Tuesday, 29 July 2008

You're Teaching - But Are They Learning?

Last night, at the dojo, John was teaching. John has a radically different way of teaching martial arts. He smiles. He cracks jokes. He took a serious Aikido exercise and called it the "Weeble Wobble" (as in "weebles wobble but they don't fall down"). He encouraged the beginners to get in close. He said that in classical martial arts training, the top students stood in the first row and the lesser students stood in the rows behind them, each learning from the row in front of them. John's comment was that some of the lesson is lost learning that way.

The Sensei of the dojo, George, has a different style. He emphasizes classical Aikido training, where students watch the master closely and "steal" his technique. But even George says that he does more verbal explanations now because some students learn better that way.

I am not comparing the two teachers to say that one has a better style than the other. Quite the opposite. You need both. You need the classical, disciplined approach AND the irreverent, fun approach. They (and others besides) will give you different prisms to view the material through. You will see and retain different things.

My favorite trainer, Kristi, had a bunch of useful techniques she had picked up along the way. She would tell her students, "All those things they taught you about cheating in high school? Forget them! In this class we cheat. Anything you need to get to the right answer is fine. Look over your neighbor's shoulder, consult your notes, ask someone or look it up in the manual." Kristi bribed the students with little chocolates. She would make them get up and stretch. She would hand out "speeding tickets", little yellow cardboard squares that a student could hold up when the trainer was going too fast or too slow. She knew that when the eyes glaze over all learning stops.

I too have done a lot of training. One day, I was complaining to my wife, a teacher, after a particularly disappointing session. She asked me to describe how I trained. She was amazed. "You mean you just stand at the front and talk?" When I protested that I also did a lot of exercises and encouraged questions, she asked, "But what if not all your students are auditory learners?"

It turns out that a lot of research has been done about learning styles since the days when I was in school. We now know that different people learning differently, emphasizing their ears, their eyes or even their fingers. My wife encouraged me to experiment with dividing the class into groups and asking them to present to each other. There's no better way to cement in a lesson than by asking someone to teach it.

So, the next time you hold a team meeting, change things up a little. Get other people to present. Change the format. Throw in a little chocolate and have some fun. Just because we're serious about what we do, doesn't mean that we have to take ourselves seriously.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Brag Bag Now Open!

Chris Brogan, a social media expert, just tweeted about a great concept called the Brag Bag. Every Friday Becky McCray, who runs SmallBizSurvival blog, posts an article encouraging people to add a comment about something they're proud of. Some people talk about personal accomplishments. Some people brag about what friends or co-workers have done. Others just leave a high-5 to the other people who left their comments. The result is an energetic, positive tribute to the human spirit.

Hmm, maybe Becky should consider opening the bag on Monday mornings, when we could all use a little lift.

Accounting is an area with many unsung heros, people who go that extra mile for others, but who often don't get any public recognition, so let's do the same thing. If you have overcome an obstacle, tackled something new or would like to recognize someone else who has, please add a comment to this article and tell the world!
[Edit - Correction per Chris Brogan.]

Monday, 21 July 2008

Security Officer Goes Postal

Today's Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper had this article about a city of San Francisco computer engineer who changed the security passwords on his employer's system. The system still works, but nobody can get in to set up new users, change passwords etc. The man, Terry Childs, is languishing in a local jail with bail set at $5,000,000.

As an accountant, should you care? I do. The accounting system I run is a major user of the computer network. A network security issue is a financial security risk.

My first thought was: breakdown in controls, i.e. segregation of incompatible duties. There should be more than one person with the system password. But then I thought, wait, what if the control system was in place? What if Childs just let himself in late one night, as he would typically do to apply new security patches, and changed the password? If he were in charge of security, it would be quite a normal thing for him to do. The difference is that he didn't notify the other security administration staff of the change.

My next thought was how to design a security system so that this couldn't happen. You would need at least two passwords, neither of which could change the other. Then there would have to be two independent security officers, etc. I checked with the security officer on our system. He said that we have three system administrators, each with a separate admin login and password. Even if one of them changed the password on all three admin accounts, it's still possible to unlock the admin password. Thank you, Microsoft!

