768: How Real-Time Data Is Changing the Performance Conversation | Michael High, CFO, Deep Water Gulf of Mexico, Shell


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Back in 2012, when Michael High was heading up corporate planning across 30 countries for Shell, the energy company’s CFO made it known that it was time for Shell’s business leaders to reconsider their ritual of renegotiating annual business targets.

To that end, Shell’s finance leader let it be known that the business units could skip the company’s corporate planning process in the coming year, as an affirmation of their commitment to the targets they had agreed to the year before.

“I actually think that this was the right insight at the time, but it generated a ton of knock-on consequences over time,” explains High, who commends the finance leader’s willingness to take head on what’s recognized in business at large as the budgeting process’s greatest vulnerability: target renegotiation.

Still, the consequences were real.

“When we went to turn on the planning system in 2014, most people didn’t remember how it worked. There was a series of intricate steps—something like 146 steps and different jobs required to get the IT application to do everything that it was supposed to. And, of course, if you do it only once a year, nobody remembers all the right steps,” comments High, who notes that the circumstances also exposed how talent often factors into corporate planning.

“If you think about the FP&A community and the IT community that supports FP&A, you realize that these tend to be high-turnover roles. They tend to be career-developing roles. So, you’d put people in them for maybe 2 to 3 years, typically. Well, by the time we got around to doing business planning in 2014, 80 percent of the organization that either had facilitated the planning process or controlled the IT systems had turned over,” recalls High.

Today, High views as a painful lesson the subsequent late nights and weekends required to get Shell’s corporate planning process back on track—times when many members of Shell’s FP&A team paid a high price. “I was accountable for the process, so it was a leadership failure on my part,” he states.

However, High observes that something more did arise from this consequential episode. Over the next few years, High says, he began to note how a shift was under way within organizations as the regular enhancement of cloud applications began to surpass the functionality improvements of legacy ERP platforms. Meanwhile, when it came to corporate planning, he became focused on how the talent demands of certain IT systems had traditionally put the planning process at a higher risk.

According to High, he was determined to “de-risk” technology in planning and eliminate IT complexity.

To better evaluate some of the new cloud applications, High began attending different conferences, including the annual gathering of the Association of Financial Professionals (AFP)—where the cloud vendors always highlighted how they were zeroing-in on corporate planning’s pain points.

This helped High to see how the adroitness with which certain cloud applications can access, correlate, and display company data could once and for all put an end to certain planning rituals such as the renegotiation of targets.

Concludes High: “What you have the potential to do today is to really change the nature of the performance conversation and the results discussion. You can go from having a static set of numbers produced outside of the room to a discussion during which you can pull up live data and talk about it and actually seek answers to questions on the spot.” –Jack Sweeney

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