I sometimes feel like a mythical organisational development stork came up with the term 10 years and, poof, they appeared. They are running rampant everywhere. From HR to finance, the traditional silos of departments are being linked together by these nibble titles.
However what should they actually do, what skills set do they need? Is it a polite way of promoting someone who may not be suitable for a head of function role, or as a title reward for long service/ specialised knowledge?
As more and more organisations create business partnering roles, do we need more definition and thought, as a long term career or as a new acceptable route to the top?
Whats in a name?
So while the current thinking is that a business partner should act as a type of glue between functions, as organisation grow larger and more complex, what should this entail to make it truly value adding for an organisation?
My argument in the past about the role, was that the role was treated as a type of project manager with a little bit of interdepartmental interaction. They would turn up at a meeting, but had no incentive or interest in making sure their core function had influence on the project or highlight issues back to their teams. In effect were a silo on their own:
It should not be this way, organisation are missing a golden opportunity to use people to build relationships, something no ERP/EPM system will or can do for the foreseeable future. For the role to be truly value adding, I envisage as bringing the core of an integrated communication process between departments and projects:
For me a strong business partner is like a fixer. They know all the tricks and political situations to get around a problem and if they don’t, have the ways to find out. They should work for their team, but also for the organisation, they should have an objective, bigger picture approach. In effect, find a way to make sure all parties have the necessary facts to make a decision. Where I have seen this in practice, it works incredible well and these people are not blocked from moving to director level or more senior. If anything, having this broad organisational knowledge better places a person to lead in the future.
However, were I have seen the title misused is within finance departments. Business analyst who qualify, get the title and just email reports once a month to another team. They do not have the authority of power to act on the results they see. Surely a BP should be a senior analyst/accountant promoted to the next stage of their career to start managing stakeholders?
To expand on what the role should be within finance, the below outlines the core skills, role and qualification for a finance business partner (FBP). It is not absolute and very much open to debate. For example for a smaller finance function the FBP may also take an active role in month end, such as being a performance manager for staff.
Also to consider is, if an organisation has a robust reporting and fully integrated ERP systems, functions should have real time reporting to spot issues. Therefore may only need a finance person to discuss the results, but not on a frequent basis.
On the flip side, poor IT systems require a FBP to go out to the business more frequently and may require more complex knowledge of those functions. Especially as day to day finance staff are so bogged down in their roles, they don’t have the time or perhaps experience to discuss the implications of financial results or reports (especially if the quality is questionable e.g. over reliance on manual workarounds on spread-sheets).
You might ask, why organisations don’t invest in better systems. Preaching to the choir here, I wish they did, but budget constraints and fear of change, slows down this obvious improvement. So considering a £500k to £1mill investment required for a new system, business partners can be an affordable plaster, while a new system is scoped out and implemented.
However I don’t feel FBP's should be plasters. The human element of any organisation is so crucial, irrespective of systems, their role should be to make sure communication happens and by looking at finance data and reports, be at the forefront of effective forecasting and troubleshooting.
If organisations do not make sure BP's in general, act as the connective tissue, they run a risk that the point of the role will be lost. Those with the talent will have no interest, as they will see it as a side step and not an opportunity for a high profile role within their organisation.
Time to embrace the title.