But design is only half the issue. Even though our system could recover from a rogue security officer, that doesn't mean that he/she couldn't do a significant amount of damage. Control systems only go so far. They cannot protect you from human feelings and weaknesses. If your security officer does not feel that he/she is part of the team, then you have a major risk regardless of how well your system is designed.

So, who is to blame, the employee or the employer? The newspaper article doesn't shed much light on why Childs was so disgruntled that he would put himself and the whole city of San Francisco at risk, but my experience leads me to point the finger squarely at both. Putting Childs in jail will not correct the problem. Management needs to find out what the problem is and take positive steps to listen to employee concerns, and employees need to find a constructive way to air their grievances. In his own passive-agressive way, Childs has become the most outspoken of the disgruntled employees, but I'll bet you 10 pounds of Ghirardelli chocolate he's not the only one.

P.S. A note on security: one of my clients was doing an upgrade and I saw him logging in as "Bob". I told him that for this work he had to login as Admin. He just smiled and said the Administrator account actually had no system privileges. It was there as a decoy for hackers. The real power was in the Bob account. Lesson learned.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Accounting 501: Be Nimble

The only time my father's employer changed was when his firm merged with another, whereas I have had several employers, including myself. I didn't plan it that way. In fact, I had every intention of staying with my first employer until I retired. But my generation was the one that coined the phrase negative growth, and so many things have happened in my career that I never expected:

  • International accounting firms laying off staff - It was the early 80's, before all of the mergers that turned the Big 8 into the Big 4.

  • Competent managers being counseled out - There was little room in the partnership, and it was either up or out.

  • Prosperous companies stumbling - During the job interview process, it never occurred to me to do a credit check on my employers. In hindsight, I should have.

  • Administration is an economy of scale - When two firms merge, the accounting department is one area where the new owners look for staff reductions.

As accountants, we have some advantages:

  • Transferrable skills - Allowing for regional and industry differences, accounting is pretty much the same the world over, if you keep up to date on your professional development.

  • Close to the truth - You know how well the business is doing. For example, when the owner of a company injected more personal funds to keep it going, I knew long before the other employees that we were in trouble.

Bottom line: be nimble. You have to be ready to change jobs at a moment's notice. Here is some of the hard won advice that I have received along the way.

  1. Update your resume - At least once a year, update your resume, ensure you can contact at least three references and think about what you would like to do if your job ended suddenly. This advice came from a manager who thought he had a secure position until he was told that there was no room for him in the partnership.

  2. Be business driven - If you are seen as being Administration, then you are expendable. If you are seen as being an integral part of Operations or Sales, then your position is much more secure. This advice came from a manager as our company was being reorganized from an independent unit into little more than a sales office.

  3. Specialize - I had a hard time convincing a computer consulting firm that I could go back to consulting after having been a corporate Controller. The advice the partner gave me was pick an industry or a software package, but you have to specialize.

  4. Constant learning - An interview question that lost me a job was, "What was your last professional development course?"

  5. Do the right thing - I have been following the Livent accounting fraud case. The accusation was that the owners, "Drabinsky and Gottlieb operated a kickback scheme with two Livent vendors which siphoned approximately $7 million (Cdn) from the company for their personal benefit". The defense has been trying to prove that the fraud was perpetrated by the company's accountants without the owners' knowledge. Even though there have been no allegations that the accountants made any substantial personal gain from this fraud, clearly their lives and careers have been affected.

I wish I knew how to handle the last point. What do you do if you suspect your employer is defrauding the company? There usually isn't a smoking gun. It's usually more a case of suspicions and trying to understand people's motives. Fraud and incompetence can look very similar in the heat of battle. Of course you should get out of there fast, but the reality is that it can be extraordinarily difficult to find another position quickly. Unless you've learned to be nimble, that is.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

It's MY data, dammit!

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

It was Tuesday, July 8, a smoggy day in the metropolis. My name is Joe Friday, and I implement business systems.

