Like many managers, Linda Lindsay uses a table for budgeting and planning (B&P). But unlike most, Lindsay’s table isn’t imbedded in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s in a conference room.

That’s right — Linda Lindsay’s table really is a table. Every other month, 16 financial liaisons, representing more than 100 operating departments at VoiceStream Wireless Corp., gather around that piece of furniture and go over the company’s budget. The roundtable is for local operations only, says Lindsay, who is the director of financial planning and analysis at VoiceStream, a division of German communications behemoth Deutsche Telekom.

Lindsay instituted her financial roundtable about a year ago, prodded by workers in VoiceStream’s operating units. At the time, VoiceStream was growing by leaps and bounds, and operations workers began clamoring for an opportunity to become more active in the company’s financial processes. The company was also bringing on so many new workers it was easy to sign up new hires for loosely defined positions. As those positions evolved, some employees were given the task of serving as financial liaisons.

With Lindsay’s roundtable came a three-legged stool. That is, the concept that true collaboration calls for top-down targets, bottom-up participation — and software that bridges the information and cultural gaps.

While upper management takes care of the top-down targets, the liaisons straddle the worlds of finance and operations — essentially acting as representatives for departmental vice presidents. The setup creates an interesting interdependency between the two, says Lindsay.

The vice presidents are free to focus on organizational goals and objectives, while their budgeting wants and needs are championed by their financial liaisons. And what’s on the roundtable agenda? Everything from B&P schedules to 10-year impairment tests to the company’s cost per wireless subscriber sliced and diced several different ways. More important, says Lindsay, is that the finance department “has the attention of at least 116 different departments.”

The third leg of the stool — technology — is delivered by FRx Software Corp. Initially, Lindsay used the B&P system as a consolidation tool to help integrate several recent acquisitions onto one platform. “It was quick, easy, and we were up and running in a month,” she notes. But the application service provider (ASP) model, with its Web-based functionality, soon proved useful. Having an ASP-based system freed the IT department from desktop installation and maintenance duties, giving them more time to tend to their first priority — customer support.

While VoiceStream’s financial roundtable may be a B&P Camelot, many companies may not be willing, or structurally ready, to invite operations to sit at the table with finance. Chris Hagler, national director of IT services for Resources Connection Inc., a Costa Mesa, California, provider of accounting and finance professionals, says that 75 percent of her company’s clients still use disparate spreadsheets to gather data. Although Hagler believes that the percentage will shrink over the next few years, attaining the B&P Holy Grail — adopting the holistic balanced-scorecard approach to B&P — is something very few companies are even considering at this point.

The bright spot, says Hagler, is that financial employees, in general, are technically savvy. So much so, that in certain companies it’s hard to distinguish between the finance and IT teams. That bodes well for companies that are ready to implement sophisticated B&P systems — and ditch their tables.

Marie Leone is a senior editor at CFO.com.

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