The New Way to Work: The Finance, HR, and Business Partnership

Collaboration between finance, HR, and operational leaders is critical to driving growth and adapting to constant change. Workday's Leighanne Levensaler, Kae Arima, and Kim Roa share how they work together.

When we ask business leaders about the challenges they face, they often talk about the need for better collaboration among finance, HR, and operational leaders. Having strong and productive partnerships is critical to driving growth and adapting to constant change, but many organizations are challenged by current systems that make it difficult to share data and collaborate.

At Workday, having unified finance and HR data in the cloud has had a big impact on the way our operational leaders and their business partners work together. Leighanne Levensaler, senior vice president of products, regularly meets with her finance and HR business partners—Kae Arima, director of finance, and Kim Roa, director of people, products, and corporate functions—to review how the business is doing and strategize on any issues and solutions.

All three say that having a current and holistic view of the company has created a new level of strategic partnership and discussions, and even changed the way they feel about their professions. Read on to understand how Leighanne and her team approach collaboration.

Why is it important to have close partnerships between HR, finance, and business leaders?

Levensaler: Businesses today are under pressure to keep pace with fast growth and constant change. In my role at Workday, I need to have a firm grasp on every dimension of my organization—capacity, capabilities, quality, and expense—so I can make smart financial and people decisions as business needs evolve. This wouldn’t be possible without true collaboration with my business partners.

How have finance, HR, and the business traditionally collaborated?

Levensaler: It has traditionally been challenging for these groups to collaborate, because many companies don’t have a technology foundation that provides consistency and accuracy across finance and HR data. I remember at some jobs earlier in my career spending a large percentage of time with my business partners trying to reconcile numbers and make sure we were on the same page, which left less time to focus on the work at hand.

Arima: I had similar experiences, and spent so much time cleansing data and preparing reports that there wasn’t enough time for analysis. Many hours went into stitching reports together from separate finance and HR systems and getting consensus on numbers that were often stale by the time we were ready to use them to generate a forecast. It was nearly impossible for me to extract usable reports out of legacy systems and provide greater context and insights to business leaders.

Roa: I also remember back when it was a challenge to get accurate data. Finance would pull data from one system and interpret it a certain way and HR would pull data from another source and have different interpretations. Ultimately, it led to confusion and many rounds of review, making business leaders skeptical of the numbers. It was a grueling experience that required hours of manually pulling together reports that were already outdated by the time they were completed.

What are your conversations like now?

Levensaler: My conversations with Kae and Kim are focused on high-value initiatives like optimizing our organizational design, career and talent mobility for our people, and product line performance and profitability. This is possible because we are always working from a single source of truth reflecting the real-time reality of our ever-changing organization.

When there are anomalies or areas of concern with operating expenses or variance in our headcount plan, we can drill down into the numbers for a better understanding of what’s happening and manage it. For example, during one quarter, we were able to see in real-time that we were underspending per our plan—for good reason—in one area, and quickly addressed this by moving up a future project in another area to work on, helping us stay on budget and get more work done sooner. That was valuable insight, and I felt like I was being a good financial steward of the resources entrusted to our organization.

Arima: Leighanne and other business partners don’t have to wait for me to produce reports and send them out. They’re empowered to look at their financial and HR data at any time, which has resulted in more substantive conversations and a really strong partnership.

Leighanne shows up to our meetings with very specific questions, such as why we’ve forecasted a specific amount, and I’m able to focus our time on answering them and thinking strategically about business needs. I’m also able to track in real-time where we are with budget and expenses, so if something is off, we are able to easily drill into the ledger detail and discuss what adjustments should be made to stay ahead of things.

Roa: Having such transparency across the organization creates a whole new level of business partnership. Rather than spending time looking backwards at the data, our conversations are focused on looking forward and strategizing on business needs, such as where we might be challenged in meeting headcount goals. I can then work with business leaders and my talent acquisition partners to roll out targeted programs to address these challenges. I regularly have business leaders proactively reaching out to me to discuss trends they are noticing when looking at the data, which is very refreshing!

How has this close collaboration impacted the way you feel about your jobs?

Arima: I joined Workday because I saw the potential to be a true finance business partner. I’ve been able to move past just talking about numbers to focusing conversations on trends, opportunities, and challenges. It’s the ideal way of how I’ve always wanted work, but I didn’t have the technology infrastructure to support me in the past.

Roa: I now have powerful tools that allow me to spend more time analyzing, collaborating, and working on solutions with my business partners. This is the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do as an HR professional. It’s an exciting time to be in HR and finance, and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

What are the most valuable insights or learnings you’ve gained from these partnerships?

Arima: I’ve realized how important it is to have a single source of truth. We all look at the same data, so there is no question of inconsistency and it’s created a more trusting and collaborative partnership. Also, there’s no reason for finance to be the keeper of the data—my partners are empowered to look at data themselves whenever they want and come to me when they have questions. It’s a completely different dynamic than what I’ve seen at other companies, and they’re often raising questions that I wouldn’t have thought to bring up. It doesn’t replace the need to meet with partners; it simply elevates the conversation to a more insightful and strategic level.

Roa: Real-time data and complete transparency are so important for effective collaboration. When you have this, your business partners feel empowered and accountable. As Kae mentioned, it certainly doesn’t replace regular meetings and touch points, but it makes those meetings so much more valuable.

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