Category Archives: Learning Process

Building a Lean Financial Infrastructure!

A lean financial infrastructure presumes the ability of every element in the value chain to preserve and generate cash flow. That is the fundamental essence of the lean infrastructure that I espouse. So what are the key elements that constitute a lean financial infrastructure?

And given the elements, what are the key tweaks that one must continually make to ensure that the infrastructure does not fall into entropy and the gains that are made fall flat or decay over time. Identification of the blocks and monitoring and making rapid changes go hand in hand.

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The Key Elements or the building blocks of a lean finance organization are as follows:

  1. Chart of Accounts: This is the critical unit that defines the starting point of the organization. It relays and groups all of the key economic activities of the organization into a larger body of elements like revenue, expenses, assets, liabilities and equity. Granularity of these activities might lead to a fairly extensive chart of account and require more work to manage and monitor these accounts, thus requiring incrementally a larger investment in terms of time and effort. However, the benefits of granularity far exceeds the costs because it forces management to look at every element of the business.
  2. The Operational Budget: Every year, organizations formulate the operational budget. That is generally a bottoms up rollup at a granular level that would map to the Chart of Accounts. It might follow a top-down directive around what the organization wants to land with respect to income, expense, balance sheet ratios, et al. Hence, there is almost always a process of iteration in this step to finally arrive and lock down the Budget. Be mindful though that there are feeders into the budget that might relate to customers, sales, operational metrics targets, etc. which are part of building a robust operational budget. var
  3. The Deep Dive into Variances: As you progress through the year and part of the monthly closing process, one would inquire about how the actual performance is tracking against the budget. Since the budget has been done at a granular level and mapped exactly to the Chart of Accounts, it thus becomes easier to understand and delve into the variances. Be mindful that every element of the Chart of Account must be evaluated. The general inclination is to focus on the large items or large variances, while skipping the small expenses and smaller variances. That method, while efficient, might not be effective in the long run to build a lean finance organization. The rule, in my opinion, is that every account has to be looked and the question should be – Why? If the management has agreed on a number in the budget, then why are the actuals trending differently. Could it have been the budget and that we missed something critical in that process? Or has there been a change in the underlying economics of the business or a change in activities that might be leading to these “unexpected variances”. One has to take a scalpel to both – favorable and unfavorable variances since one can learn a lot about the underlying drivers. It might lead to managerially doing more of the better and less of the worse. Furthermore, this is also a great way to monitor leaks in the organization. Leaks are instances of cash that are dropping out of the system. Much of little leaks amounts to a lot of cash in total, in some instances. So do not disregard the leaks. Not only will that preserve the cash but once you understand the leaks better, the organization will step up in efficiency and effectiveness with respect to cash preservation and delivery of value.  deep dive
  4. Tweak the process: You will find that as you deep dive into the variances, you might want to tweak certain processes so these variances are minimized. This would generally be true for adverse variances against the budget. Seek to understand why the variance, and then understand all of the processes that occur in the background to generate activity in the account. Once you fully understand the process, then it is a matter of tweaking this to marginally or structurally change some key areas that might favorable resonate across the financials in the future.
  5. The Technology Play: Finally, evaluate the possibilities of exploring technology to surface issues early, automate repetitive processes, trigger alerts early on to mitigate any issues later, and provide on-demand analytics. Use technology to relieve time and assist and enable more thinking around how to improve the internal handoffs to further economic value in the organization.

All of the above relate to managing the finance and accounting organization well within its own domain. However, there is a bigger step that comes into play once one has established the blocks and that relates to corporate strategy and linking it to the continual evolution of the financial infrastructure.

The essential question that the lean finance organization has to answer is – What can the organization do so that we address every element that preserves and enhances value to the customer, and how do we eliminate all non-value added activities? This is largely a process question but it forces one to understand the key processes and identify what percentage of each process is value added to the customer vs. non-value added. This can be represented by time or cost dimension. The goal is to yield as much value added activities as possible since the underlying presumption of such activity will lead to preservation of cash and also increase cash acquisition activities from the customer.

