Digitally transforming Schillings’ finance function
An interview with Head of Finance Blake Gaffney
Blake Gaffney is the Head of Finance at international firm Schillings.
Schillings is an international reputation and privacy consultancy that employs lawyers who specialise in reputation and privacy, risk consulting experts, cyber security and intelligence specialists. Like many other organisations, digital transformation is at the forefront of the company’s strategy, and within the finance function Blake has been implementing several big changes in the way his team works and the tools they use since joining the firm in 2017.
For Blake, there are two key factors to consider from a digital transformation perspective for the finance function.
“The first is that you have to have a fully-fledged practice management system working for you that integrates really well with time-recording and integrates with other systems in the business on people/HR and reporting, and a working solution on the CRM side so you can report client’s specific financial data side-by-side,” Blake says.
The second area that he believes is critical is turning the finance function paperless – from basic tasks such as approving invoices and updating bank details – to more complicated pieces of work like viewing analysis dashboards and monthly results – the ability to do them online enables staff to view, edit and access their progress from anywhere in the world.
“There are also software packages that can really help push firms from a 20th century approach to a 21st century paperless environment,” he says.
There will be stumbling blocks in getting there, Blake adds, particularly as some employees may be hesitant to use alternatives to paper, but he suggests that pushing these changes through will mean that all employees will get on board eventually – and that the business will reap the efficiency benefits in the long-term.
This online access is not restricted to translating certain processes from paper to digital, but also being able to access the finance system through a range of devices, including smartphones, laptops and iPads, in order to be able to carry out basic processes such as time recording, approving invoices, submitting holiday requests and approving expenses. This is as a result of employees being able to work remotely in line with company policies. It is something which has quickly had to become the norm for a lot of firms as we all navigate our way through the current crisis. To support that transition, Blake says tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams can help to keep finance professionals to communicate face-to-face with their teams, and others in the business. The security of such platforms however should be tested and understood before utilising, and as Cyber experts at Schillings we know too well security is paramount.
The importance of data
Blake’s role is to oversee the accurate, consistent and timely production of management information to drive performance – through data to those who manage people, compliance and business development. Therefore, data forms a big part of his job – and certain tools such as Katchr help the organisation to collate, analyse and present this information to those who need it.
“One of the key advantages is that we have a practice management and CRM system called Peppermint, which is supported by Microsoft Dynamics, and then Katchr that overlays, both ofwhich can export to Excel quickly, and then you can present it differently depending on the use you have for it,” he says.
This data can then be used to help Blake to become more of an operational and strategic advisor.
“That’s a part of the role I really enjoy and I think it’s becoming more important in the legal and professional services sector where at times you can be speaking to people who aren’t trained to be experts when it comes to numbers or finances – they’re brilliant lawyers, advisors and consultants but they need the support from the finance function to understand how the business is doing and where change is required to drive performance,” he states.
The best way to help them do this, Blake believes, is through the right frequency of reporting, whether it be a daily snapshot, versus a weekly summary, versus a monthly report. Sometimes less is more, as long as the right information is being shared with the relevant audience at the right time.
Obstacles to overcome
As well as the challenges getting employees to buy-in mentioned above, there are various other obstacles for the person heading up the finance function when it comes to digital initiatives.
Firstly, there needs to be a genuine business case for any technology implementation.
“For example, putting in an expense approval process online for mobile apps, we know it’s going to require an initial investment and it will take some extra time to get it working but there’s no point at the end if it’s going to be quicker for people to just put manual invoices into the system.”
“Even if the solution is helpful for users, it also has to be useful for people in the backend who are processing information, otherwise you’re going to spend more on technology and resources in the long-term,” says Blake.
It’s also important that the whole business is aligned on these digital initiatives; the finance leader needs to work with the CEO, COO, CTO and senior management to be on the same page around an overarching digital strategy.
Equally important is the ability for the organisation to be able to both consider the day-to-day operations and the future distinctly.
“I feel supported in my role at Schillings because we have a strategic board that focuses on two or three years down the line. This allows the day-to-day operational staff to continue without getting distracted by what the next strategic thinking is, and maintaining a level of sanity in ensuring the business is operating effectively day to day,” Blake says.
Key takeaways from Blake:
1. What digital transformation for the finance function means
Digitally transforming the finance function requires an effective practice management system that integrates with other systems in the business whether it be people, time recording, or reporting, and also a CRM system that enables you to report client’s financial data side-by-side, and allows you to evolve into a paperless world.
2. The biggest obstacles for going digital
The key challenges for digital transformation, he says, are getting the buy-in at the outset, supported by a genuine business case for any technology implementation, and complete alignment with other C-level executives and departments.
3. Data is helping Blake to become a strategic advisor
Using tools such as Katchr, Blake can make sense of the data at the company’s disposal and have it displayed in a user friendly, simple form. This enables him to become more of an operational and strategic advisor.