Shared Services – Are They A Good Idea

Things happen fast in business and we need to stay on top. It does not seem long ago that some enterprises were still hands-on traders or artisans with a few youngsters to help out. Folk like that did not do admin and their accounting was a matter of making sure there was enough money in the jar.

When Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton took over his first shop in 1945 things had moved on from there, although he did still deal directly with his customers. When he died his legacy was 380,000 jobs, and a business larger than most economies. So there’s plenty we can learn from how he grew his business.

One of Sam’s secrets was his capacity to centralise what needed gathering together, while empowering store managers to think independently when it came to local conditions. His regional warehouses had individual outlets clustered around them within one day’s drive each. This shared service eliminated 90% of safety stock and released capital for expansion.

Wal-Mart took sharing services a step further in February 2006, when it centralised accounts payable, accounts receivable, general accounting and human resources administration at Wal-Mart Stores and Sam’s Clubs in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The objective was to bring costs down, while allowing local managers more time to focus on their business plans and other initiatives. As a further spin-off, Wal-Mart was able to integrate its data on a single SAP platform and eliminate significant roadblocks.

This is an excellent example of sharing services by creating own centres of excellence.  Of course, this is not the only business possibility. Other corporates have successfully completely outsourced their support activities, and Wal-Mart has no doubt had a variety of similar offers too. But, is the Wal-Mart picture entirely rosy, or is there a catch?

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants has indicated that top talent may be the loser globally. This is because the Wal-Mart model removes many challenges through standardization, and offers less scope for internal promotion as a result. Language and cultural differences may also have a long-term detrimental effect on the way the departments work well together.

Local outsourcing – this is the business model where several firms engage a shared service provider independently- may hence prove to be a more malleable option for smaller companies. It often makes more sense to hunt down made-to-order services. Offerings such as the professional support we offer on this site: contact us.