Disseminating financial knowledge to develop engaged organizations

Financial awareness of key drivers are becoming the paramount leading indicators for organizational success. For most, the finance department is a corner office service that offers ad hoc analysis on strategic and operational initiatives to a company, and provides an ex-post assessment of the financial condition of the company among a select few. There are some key financial metrics that one wants to measure across all companies and all industries without exception, but then there are unique metrics that reflect the key underlying drivers for organizational success. Organizations align their forays into new markets, new strategies and new ventures around a narrative that culminates in a financial metric or a proxy that illustrates opportunities lost or gained.

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Having been cast in operational finance roles for a good length of my career, I have often encountered a high level of interest to learn financial concepts in areas such as engineering, product management, operations, sales, etc. I have to admit that I have been humbled by the fairly wide common-sense understanding of basic financial concepts that these folks have. However, in most cases, the understanding is less than skin deep with misunderstandings that are meaningful. The good news is that I have also noticed a promising trend, namely … the questions are more thoroughly weighed by the “non-finance” participants, and there seems to be an elevated understanding of key financial drivers that translate to commercial success. This knowledge continues to accelerate … largely, because of convergence of areas around data science, analytics, assessment of personal ownership stakes, etc. But the passing of such information across these channels to the hungry recipients are not formalized. In other words, I posit that having a formal channel of inculcating financial education across the various functional areas would pay rich dividends for the company in the long run. Finance is a vast enough field that partaking general knowledge in these concepts which are more than merely skin-deep would also enable the finance group to engage in meaningful conversations with other functional experts, thus allowing the narrative around the numbers to be more wholesome. Thus, imparting the financial knowledge would be beneficial to the finance department as well.

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To be effective in creating a formal channel of disseminating information of the key areas in finance that matter to the organization, it is important to understand the operational drivers. When I say operational drivers, I am expanding that to encompass drivers that may uniquely affect other functional areas. For example, sales may be concerned with revenue, margins whereas production may be concerned with server capacity, work-in-process and throughput, etc. At the end, the financial metrics are derivatives. They are cross products of single or multiple drivers and these are the elements that need to be fleshed out to effect a spirited conversation. That would then enable the production of a financial barometer that everyone in the organization can rally behind and understand, and more importantly … be able to assess how their individual contribution has and will advance organization goals.

Aaron Swartz took down a piece of the Berlin Wall! We have to take it all down!

“The world’s entire scientific … heritage … is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations… The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.”  – Aaron Swartz

Information, in the context of scholarly articles by research at universities and think-tanks, is not a zero sum game. In other words, one person cannot have more without having someone have less. When you start creating “Berlin” walls in the information arena within the halls of learning, then learning itself is compromised. In fact, contributing or granting the intellectual estate into the creative commons serves a higher purpose in society – an access to information and hence, a feedback mechanism that ultimately enhances the value to the end-product itself. How? Since now the product has been distributed across a broader and diverse audience, and it is open to further critical analyses.

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The universities have built a racket. They have deployed a Chinese wall between learning in a cloistered environment and the world who are not immediate participants. The Guardian wrote an interesting article on this matter and a very apt quote puts it all together.

“Academics not only provide the raw material, but also do the graft of the editing. What’s more, they typically do so without extra pay or even recognition – thanks to blind peer review. The publishers then bill the universities, to the tune of 10% of their block grants, for the privilege of accessing the fruits of their researchers’ toil. The individual academic is denied any hope of reaching an audience beyond university walls, and can even be barred from looking over their own published paper if their university does not stump up for the particular subscription in question.

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This extraordinary racket is, at root, about the bewitching power of high-brow brands. Journals that published great research in the past are assumed to publish it still, and – to an extent – this expectation fulfils itself. To climb the career ladder academics must get into big-name publications, where their work will get cited more and be deemed to have more value in the philistine research evaluations which determine the flow of public funds. Thus they keep submitting to these pricey but mightily glorified magazines, and the system rolls on.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/11/academic-journals-access-wellcome-trust

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JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization that has invested heavily in providing an online system for archiving, accessing, and searching digitized copies of over 1,000 academic journals.  More recently, I noticed some effort on their part to allow public access to only 3 articles over a period of 21 days. This stinks! This policy reflects an intellectual snobbery beyond Himalayan proportions. The only folks that have access to these academic journals and studies are professors, and researchers that are affiliated with a university and university libraries.  Aaron Swartz noted the injustice of hoarding such knowledge and tried to distribute a significant proportion of JSTOR’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites. And what happened thereafter was perhaps one of the biggest misapplication of justice.  The same justice that disallows asymmetry of information in Wall Street is being deployed to preserve the asymmetry of information at the halls of learning.

