The secrets of training and benchmarking

Use quiet periods to assess what you can learn from other organisations, says Chris Harris of Cipfa

Chris Harris, Cipfa
Chris Harris, Cipfa

There is something special about August. For those left behind in the office while the majority join the annual holiday migration, it can be a welcome opportunity to enjoy a little peace and quiet.

Of course, your colleagues will tell you they have still been busy, but if you listen carefully, even that automatic response is delivered in a more relaxed tone. They have used the time to clear up loose ends, bring the filing up to date and try to prepare for whatever September will bring.

Like people, organisations and teams need that opportunity for rest and recuperation, and for many of us it has been a good time to take stock of how the finance team is doing. Most finance teams thrive on hard work, but the risk is that the 'head down and get on with it' approach emphasises familiar routine rather than change and innovation. In our organisation, the holiday period has been an opportunity to look at two activities that benefit from particular forethought and planning on the part of the finance director, and were unlikely to get done otherwise.

One is benchmarking. This is a helpful discipline for identifying key performance targets for your team, but it must be used intelligently, recognising the particular requirements of your organisation. Many participants in benchmarking studies never get beyond the 'positioning' stage, but most of the value comes from the relevant staff visiting another organisation and finding out how it achieves its results. Getting out of the office can be a useful activity so long as people feel supported and there is a good reason for it. The solution they find is often not entirely transferable, but the benefit of learning some new techniques and recognising that there are other ways to do things is a valuable asset for finance staff.

The other activity is planning the training provision. Given the current pressure on resources, it is tempting to cut training budgets and rely on the lack of available jobs to keep your staff in place. But this is a short-term strategy and is eventually likely to reduce motivation and innovation.

Training at technician and accountant level should be encouraged, with particular attention given to charity-specific training. Of course, merely encouraging staff to sign up for a course is not enough, so employers that allocate specific time to support their students will get far more value from the process.

Both of these approaches will add value to your finance team, increasing the likelihood of improved productivity and doing more with less.

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