Can Finance Really Become a Strategic Partner to the Business?

Much has been written about how finance organizations can become strategic partners with the businesses they support. While purported experts point to a variety of frameworks, scorecards and key performance indicators, etc. as the keys to bridging the gap between finance and business, these trite ‘solutions’ have done little to make finance the strategic business partner it seeks to be. Worse yet, pursuing these ideas has put finance organizations on a treadmill where they expend energy and resources (e.g., money and time) ultimately to get nowhere while the issue persists. So if you are still looking for a silver bullet or quick fix to this seemingly incurable problem, stop reading now.

Given the time, money and effort spent, you may be a bit demoralized and even speculating that the finance-business chasm cannot be crossed. Paradoxically, the link between finance and the business has been under finance’s proverbial nose for some time – resource allocation. A serious concerted effort to optimize an organization’s resource allocation ultimately enables finance to develop the bridge between finance and strategy. This discipline known as corporate portfolio management works to actively manage the company’s resource allocation as a portfolio of discretionary investments. All companies allocate their resources – very few optimize their resource allocation. Finance is uniquely positioned to enable this because they sit at the nexus of information and data required to undertake a corporate portfolio management effort. (Note: Corporate portfolio management is often referred to by different terms so as a point of reference, terms such as IT portfolio management, enterprise portfolio management, product portfolio management, project portfolio management, resource allocation and investment optimization are similar. In fact, these all are slices or subsets of corporate portfolio management.)

From Resource Allocation to Strategy

First, it is worth understanding the tie between resource allocation and strategy – they are the same. Where you allocate your resources is your strategy. PowerPoint presentations, speeches by senior leadership, strategy bullets nicely framed on a wall, etc. are all interesting and potentially useful, but they are not your organization’s strategy. For instance, if your stated corporate strategy is to have the most engaged and loyal customers (this sounds good, right?), but you allocate all your investment dollars to acquiring new customers, your strategy is actually around customer acquisition. This is a very simple example but clearly demonstrates the dichotomy that can and often exists between a stated and real strategy.

A great article entitled “How Managers’ Everyday Decisions Create – or Destroy – Your Company’s Strategy” that recently appeared in the Harvard Business Review (February 2007) nicely articulated the connection between resource allocation and strategy and also pointed to the need for a corporate portfolio management discipline. “How business really gets done has little connection to the strategy developed at corporate headquarters. Rather, strategy is crafted, step by step, as managers at all levels of a company – be it a small firm or a large multinational – commit resources to policies, programs, people and facilities. Because this is true, senior management might consider focusing less attention on thinking through the company’s formal strategy and more attention on the processes by which the company allocates resources.”

The upshot of this is that if finance can enable the process to enable better resource allocation (which is strategy), they will have succeeded in becoming a de facto strategic partner to the business.

The Two Levers of Corporate Portfolio Management

So now the question turns to how to build a corporate portfolio management discipline and ensure its success. A successful corporate portfolio management effort is predicated on two dimensions.

1. Modern Portfolio Theory (aka the process) – This is what people generally think of when they think of corporate portfolio management. It is comprised of:

* Investment valuation – This includes defining what an investment is. It is worthwhile to take an expansive definition of what comprises an investment because this is not just capital expenditures (capex), but also should include operating expenses (opex). In general, 25-40% of an organization’s expenses are discretionary and hence are investments. Investment valuation also requires consistency of valuation methodology which necessitates using driver-based models to create projections and also looking at past NPVs and ROIs to consider strategy and other qualitative aspects that drive investment ‘value’.

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