On 4 March, Swedish financial planning and analysis (FP&A) professionals gathered for the launch of the Stockholm Club. Congregating at the capital’s Radisson Blue Strand Hotel, practitioners discussed the latest trends in FP&A and the new FP&A certification from the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP), the parent of gtnews.
In his opening remarks, Jim Kaitz, president and chief executive (CEO) of AFP, updated attendees on the new certification. In just a matter of months, the certification has become truly global, with participants from multiple countries taking the beta exams.
“We had a great kickoff to our Stockholm FP&A Club,” Kaitz said, after the meeting. “There were a lot of great interactions between the FP&A practitioners, or business control practitioners as they’re referred to in Sweden. We’ll be back for the next club in May and we look forward to a great discussion on the challenges that Swedish FP&A professionals are facing.”
The opening of the Stockholm FP&A Club capped a busy week for Kaitz. During his time in Sweden he also met with several major Swedish companies to discuss their FP&A functions and the new certification. “There are a lot of challenges and opportunities when it comes to FP&A-related issues,” he said. “I think over time, our FP&A certification will set the standard for the profession worldwide.”
FP&A in Sweden
FP&A is more commonly referred to in Sweden as ‘business control’. Until recently, it was often combined with financial control. However, with Swedish communications giant Ericsson taking a leading role in the separation of the business and finance control processes, many organisations in Sweden have begun to reorganise their controlling functions.
As it became clear that business controllers need to become more strategic and influential in the current business environment, many Swedish chief financial officers (CFOs) and heads of business control realised that the skills for finance and business controllers are different. Swedish business controllers/FP&A professionals have developed their skills through the process of “learning by doing.”
Stockholm FP&A Club attendees were asked if they were truly satisfied with their current FP&A functions, and no-one indicated that they were. The response tallies with what has been observed in other parts of the globe: FP&A functions need to be reorganised. Too much time is spent on non-value adding activities, such as when FP&A professionals are reconciling and consolidating data and manipulating multiple spreadsheet models.
As one Stockholm attendee mentioned, FP&A professionals do not have enough time to analyse the data. “We need to change this trend and to spend more time on value-adding activity,” he said.
Attendees generally express that for FP&A departments in Sweden to be faster, more flexible, and able to generate valuable business insights from “big data” for better forecasting and planning, they need better infrastructure, namely:
- Skilled FP&A professionals.
- Better systems.
- Effective processes.
- A supportive business culture.
Swedish CFOs and heads of business control are not alone in finding it very difficult to find good FP&A professionals/business controllers. Currently, these roles are often filled from a pool of bright finance graduates and post-graduates who specialise in finance. No specific finance qualifications exist and new business controllers learn from their more experienced peers.
“With increased global competition, the need for a strong international FP&A certification can become stronger,” noted one participant. “It will increase differentiation of the market and will give a competitive advantage to people who are serious about a building career in FP&A/business control.”
A few participants mentioned that the FP&A profession in Sweden is not yet as “desirable” as it is in the UK or US, meaning that the function still has some way to go before it becomes more analytical, strategic and influential. The general consensus at the meeting was that FP&A professionals should be able to see the big picture; they need to understand the main business drivers, be able to analyse both financial and non-financial information and communicate recommendations and business insights to the decision makers.
“It is difficult to find all the skills required in one person,” said one attendee. “That is why the ability to build effective FP&A teams is important. This is something that will create a strong competitive advantage for the company.”
As in many other parts of the globe, Swedish finance professionals extensively use spreadsheets for their flexibility and ease of use. However, attendees recognised that the FP&A function cannot be quick, flexible and dynamic without a dedicated FP&A system.
A common problem experienced when implementing an FP&A system is its inflexibility. If a model is not driver-based and mostly follows existing accounting structures, it can hardly support modern FP&A processes. System ‘black boxes’ are often the problem, therefore many system users continue to use Excel models for financial planning and analysis.
While spreadsheets are not ideal for use by large organisations, attendees noted that it continues to be the system of choice for most FP&A professionals, given the issues they face from modern FP&A systems.
All the attendees agreed that they have to be quick, flexible and dynamic in order to facilitate and enable effective decision-making processes. Rolling forecast is a popular tool in Sweden with many companies making implementations and improvements in this area.
However, because of the issues with quality of information from multiple ‘legacy systems’ the amount of non-value adding activities is high.
Attendees concluded that effective FP&A processes should allow for participative planning, multidimensional analysis, easy scenario planning and quick planning and forecasting processes.
Scandinavian business culture is different from many other countries. It encourages flat organisations and team work and reporting to the outside world is not as strict as in the UK or US. As a result, Scandinavian companies are taking leading roles in implementing the ‘Beyond Budgeting’ concept. Swedish bank Handelsbanken was one of the first companies in the world that abandoned the budget almost 40 years ago. Among others are Swedish automaker Volvo and Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil.
It is obvious that in order to encourage the FP&A department’s transformation into a modern flexible and dynamic function, business culture should support the change.
Attendees mentioned that flexible compensation targets, combined with the process of distinguishing forecasts from targets, are important cultural aspects that can improve the quality of forecasting and planning processes.
In response to the high level of interest across Sweden in the Beyond Budgeting concept, the Stockholm FP&A Club decided to devote its next event, to be held in May, to this subject.
The Swedish market has great potential and interest in the area of FP&A/business control. As the function continues to develop, the demand for a new generation of FP&A professionals will only increase. System implementations will continue to allow for a more dynamic and driver-based approach. FP&A processes will continue to develop and allow for business collaboration, multidimensionality and flexibility. Cultural changes will be less political, and more creative and value-adding.
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