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MSNBC contributor Chris Hayes criticized the prosecutors, saying “at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of—and I’m not exaggerating here—downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.”

The Associated Press reported that Swartz’s case “highlights society’s uncertain, evolving view of how to treat people who break into computer systems and share data not to enrich themselves, but to make it available to others.”

Chris Soghioian, a technologist and policy analyst with the ACLU, said, “Existing laws don’t recognize the distinction between two types of computer crimes: malicious crimes committed for profit, such as the large-scale theft of bank data or corporate secrets; and cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public.”

 

Kelly Caine, a professor at Clemson University who studies people’s attitudes toward technology and privacy, said Swartz “was doing this not to hurt anybody, not for personal gain, but because he believed that information should be free and open, and he felt it would help a lot of people.”

And then there were some modest reservations, and Swartz actions were attributed to reckless judgment. I contend that this does injustice to someone of Swartz’s commitment and intellect … the recklessness was his inability to grasp the notion that an imbecile in the system would pursue 35 years of imprisonment and $1M fine … it was not that he was not aware of what he was doing but he believed, as does many, that scholarly academic research should be available as a free for all.

We have a Berlin wall that needs to be taken down. Swartz started that but he was unable to keep at it. It is important to not rest in this endeavor and that everyone ought to actively petition their local congressman to push bills that will allow open access to these academic articles.

John Maynard Keynes had warned of the folly of “shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend”, because what is at stake here is the reach of the light of learning. Aaron was at the vanguard leading that movement, and we should persevere to become those points of light that will enable JSTOR to disseminate the information that they guard so unreservedly.

 

 

 

 

 

Introduce Culture into Product Development

All products go through a life-cycle. However, the genius of an organization lies in how to manage the life-cycle of the product and extend it as necessary to serve the customers. Thus, it is not merely the wizardry in technology and manufacturing that determine the ultimate longevity of the product in the market and the mind share of the customer. The product has to respond to the diversity of demands determined by disposable income, demographics, geography, etc. In business school speak, we say that this is part of market segmentation coupled with the appropriate marketing message. However, there is not an explicit strategy formulated around identifying

  1. Corporate Culture
  2. Extended Culture

To achieve success, firms increasingly must develop products by leveraging ad coordinating broad creative capabilities and resources, which often are diffused across geographical and cultural boundaries. But what we have to explore is a lot more than that from the incipient stages that a product has imagined: How do we instill unique corporate DNA into the product that immediately marks the product with a corporate signature? In addition, how do we built out a product that is tenable across the farthest reaches of geography and cultural diversity?



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Thus, an innovative approach is called for in product development … particularly, in a global context. The approach entails getting cross-disciplinary teams in liberal arts, science, business, etc. to work together to gather deeper insights into the cultural strains that drive decisions in various markets. To reiterate, there is no one particular function that is paramount: all of them have to work and improvise together while ensuring that there are channels that gather feedback. The cross disciplinary team and the institutionalization of a feedback mechanism that can be quickly acted upon are the key parameters to ensure that the right product is in the market and that it will be extended accordingly to the chatter of the crowds.

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Having said that, this is hardly news! A lot of companies are well on their way to instill these factors into product design and development. Companies have created organizational architectures in the corporate structure in a manner that culturally appropriate products are developed and maintained in dispersed local markets. However, in most instances, we have also seen that the way they view this is to have local managers run the show, with the presumption that these “culturally appropriate” products will make good in those markets. But along the way, the piece that dissembles over time on account of creating the local flavor is that the product may not mirror the culture that the corporate group wants to instill. If these two are not aptly managed and balanced, islands of conflict will be created. Thus, my contention is that a top-down value mandate ought to set the appropriate parameters inside which the hotbed of collaborative activity would take place for product design and development in various markets.

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Thus the necessary top down value systems that would bring culture into products would be:

  1. Open areas for employees to express their thoughts and ideas
  2. Diversity of people with different skill sets in product teams will contribute to product development
  3. Encouraging internal and external speakers to expound upon the product touch points in the community.
  4. Empowerment and recognition systems.
  5. Proper formulation of monetary incentives to inspire and maintain focus.

