Transformation insider insights: A roundtable with John Ashworth

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John Ashworth is a notable figure in finance transformation and shared services, with decades of experience in transformation leadership roles. He recently led a large-scale, technology-driven finance transformation programme (primarily focused on enterprise resource planning (ERP)) for BT, a multinational business with £22 billion in revenue. He joined us for a roundtable discussion and Q&A about the project, sharing his insights into the process, the challenges he encountered and the learnings he took away.

Did the pandemic impact the programme’s execution and delivery?

I joined BT in 2019, right before the pandemic struck, and I was in learning mode at the company at the time, so I’d been spending a lot of time connecting with key players. And in an instance of great timing, we’d recently done a trial week at home to see if remote would work for us. So, we started off in a good position, and then we tried to make the most of the opportunities it gave us.

We really ramped up our internal engagement – both to keep us connected and to make the programme feel cohesive and coherent. We increased the frequency of all hands meetings and created a role around internal engagement and support. We communicated more about what we were doing, developing regular newsletters, inviting guest speakers to give talks and hosting open sessions where people could come and ask questions. And I think it was beneficial for me as a leader as well. I made sure everyone got the same experience and engagement with me (previously I’d been somewhat selective about who I’d been connecting with).

How did you approach the programme?

We had a clear sense of purpose for the Programme, centred around four key values which stood us in consistently good stead from the outset. We wanted to:

  • improve business insights (the existing management reporting solutions were complex and compromised the information that management received)
  • boost productivity and reduce the cost of the finance function which was over-manned due to the complexity of processes and inefficiencies of the systems landscape
  • improve trust by enhancing controls and delivering more quality in the underlying systems); and
  • invest in people (giving them the skills and capabilities they needed to prosper in a more modern, forward-looking landscape).

The importance of investing in people became an even more important ambition as things progressed. Although we could train people to work with the new software and in the new reporting landscape, we found that we were lacking in basic skills for operating in a forward-looking, cloud-based, information-rich environment. You see, at that time, institutional knowledge was king at BT – it was the most highly prized skill.

We worked to create a new capability workstream focused on ramping up our competency framework. We set up a brand-new learning network with lots of content for people to study. We focused on personal development plans and mandating days set aside for training. Essentially, we created a learning culture.

In addition, recognising that we needed to grow our talent base further, we created a new employee value proposition that was aimed at making BT an even more attractive and compelling place to work. We were able to give people a rich learning experience and move people around the organisation efficiently, and we operated in a very diverse and inclusive fashion as well.

Did you think about what happens after the systems went live?

It was one of the things that kept us honest throughout the programme. You see, when you think about ERP, it’s not just about slamming the technology in and hoping it’ll work when everything’s complete – you need to invest in what it looks like after the go-live. So, we set up Global Process Owners to sustain improvements post-Go Live and we invested in Data Governance and we made sure to build out the right skills and capabilities in the team left behind.

We also wanted to create a process classification framework with full high-quality documentation of systems, processes, controls etc. After all, having gone to the effort to build systems and processes and develop good data standards, I wanted to make sure it would be available for the team moving forwards. I didn’t want future generations to encounter the same problems we did regarding access to information. 

What were some of the major challenges?

Early on, we found that we had massively underestimated the effort required to convert historic company information and data. It ended up being a massively complex and time-consuming task – one which, realistically, had to be handled by the business units themselves, albeit with our support. However, it was hard to get members of the teams to prioritise the work, particularly because it was laying bare some historical accounting challenges.

Finance Teams were somewhat federated which was challenging (especially with regards to decision-making) because business units were used to having their own way. Ultimately, we did some good work in this area, making things more inclusive and driving clear accountability across the organisation. There was also a multiplicity of stakeholders, which meant there were some really complex relationships to navigate. 

We did struggle when it came to identifying internal resourcing though. Working on the programme was seen as a positive career option, and it was hard to sell the merits of the programme to the internal talent pool. We ended up relying more heavily than we needed on third parties – even when we had in-house capabilities. And, of course, there were the joys of IR35 to contend with.

Looking back, would you change how reporting worked?

I’d definitely make sure that all of Finance actually reported to Finance. That would have made life much more straightforward. I would also change the ways we worked with our tech teams. My ability to leverage them and drive them to meet our requirements was slightly compromised, which didn’t help things. There were too many independent team with their own agendas.

How did you staff the programme?

We ended up having to bring in a lot of external people. I think about 70-80% of the programme was staffed externally. I would have liked to shift that dial down. I also think, more generally, we could have done a better job of attracting and retaining offshore talent – especially because they might not have had the same negative perceptions some of the onshore resources had. So, I think we could have tapped an even deeper vein of talent there.

We created some new roles for the programme, which were staffed with a deliberate mix of internal and external talent, like our global process owners (GPOs). Our implementation leads, however, were all carefully recruited internally because we wanted them to be people whose opinions held weight in the business. They also had to be good communicators with the right temperament (they had to embrace change) and respected by their peers and juniors.

How important is change management to successful transformations?

It’s absolutely critical to the successful deployment and delivery of any complex programme. It is easy to approach it simplistically, however. You need to understand that many sub-components and subtleties exist under the “change management” banner. You need to make sure that all elements are addressed and addressed in the right way, with the right branding and delivered in the right context for the people who will be the recipients of the change.

We worked hard to identify a number of change elements in the delivery of our programme. We delivered the traditional activities around stakeholder management, and we focused a lot on embedding change activities at a very practical level within the business units (which was important considering how federated the business was). We also established a team focused on business readiness and deployed a number of implementation leads. Those leads were conduits to and from the business, giving us valuable information about and insights into attitudes, which meant we could adjust the programme as needed.

With hindsight, how do you think the programme went overall?

We had good executive sponsorship, which made a lot of difference. We had a relatively new CFO who was motivated and focused, and willing to bulldoze his way through difficult situations and challenges that stood in our way.

We ended up delivering a strong and robust programme – one that everyone involved could be proud of. Ultimately, like many ERP programmes, we exceeded the projected timeline. And we ended up going over the original approved budget, largely due to the additional scope that was identified. However, the amount of value we were able to extract ended up being much higher than we expected.

Any advice based on your learnings from this project?

  • Get strong executive support – it will make all the difference.
  • Make a realistic assessment of the work involved and make any necessary adjustments to your resourcing model.
  • Get direct lines of reporting, particularly with your tech resources if you’re doing any sort of digital transformation. Intermediaries can complicate matters, and accrue additional costs.
  • Simplify your key relationship model as much as you possibly can, and at the programme level, control those levers as much as you can. The more you let them go, the more distributed and complex things get and the greater the risk of conflict and tension and potential failure.
  • Clearly outline accountabilities and get everyone on the same page. With so many partners involved in our project, there was always this kind of plausible deniability when things didn’t get done.
  • Scope the data piece as thoroughly as you can and deeply investigate the state and maturity of your data – you want to know what you’re getting yourself into.
  • Be prepared to be flexible and patient. Programmes take time and key players may come and go, and attitudes will (hopefully) change. With that in mind, don’t underestimate the importance of change management.
  • Get a decent balance between internal and external talent if you possibly can.

Written by

John Ashworth

John Ashworth is a notable figure in finance transformation and shared services, with decades of experience in transformation leadership roles. Adept in the design, build and run aspects of major transformation programmes (both technology and operating model).

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