Normally accountants are quiet, orderly people, but the Financial Analyst in front of me had more than just a hair out of place. She was spitting mad.

"Those Customer Relationship Management people have ruined my data."

"Just the facts, ma'am. What seems to be the problem?"

"We have duplicate customers all through the system. We should never have let them in. It's an accounting system. CRM is just an add-on."

I promised her I would get right on it, so, taking my morning coffee with me, I made my way over to the sales area. The Sales Manager was having his own problems.

"Turns out each member of the sales team had their individual way of keeping their list of key contacts. The goods ones used our official contact manager, but other guys used Excel or one even had them on 3 by 5 cue cards, just like his grandfather."

"What seems to be the problem, sir?"

"Problem is they don't want to give up their old ways. Different guys recorded the same customer different ways. When we merged the lists we created duplicates. That got Accounting really mad at us. They said we had to use their system, but frankly, all they care about is name and address. We have multiple contacts, the account history and the industry stats to load as well. But that's not the big problem."

"What is the big problem?"

"The big problem is that the sales team don't want to give up 'their' data at all. They're afraid that others will use their contacts or that we'll fire them when we have their stuff."

This wasn't going to be an easy case after all. Who really owns the data? Is it the sales staff who worked so hard to compile it? Is it the Sales Manager, who is responsible for the team's performance? Or is it really Accounting's data, since, after all, the information is going into a CRM add-on to the Accounting System. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion next . . .

I fast forward the tape to the next installment.

Friday here. The suspects are all together in one room. The time had come to put an end to the data ownership question.

"Listen up. I have interviewed each one of you and looked at all the relevant laws. Nobody owns the data."

Pandemonium erupted. Everyone shouted at once. Accusations flew. Then the door opened and an immediate hush descended on the room. There, standing in the doorway, was none other than the mysterious woman from the corner office.

"My grandfather started this company. I have worked here all my life. I own 85 percent of the shares of this corporation. I own the data."

She entered the room and walked over to the salesperson.

"George, you have a personal relationship with each of your customers. If they sneeze, you're standing there with a kleenex. But when you go on vacation and one of them calls, I don't know what the hell's going on. And I don't like that. Nobody can do your job like you, George. But nobody can do your job at all when you're not here. Got it?"

George nodded. The President moved to the Financial Analyst.

"Grace, you care about the information. Accuracy is your middle name. But you don't bring in a single sale. Not one. You've got to learn to get along with the others. You have to share your toys or we all won't get to keep playing the game. Make sense?"

Grace looked at the floor.

"Okay, Joe. I think they get the picture," she turned to face the group. "Show's over, folks. Back to work."

"That's my line," I said. She winked at me as she left the room.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Motivate Your Team

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” In how many MBA classes, inspirational business speeches and management books has this speech by American President, John F. Kennedy been touted as the perfect motivational mission? (Example 1, example 2, example 3).

The latest to cross my desk is an article by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden called “Motivation through Mission”. Their key concept is, “People don’t perform in an inspired manner without a big time commitment to a compelling cause.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but consider this example. Let’s say you’re the head of an accounting team and looking ahead to 2009. You have the monthly grind of accounting statements and management reporting ahead of you. In addition, there are the budgeting and audit cycles. You are midway through a computer implementation that has been delayed due to problems converting the history, and you have to change the whole General Ledger to the new International Financial Reporting Standards. What is the compelling cause you need to get your people to perform in an inspired manner?

Catlette and Hadden’s response is, “Whether your team competes on the global stage or a three-unit cube farm, they will move faster, get more done, have more fun, and make more money if all hands on deck share a common sense of purpose and direction. Make it your business to see that they get it . . . really get it.”

Forgive my cynicism, but I have seen this all before. I had a client in the insurance industry where all of the rooms had large motivational posters, but the staff plodded through their jobs like zombies. There was no shortage of messaging proclaiming the common purpose. The issue was that there was no buy in from the employees below manager level.