 

Darkness at Noon in Facebook!

Facebook began with a simple thesis: Connect Friends. That was the sine qua non of its existence. From a simple thesis to an effective UI design, Facebook has grown over the years to become the third largest community in the world. But as of the last few years they have had to resort to generating revenue to meet shareholder expectations. Today it is noon at Facebook but there is the long shadow of darkness that I posit have fallen upon perhaps one of the most influential companies in history.

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The fact is that leaping from connecting friends to managing the conversations allows Facebook to create this petri dish to understand social interactions at large scale eased by their fine technology platform. To that end, they are moving into alternative distribution channels to create broader reach into global audience and to gather deeper insights into the interaction templates of the participants. The possibilities are immense: in that, this platform can be a collaborative beachhead into discoveries, exploration, learning, education, social and environmental awareness and ultimately contribute to elevated human conscience.  But it has faltered, perhaps the shareholders and the analysts are much to blame, on account of  the fangled existence of market demands and it has become one global billboard for advertisers to promote their brands. Darkness at noon is the most appropriate metaphor to reflect Facebook as it is now.

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Let us take a small turn to briefly look at some of other very influential companies that have not been as much derailed as has Facebook. The companies are Twitter, Google and LinkedIn. Each of them are the leaders in their category, and all of them have moved toward monetization schemes from their specific user base. Each of them has weighed in significantly in their respective categories to create movements that have or will affect the course of the future. We all know how Twitter has contributed to super-fast news feeds globally that have spontaneously generated mass coalescence around issues that make a difference; Google has been an effective tool to allow an average person to access information; and LinkedIn has created professional and collaborative environment in the professional space. Thus, all three of these companies, despite supplementing fully their appetite for revenue through advertising, have not compromised their quintessence for being. Now all of these companies can definitely move their artillery to encompass the trajectory of FB but that would be a steep hill to climb. Furthermore, these companies have an aura associated within their categories: attempts to move out of their category have been feeble at best, and in some instances, not successful. Facebook has a phenomenal chance of putting together what they have to create a communion of knowledge and wisdom. And no company exists in the market better suited to do that at this point.

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One could counter that Facebook sticks to its original vision and that what we have today is indeed what Facebook had planned for all along since the beginning. I don’t disagree. My point of contention in this matter is that though is that Facebook has created this informal and awesome platform for conversations and communities among friends, it has glossed over the immense positive fallout that could occur as a result of these interactions. And that is the development and enhancement of knowledge, collaboration, cultural play, encourage a diversity of thought, philanthropy, crowd sourcing scientific and artistic breakthroughs, etc. In other words, the objective has been met for the most part. Thank you Mark! Now Facebook needs to usher in a renaissance in the courtyard. Facebook needs to find a way out of the advertising morass that has shed darkness over all the product extensions and launches that have taken place over the last 2 years: Facebook can force a point of inflection to quadruple its impact on the course of history and knowledge. And the revenue will follow!

Why Jugglestars? How will this benefit you?

Consider this. Your professional career is a series of projects. Employers look for accountability and performance, and they measure you by how you fare on your projects. Everything else, for the most part, is white noise. The projects you work on establish your skill set and before long – your career trajectory.  However, all the great stuff that you have done at work is for the most part hidden from other people in your company or your professional colleagues. You may get a recommendation on LinkedIn, which is fairly high-level, or you may receive endorsements for your skills, which is awesome. But the Endorsements on LinkedIn seem a little random, don’t they?  Wouldn’t it be just awesome to recognize, or be recognized by, your colleagues for projects that you have worked on. We are sure that there are projects that you have worked on that involves third-party vendors, consultants, service providers, clients, etc. – well, now you have a forum to send and receive recognition, in a beautiful form factor, that you can choose to display across your networks.

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Imagine an employee review. You must have spent some time thinking through all the great stuff that you have done that you want to attach to your review form. And you may have, in your haste, forgotten some of the great stuff that you have done and been recognized for informally. So how cool would it be to print or email all the projects that you’ve worked on and the recognition you’ve received to your manager? How cool would it be to send all the people that you have recognized for their phenomenal work? For in the act of participating in the recognition ecosystem that our application provides you – you are an engaged and prized employee that any company would want to retain, nurture and develop.

