In 1998, I was invited to visit a new PricewaterhouseCoopers facility called
“The War Room”. It was a modern, high-tech, garishly decorated suite in which
the top executives of a company would meet for a day or two to discuss with the
consultants particular problems and issues they needed to address. The bulk of
the work with any one company was done before the CEO set foot through the door.
In fact, the consultants said that around 90% of what the board members learned
in their session came from talking to the business’s own employees. That thought
was filed away at the back of my mind.
In 2008, I met Eddie Obeng, founder of a virtual business school called
Pentacle. Obeng had a theory that, because of technology, the pace of change in
business was so great it was faster than anyone could learn. His idea was that
the old command-and-control hierarchical corporate structure was simply no
longer workable. Top management, in short, didn’t have, couldn’t have, all the
Then various bits started falling off the economy. Markets gyrated, banks
failed, people stopped spending and interest rates collapsed, kicking out the
stilts from underneath sterling.
As businesses everywhere struggled to deal with the chaotic business
environment, suddenly all these pieces came together: it seemed like a good time
to initiate a programme of work looking at the notion that the solutions
businesses are desperately trying to find are within the organisation.
Communication is key
With sponsorship support from Microsoft, we undertook reader research, a
roundtable and a breakfast briefing under the banner, “The Solution Within”. FDs
told us there wasn’t enough communication between departments or silos in their
organisation; that it was management’s job to foster communication; and that
more creativity was needed to find the solutions to the problems they face.
Despite all the nice-sounding words that “People are our most important asset,”
most organisations find it difficult to make best use of those assets.
Emma Lancaster, FD of psychometric testing group SHL, spoke in our roundtable
event in December. She made several important points about the need for employee
engagement. “People who aren’t motivated are unlikely to contribute and give
that extra 10%,” she concluded.
It’s hard to escape the fact, however, that one of the challenges facing FDs
is that when times are as tough as they are now, the natural inclination for
those with a finance background is to try to control things even more tightly.
All our speakers said FDs have to fight the urge to strengthen your ‘command and
control’ over the business at times like this. For one thing, your sense of
control is, in fact, spurious. For another thing, it’s not going to give you the
answers you’re looking for. Mark Riminton, a business coach from Shirlaws, told
our roundtable, “The brave companies are the ones that are giving people a
little bit more rope not to hang themselves with but to make something more
Walk the walk
The Work Foundation consultant Jane Sullivan addressed our breakfast briefing a
few weeks later. One of her themes was the difference between what we, as
managers, say and what we do. We want, she told us, creativity, innovation and
empowerment. What we do or have is risk aversion, bureaucracy and resistance to
change and new ideas. We want fluidity, we have a silo mentality.
There were a couple of interesting issues about technology. The first was
that there is simply too much email.
Lancaster made the point that email can be a lost opportunity. “You might
write that, for example, your cash number needs to be this or you’re behind
budget on that, whereas with a telephone call you will discuss what is going on
in the business and build a relationship,” she said.
A not dissimilar point was made in our breakfast briefing by John Tate, a
former FD and now the managing director of ChangeBase. He said that young
people in particular, the Generation Y kids, are very good at using social
networking sites to communicate but that this, again, can be a case of
technology getting in the way of communication. It was, for me, something of an
What might also be dubbed ‘the network generation’ gets stuck behind the
computer screens and won’t venture forth throughout the building to actually go
and talk to people. If physical distance is a problem, then there’s not much
wrong with a 100-year-old piece of technology called the telephone, I dare to
What became clear throughout our whole programme was that finance has a real
opportunity to step up to the plate and bring about some of the silo-shattering
changes that can help create a greater flow of ingenuity throughout the
organisation. FDs on our panel and in our audience agreed that finance can
foster better communication by building relationships throughout the
organisation. Every organisation needs to use all the talents at their disposal
and FDs can help make that happen. I’m only sorry it has taken me since 1998
to realise that.
Our research project raised £250 for
the charity that helps make wishes come true for children and young people with
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