Many people are familiar with the epigram, “La plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” In case your French is rusty, it means, “The more it changes, the more it is the same thing.”
I was reminded of this saying recently after a puzzling meeting with the CFO of a company headquartered in Japan. We met to discuss the firm’s need for business transformation. Like many enterprises, my client was looking for new ways to improve productivity, reduce costs, and increase efficiency through simplification.
We discussed the prospect of using shared services to meet these goals. That’s when the CFO said: “Our business is different from other companies. Shared services might help many enterprises, but it would never work for us.”
If you’re new to my blog, you many not know that I was a CFO for SAP for over 20 years and visited many customers over this period. Now I work as an SAP ambassador, traveling mainly about the Asia Pacific region, helping other CFOs use technology to enhance their businesses.
So I’ve seen quite a few examples of business transformation in my travels. And let me share an important truth: No business is really that different from any other.
Exceptionalism inhibits growth
This perception of uniqueness (or is it wishful thinking?) is not new. Nearby 20 years ago, one CFO told me that it would be impossible for his company, which was headquartered in the Czech Republic, to invoice a client in Germany. Not long after, a CFO in France told me that she admired the shared services implementations I had completed in the Asia Pacific region, but that her company’s and country’s processes were far too complex to use the same shared services concepts and technology.
Back in Japan, here was the same excuse. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still frustrated. And here’s why: When CFOs believe their companies are too unique to use anything but point solutions customized to address their own processes, they inhibit the enterprise’s ability to grow and improve. In a world that’s demanding greater efficiency and effectiveness every day, that’s a real shame.
Yes, your processes may be complex. Perhaps your country’s taxation laws or compliance regulations are more onerous than in others. Maybe your supply chain operations are tangled or your customers require special treatment.
But today that Czech company is invoicing German clients, and the company in France uses shared services with great success. Huge, complex international enterprises such as NEC Corp., NTT Communications, Hitachi, and Mitsui are using shared services and other technologies to simplify their operations and transform their businesses. How do they do it?
Flexibility catalyzes success
Executives at these firms have adopted a flexible mindset. Instead of listing the reasons they cannot employ shared services, these leaders find ways to incorporate the unique attributes of their business in streamlined, standardized processes, or they compromise on issues that cannot be accommodated.
I recently worked with the CFO of a company in Buenos Aires who had struggled to adopt shared services. After his team’s desire to retain unique processes had torpedoed progress for three years, the executive instructed his staff to embrace a more flexible approach. The company adopted similar but subtly different processes that addressed Argentina’s market, governmental, and regulatory complexities. By refusing to let rigidity get in the way of progress, the CFO helped his enterprise reap the financial and productivity benefits of shared services.
It’s not unusual for companies seeking business transformation to initially resist new ideas and experience some degree of failure before embracing the flexibility that catalyzes success. The trick is not to get stuck in the resistance and failure stage, believing that your organization is unique and cannot adapt to change. CFOs who want to disprove that old French saying must be bold and be willing to drive change, and they must demand flexibility from their teams. Only then can they create a clearer path to business transformation.
To learn more about how finance executives can empower themselves with the right tools and play a vital role in business innovation and value chain, review the SAP finance content hub, which offers additional research and valuable insights.