What’s Wrong with Finance Training

And how some companies are finding ways to make it work.

At General Mills, it took a new CFO, James Lawrence, who was hired in 1998, and the acquisition of Pillsbury in 2001 to accelerate change. Lawrence began reworking the company’s finance function almost immediately upon his arrival from Northwest Airlines, where he had also been CFO, seeking to transform it from a numbers-cruncher into a strategic partner to the business.

Initially, that meant consolidating finance operations into a shared-services center. Soon after, the company acquired Pillsbury. “That increased the imperative for training,” says Kline, “because it virtually doubled the size of the organization. We had a lot more people who didn’t know how we did things at General Mills.” The company’s finance leaders subsequently identified four areas in need of improvement: new-hire training and orientation, midcareer training, strategic thinking, and training on changes in the rules and regulations that govern accounting and financial reporting.

Kline and her colleagues deemed new-hire training the most critical concern and focused on that first. They rolled out a 20-module program designed to help new employees quickly grasp the mission and structure of General Mills’s finance organization and their role in its success. About 30 employees worked nearly nine months to create the program, which debuted last May. In addition to providing information about the finance organization’s structure and vision, it describes how the company prepares its profit-and-loss statements and what goes into key line items such as trade expenses. Other modules help finance staffers provide better decision support to the business units, improve their critical thinking, and understand how to build shareholder value. The company uses a variety of delivery systems, from E-learning to classroom training.

More-recent initiatives have focused on strategic thinking and midcareer development. The response to date, Kline says, has been extremely positive. “Ninety-percent-plus of the participants say it meets or exceeds their expectations,” she says. Her team is now surveying early participants, asking them what training has proved to be the most — and least — valuable so the company can refine its program.

General Mills’s new approach incorporates many of the strategies that experts say are characteristic of good programs. The company took time to develop classes that relate directly to what employees do and how the business operates. It provides training to its facilitators — who are, in fact, in-house subject-matter experts — so they are prepared to engage their students and not just lecture them. It uses a variety of delivery systems tailored to the content of each course. It monitors results and, perhaps most important, is now committed to making training a part of the organization’s DNA. “Even a good program is not going to succeed if it comes up against an unsupportive organizational culture,” warns Rosenberg. “Culture always wins.”

E-Yearning

Going forward, an increasingly important element of finance training will be for finance teams to react quickly to changes in regulatory demands. And speed, of course, is what information technology is all about. Nancy Kaufman, a learning partner at IBM, says her company increased the total amount of training it delivered to employees by 29 percent in 2004 versus 2003, to 15 million employee hours, even as it reduced expenditures by 1 percent. These improvements are attributable in part to a 54 percent increase in the use of “E-learning,” computer-based training delivered via Web seminars, CDs, and related online strategies. Similarly, Frank Hanfland, manager of training technology and interactive media for Safety-Kleen Systems Inc., an industrial-waste-management company in Plano, Texas, says he’s reduced the time needed to produce employee training programs by 90 percent — and pared annual development costs by $600,000 — using an inexpensive software package called Macromedia Captivate from Adobe Systems Inc. Rather than create training programs from scratch, Captivate records the work being done by an expert user, which can then be annotated and edited (see “Sim-ply Marvelous” at the end of this article).

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