Letting Go: Zen And The Art Of Finance Transformation

Joel Bernstein

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

Being in control is a natural inclination for the CFO. As finance professionals, accuracy and consistency are programmed into our DNA. Thus, to ensure smooth financial operations, CFOs sweat the details. It’s just how we are.

But when it comes to digital transformation, I had to learn an important lesson: Holding on too tightly can be a crutch that slows your organization down on the path to progress. Am I advocating financial chaos? Hardly. But what I am saying is that for the CFO, digital transformation requires a new way of thinking—one that brings the issue of organizational control into sharp relief.

Reimagining finance

At SAP, we encourage companies to reimagine their business models for the digital economy. To help our organization grow, we followed our own advice and reimagined finance at SAP. As I explained in my last blog, the job at hand was to move to a shared services model. The concept was simple: that a few centralized groups—in Buenos Aires, Dublin, Prague, Singapore, and Manila—could manage processes such as order-to-invoice and cash collection better than individual groups following different processes. New organizations brought into SAP by acquisition—a big part of our growth strategy—would then be able to plug into the service rather than reinvent the wheel for themselves.

This, in fact, is what we’ve achieved. But for my part, it required some letting go.

The human factor

One main concern was my immediate team, which was—still is—fantastic. Looking back, one thing I’ve really liked about this team is its “expertise-on-demand” model. Simply popping my head out of the door, I could find out what was going on by accessing the knowledge of talented and deeply experienced people.

This team was also efficient, due in part to the fact that we had a lot of internal process automation. But the problem was that for SAP as a whole, we were one among many reporting organizations, all of which did things in slightly different ways. In addition to impeding the integration of newly acquired organizations, this state of affairs made it difficult for individual finance units throughout the company to change, because each unit needed to change in slightly different ways.

The shared services model was the obvious move. To get there, we needed to get the process knowledge out of the heads of people on my team (and many others), abstract it all into best practices, and pour it into the new shared service centers – all while also thinking about what would work best in the new cloud context. Today, the shared services model has increased SAP’s flexibility by making it easier to integrate newly acquired companies into the fold.

Trust and change

However, processes such as order-to-cash are now managed in locations around the world, rather than outside of my office door. This, of course, is the point. But to make it happen, I had to give up some control and put a lot of trust in the new teams that were newly empowered to manage core finance processes.

One challenge was to ignore the organizational segregation that characterized our old way of operating in silos. I needed to treat the new shared services teams as valuable parts of the overall finance organization. These are teams who now work for someone else—not for me. But to make our digital transformation work, I needed to think bigger and trust these people to do their jobs. This required not only a change of mindset, but a change of job duties for my local team in order to align more effectively with the shared service teams. Today, both teams collaborate with one another to continuously improve and prepare for change.

This change has been for the best, and not only for SAP as a whole. For the people on my immediate team, their work has moved up a level or two, where they can put their extensive expertise to far better use. Our people, I believe, feel more engaged. Now, instead of managing core processes to “keep the lights on,” we’re focused on tasks and projects that deliver greater value to our customers.

Not only has the digital transformation of finance at SAP helped to facilitate innovation and growth; it has also helped us to deliver a higher level of service to our internal and external customers alike. Not bad work.

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Joel Bernstein

About Joel Bernstein

Joel Bernstein is the CFO for SAP Global Field Finance, which includes responsibilities in the Cloud Business Group, Digital Business Services, and Global Customer Operations. In this role, he is responsible for leading the financial activities and profitable revenue growth for the company’s customer go-to-market organization and driving financial support for the Cloud and Professional Services organization. Joel’s direct Field Finance organization includes all finance functions in the multiple regions and market units worldwide for all SAP revenue-generating businesses. Prior to being promoted into this global position, Joel served as CFO for the SAP North America region. There he led all field finance-related activities for the United States and Canada. An accomplished finance professional, Joel earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting at Wilkes University. He is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Joel is an ardent supporter of SAP’s social corporate responsibility initiatives, often serving as the executive sponsor for programs that connect SAP employees in the communities where they live and work. Reflective of that commitment, Joel is a member of The Franklin Institute’s Board of Trustees, an esteemed organization founded in 1824 whose mission is to inspire a passion for learning about science and technology.