If you’d like to improve the technical skills of your finance team, here are a couple of ideas. First, directly challenge them to get better. Second, give them bonuses if they do.
That simple yet somewhat out-of-the-box formula appears to be working for Granite Telecommunications, a $1 billion, business-to-business provider of telephone lines and related services.
The company is more than two months into a 20-week program in which finance staffers are willingly educating themselves, mostly at home during off hours, on how to use capabilities of Microsoft’s Excel, Power Pivot and SQL Server tools that previously weren’t in their competency quivers.
The company has allocated what CFO Richard Wurman calls “a huge chunk of money” (which he declined to quantify) to reward team members for expanding their skill sets within the Microsoft applications. “No one is going to get rich from this, but we are paying people to better themselves, and their whole skill set will be enhanced,” he says. “It’s getting people motivated and excited.”
The program grew out of efforts by a small group of Microsoft power users in the finance department, led by vice president of finance and accounting Doug Allen, to promote to other departments the benefits of Power Pivot and SQL Server as business-intelligence tools. “Doug told me about all the things he was doing, and I started thinking about ways to get all of our finance teams [moving in that direction]. They saw what Doug was doing but weren’t catching on as quickly as I’d have liked,” says Wurman.
Power Pivot, an Excel add-in, offers souped-up pivot tables allowing users to mash up big data sets from multiple sources and perform more sophisticated data-slicing and dicing actions than can be accomplished with regular pivot tables. Depending on the amount of computer memory available, the tool can accommodate up to 990 million rows of data (though it usually tops out at 100 million rows), rather than standard Excel’s million-row limit. SQL Server is a relational database management system from which users can extract information conforming to criteria presented in structured query language.
Such tools essentially give end users like those in finance and accounting the ability to run their own business-intelligence reports rather than having to send queries through the IT department — historically a time-consuming process and one that can be prohibitively costly, as providing that service generally requires construction of a data warehouse.
Granite needs such robust capabilities because it tracks usage of 1.3 million phone lines and 130 million calls per month. “Power Pivot gives users their own data warehouse that allows them to ask questions about the data and write reports at their desktops in seconds,” says Wurman.
For the skills-enhancement initiative — redundantly and somewhat confusingly called “The Excel Program” — Wurman, Allen and the group of power users identified 80 competencies within Excel, Power Pivot and SQL Server that team members could use to benefit the company. Each competency was assigned a value of one, two or three points. Participants — new ones continue to join in, even though the program kicked off on July 15 — first calculate a baseline score by adding up the points attendant to skills they’ve already mastered.
Cash will be awarded to those with baselines of 25 points or lower who gain 25 points by the program’s Nov. 28 ending date, and to those with baselines above 25 points who gain at least 40 points. The amount awarded to each qualified participant will be based on how many points he or she gained and will be proportional to the total points gained by all participants above and beyond their aggregate baseline scores.
Half of the cash will be doled out on that basis. The other half will be awarded in a raffle. Leaders of 12 groups established for purposes of the program will each nominate a winner and a runner-up in three areas – most improved, best commitment to goal and best applied solution – as eligible for the raffle.
There is a catch, though. While everyone in finance is eligible for the program, participation is entirely voluntary, and the prize money will be awarded only if 100 people qualify to get some of it.
Granite has 160-plus finance professionals, which may sound like a lot for a $1 billion company but is normal for one that size in the telecommunications industry. Granite, for example, has 38 people in billing, 25 in product pricing and 20 in direct cost auditing. More typically for a company its size, there are 25 employees in accounts payable and payment processing, 13 in financial planning and analysis and 13 in credit and collections. Only 10 are focused on general-ledger accounting and tax.
As of mid-September, 39 people had earned enough points to qualify for the bonus cash, and both Wurman and Allen say they’re confident that the 100-person threshold will be reached easily.
Wurman expects most of the learning to be self-taught at employees’ homes. Some of it may be through the normal course of work as employees see necessary to enhance deliverables, “but they’re really here to work,” the CFO says. “I’m really trying to get them to learn this on their own.” Granite offers Excel classes, but Wurman is making sure that the number of those doesn’t increase while the skills program is in effect.
While the initiative still has two months to go, value from it is already being created.
For example, a revenue-assurance specialist, Zach Walsh, spotted a large pile of under-reported revenue. Previously when faced with tens of millions of rows of raw data, out of necessity the revenue-assurance team would rely on summarized data tables to calculate key inputs. But using newly learned Power Pivot and SQL capabilities, Walsh found that he could compare totals gleaned from the actual detailed records with those calculated through the summarization process. The gap was a cool $1 million in Granite’s favor.
And a member of the product-pricing team, Elias Armendariz, decided to try automating the process of identifying when major carriers change their prices. Granite buys phone lines wholesale from the big carriers and sells them at a discount to the tariff rates filed with state public utility commissions. That necessitates a rigorous tracking of more than 40,000 phone-service rates across the country. As there is no central database of what major carriers charge, Granite conducts an exhaustive, manual search for such changes every month. Until now.
“Because of Power Pivot competencies acquired through the program, I was able to dump various large databases into one Power Pivot file and get them to talk to each other in a way that automatically identified pricing changes,” Armendariz says. “This automated report, which can be refreshed each month with the push of a button, has instantly saved our team 25 hours per week.”
Of course, many employees in areas like accounts payable and payroll don’t have great use for advanced business-intelligence capabilities — yet. “We can look at who’s motivated to gain competency points, who’s bright and cruising through,” says Allen. “We can identify people who have gained skills really quickly and move them to another area or advance their current responsibilities.”
Wurman notes that at Granite, everyone has goals and development items. The Excel Program offers the opportunity to implement a new, very measurable type of objective. “We can say to people who we want to get better that we want them to gain, say, 20 competency points in the next quarter,” he says. Although Wurman hasn’t yet thought about whether the formal program will be repeated, “we can use what we’ve created in many ways in the future.”
Granite’s finance leaders don’t expect to see much fraudulent inflation of competency points, though Allen acknowledges that there have been plenty of jokes about people “sandbagging” on their baseline competencies.
“We want to keep this fun, so we don’t want to get too crazy with monitoring,” Allen says. “But we had a discussion with all the supervisors, who have an average of about eight direct reports, and they know who knows what.” Wurman said at the program’s rollout that there might at its end be an audit of the competencies of 20 to 30 randomly selected individuals. But he says now that “whether we do that or not, we wanted it out there that you could get tested, and the fear of that will make for self-policing.”
Meanwhile, although acquiring a large basket of new skills in a short time period can be exhausting, there is a good mix of fun and pride coming out of the program, according to Allen and Wurman.
“You’d be amazed at the water-cooler buzz,” Allen says. “People are saying, ‘What’s your baseline,’ or ‘You haven’t done SQL yet? What’s wrong with you?’ I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and seeing so many people getting so well trained and finding so many dollars on the bottom line, it’s the most compelling thing I’ve ever been a part of.”