Friday, January 27, 2017

Does Sharing Financial Data Improve Performance?

I'm working with a family-owned engineering firm that has tentatively decided to take a bold step: to start sharing financial information with all their employees. I must confess that it's been hard for me to understand their reluctance to do so. Most A/E and environmental firms that I've worked with over my career have practiced some degree of what's known as open-book management (OBM).

But I've been surprised to learn that my client is in a substantial majority. According to one survey of 1,300 chief financial officers with private companies, only 7% shared financial data with all employees. Another 17% shared this information with only select employees, while 76% provided no such data to their staff.

OBM is more common in the A/E industry, with 21% of firms sharing financial information with all firm members according to the Zweig Group. Yet 36% of "fast-growing firms" practice OBM compared to only 8% of "no growth firms" and 13% of declining firms. Is there a trend here?

Zweig reports that 81% of firms that were Best Firms to Work For Award winners shared revenue data with all employees, whereas 65% shared profit data. Meanwhile, 85% of companies in Inc. Magazine's 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces practice OBM, as do 40% of Inc.'s Top 500 fastest growing companies.

There seems to be a significant correlation between doing OBM and being successful. And it makes perfect sense. Sharing financial information with employees promotes trust and collaboration. It gives employees a better sense of connectedness to the company's success. It enables them to make more informed decisions about how help improve performance and profitability. It improves employee engagement, retention, motivation, innovation, and corporate sustainability, according to a white paper published by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Research directly linking OBM to improved financial performance appears to be lacking, but the anecdotal evidence is abundant. Spend some time reading on the topic and you'll learn of many companies that attribute their success at least in part to becoming more transparent in sharing information with workers. It's easy to see how OBM would help increase employee engagement, and the financial advantages of having a more engaged workforce are well demonstrated.

Clearly, the decision about whether to use OBM or not is a reflection of the firm's culture. One author suggested the change from keeping financial data private to sharing it with employees denotes a shift from a patriarchal culture to a participatory one. I think that's an apt description. The former is akin to playing in a game where only the coach knows the score. It's harder to build a high performing team when such information is withheld.

So if your firm is in the majority but you're open to, well, being more open, where do you start? Here are a few suggestions:

Determine what information to share and how often. Despite the name, OBM isn't an invitation to open your books completely. Certain data, such as individual salaries, should be kept private. The fact is that you can achieve many of the benefits of OBM while sharing only limited information. The most important data is that which employees can act on—helping meet sales targets, reduce expenses, increase efficiency, for example. Sharing financial data quarterly keeps staff informed, but monthly updates probably have a greater influence on performance.

Educate employees about what the numbers mean. Most are probably not adept at reading balance sheets and interpreting financial trends. OBM advocates advise executives to focus on increasing overall business literacy among their staff, explaining what makes the firm successful and giving the numbers meaning. That's more reason for being selective in what is shared, to avoid overwhelming with too much data that people don't really understand.

Sell the importance of profitability. We live in an age when profit is under assault, characterized as a benefit enjoyed only by the affluent. Fortunately, 9 in 10 A/E firms have some kind of bonus or incentive compensation program in which profits are shared with employees. So that makes it easier to sell them on the importance of making a profit. But there are other purposes that profit fulfills relative to keeping the firm healthy and employees happy. Make sure that message is communicated along with the numbers.

Provide context. Explain marketplace trends, industry benchmarks, and what the firm's numbers over time indicate. Show employees how their work contributes to the bottom line. One of the greatest advantages of OBM is giving staff members a sense of ownership and control over how the company fares.

Don't withhold bad news, but maintain optimism. There is often concern that sharing the truth about poor performance with employees will be harmful. Won't they get discouraged and maybe even consider jumping ship? That's possible, but aren't they also a critical part of the solution?

The best approach in most cases is to share the bad news but couple it with encouragement that the firm is facing the issue head-on. Describe what corrective actions are being taken, or even better (when appropriate), solicit staff input into what should be done. Of course, if laying people off or closing business units is potentially part of the solution, you'll have think hard about how much information to share in advance.

Promote a culture that handles transparency responsibly. Many firms don't share financial information because they fear it may cause conflict or rivalry between offices, departments, and managers. If that's true, you're better off focusing on negative cultural and structural influences than withholding valuable information. OBM works better in firms committed to community and collaboration. Chances are your decision to share financial information indicates a desire to strengthen those cultural attributes. Don't let a little bad behavior discourage you from pursuing that goal. Instead, fix the root of the problem.

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