it’s a tried and tested model.

And housing colleagues in particular — we are expert at borrowing ideas. Let’s make our strength, our collaborative culture, work in better ways for us behind the scenes by fully embracing business partnering.

Written by

Experienced Chief Finance Officer -track record in Welsh social housing and third sector. Chartered Accountant (FCA BFP). Views my own - my space for blogging.

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