How do you get buy in? How do you motivate someone? The first thing you have to do is pay attention to the emotional conversation in the room. To borrow from Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Start by abandoning the idea of motivating a whole team and focus on the individuals. Simply put, if you really care about each one of them, they will really care about you. If you pay attention to their agenda, they will pay attention to yours. If you are honest with them, they will eventually be honest with you. I say eventually because it may take them a while to trust you.

This conversation does not have to get too “touchy feely”. It can be limited to the job. You don’t have to take on someone’s personal problems, but you need to address their professional ones. The only way to find out what’s on their mind is to observe them and ask open ended questions. Notice when they come through for you and each other. Encourage them. Ask them what roadblocks they face.

Actually, just the feeling that someone notices and appreciates what you do can be enormously motivational. I was involved in a computer conversion where the old system was a card based “automatic” bookkeeping machine which belonged in the Smithsonian. We couldn’t convert the data. It had to be re-entered. The two women in the data entry department gamely took on this huge task and managed to convert a month’s worth of data every week until it was done. It being an Olympic year, I got some ribbon and those large chocolate coins in foil to make two gold medals, which we presented to them at a staff meeting. Afterwards, I worried that the whole thing had been a little hokey, but my boss said, “Look what they did with the ribbons.” Sure enough, both of them had pinned the medals up prominently in their workstations.

I have written before about being on a little team with big ambitions, and I have to agree with Catlette and Hadden that putting everything you’ve got behind an ambitious project (or a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal" as another consultant calls it) energizes a team. Just make sure they feel like a team first.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Just Like Buying a Car

Turnkey: it’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? When used to describe accounting software, it conjures up the image of just turning the key in the ignition, hearing the roar of the engine and driving off into the sunset. It’s a whole sales pitch in a word. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Let’s start with Excel. You buy it, install it and use it, right? It’s the perfect turnkey system. Well, if you ignore user training, that is. Have you ever seen a spreadsheet done by someone who wasn’t properly trained? The formulas are not consistent down the whole column, so you can’t just copy changes down. There are blank rows in the table so you can’t sort it. The formatting is awkward so it doesn’t print well. You get the picture. Excel is only a turnkey system if you ignore training.

But what about QuickBooks, one of the simplest accounting systems on the market? You buy it, install it, get trained on it and use it, right? If you ignore system configuration and internal processes, then yes, Quickbooks qualifies as a turnkey system. Even with a starter system like QuickBooks, designing your chart of accounts is not simple. I have seen accountants take weeks to set up their accounts. The time is well spent. You start with all your reporting requirements, e.g. financial statements for the bank, reports to the owner and tax schedules, and work backwards to figure out which accounts and departments you need. Determining your internal processes can take time as well. You want to be sure that transactions are properly approved and accurately entered. Any processes involving cash need special attention to be sure they are controlled. You also want documents to be stored in such a way that they can be easily retrieved.

Moving up the scale, you find Great Plains (Microsoft Dynamics GP), a package I spent a lot of time implementing. I shuddered when I heard GP described as a turnkey system, because it isn’t even designed that way. It is flexible, which means that it is also complex. In the right hands it can be moulded to fit a wide variety of different businesses. Each module has several set up windows to determine how that module works and how it interacts with other modules. There are third party modules designed to make the main, general purpose package work with specific industries. In addition to training, system configuration and internal processes, you have to spend time testing. Oh, did I mention data conversion? Typically you need to convert at least some of the history from a prior system to the new one. Because the logic behind the two systems is different, the way they store their data is different. Typically newer software stores more data than older systems did, so you need to decide how to fit the old data to the new system.

Navision (Microsoft Dynamics NAV) adds another layer: customization. GP can be customized as well, but NAV was designed for development. NAV gives you basic accounting software and expects you and your Microsoft partner to develop your own system. Whatever the package, once you decide to change the programming, you add the complexity of systems development. You need to create customer specifications, do the programming and test the results exhaustively.

All in all, the image I prefer to use with accounting systems is a marriage. You spend a lot of time first finding the right partner then figuring out how to live together. Only then can you floor the accelerator and drive off into the sunset.