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Now imagine you are looking for a job. You have a resume. That is nice. And then the potential employer or recruiter is redirected to your professional networks and they have a glimpse of your recommendations and skill sets. That is nice too! But seriously…wouldn’t it be better for the hiring manager or recruiter to have a deeper insight into some of the projects that you have done and the recognition that you have received? Wouldn’t it be nice for them to see how active you are in recognizing great work of your other colleagues and project co-workers?  Now they would have a more comprehensive idea of who you are and what makes you tick.

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We help you build your professional brand and convey your accomplishments. That translates into greater internal development opportunities in your company, promotion, increase in pay, and it also makes you more marketable.  We help you connect to high-achievers and forever manage your digital portfolio of achievements that can, at your request, exist in an open environment.  JuggleStars.com is a great career management tool.

Check out www.jugglestars.com

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

–        Rabindranath  Tagore

Among the many fundamental debates in philosophy, one of the fundamental debates has been around the concept of free will. The debates have stemmed around two arguments associated with free will.

1)      Since future actions are governed by the circumstances of the present and the past, human beings future actions are predetermined on account of the learnings from the past.  Hence, the actions that happen are not truly a consequent of free will.

2)      The counter-argument is that future actions may not necessarily be determined and governed by the legacy of the present and the past, and hence leaves headroom for the individual to exercise free will.

Now one may wonder what determinism or lack of it has anything to do with the current state of things in an organizational context.  How is this relevant? Why are the abstract notions of determinism and free will important enough to be considered in the context of organizational evolution?  How does the meaning lend itself to structured institutions like business organizations, if you will, whose sole purpose is to create products and services to meet the market demand.

So we will throw a factual wrinkle in this line of thought. We will introduce now an element of chance. How does chance change the entire dialectic? Simply because chance is an unforeseen and random event that may not be pre-determined; in fact, a chance event may not have a causal trigger. And chance or luck could be meaningful enough to untether an organization and its folks to explore alternative paths.  It is how the organization and the people are aligned to take advantage of that random nondeterministic future that could make a huge difference to the long term fate of the organization.

The principle of inductive logic states that what is true for n and n+1 would be true for n+2.  The inductive logic creates predictability and hence organizations create pathways to exploit the logical extension of inductive logic. It is the most logical apparatus that exists to advance groups in a stable but robust manner to address the multitude of challenges that that they have to grapple with. After all, the market is governed by animal spirits! But let us think through this very carefully.  All competition or collaboration that occurs among groups to address the market demands result in homogenous behavior with general homogeneous outcomes.  Simply put, products and services become commoditized. Their variance is not unique and distinctive.  However, they could be just be distinctive enough to eke out enough profits in the margins before being absorbed into a bigger whole. At that point, identity is effaced over time.  Organizations gravitate to a singularity.  Unique value propositions wane over time.

So let us circle back to chance.  Chance is our hope to create divergence. Chance is the factoid that cancels out the inductive vector of industrial organization. Chance does not exist … it is not a “waiting for Godot” metaphor around the corner.  If it always did, it would have been imputed by the determinists in their inductive world and we would end up with a dystopian homogenous future.  Chance happens.  And sometimes it has a very short half-life. And if the organization and people are aligned and their mindset is adapted toward embracing and exploiting that fleeting factoid of chance, the consequences could be huge.  New models would emerge, new divergent paths would be traduced and society and markets would burst into a garden of colorful ideas in virtual oasis of new markets.

So now to tie this all to free will and to the unbearable lightness of being! It is the existence of chance that creates the opportunity to exercise free will on the part of an individual, but it is the organizations responsibility to allow the individual to unharness themselves from organization inertia. Thus, organizations have to perpetuate an environment wherein employees are afforded some headroom to break away.  And I don’t mean break away as in people leaving the organization to do their own gigs; I mean breakaway in thought and action within the boundaries of the organization to be open to element of chance and exploit it. Great organizations do not just encourage the lightness of being … unharnessing the talent but rather – the great organizations are the ones that make the lightness of being unbearable.  These individuals are left with nothing but an awareness and openness to chance to create incredible values … far more incredible and awe inspiring and momentous than a more serene state of general business as usual affairs.