November 6, 2011

Cornell Asks for Patience With Finance Initiative

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At a meeting on Friday, administrators urged University employees to be patient with an initiative that aims to cut costs in the University’s finance division. The plan, one part of the Administrative Streamlining Program, is projected to save the University $1.8 million annually.Before December 2010, Cornell had approximately 30 centers dedicated to financial transaction processing and budget and managing reporting. Under the new model, these centers have been consolidated into eight regional centers.“The charge of the finance initiative is efficiency and effectiveness,” said Anne Shapiro, controller in the University’s accounting division. “‘Efficiency’ meaning we’ll be able to manage costs better. ‘Effectiveness’ meaning we’ll be able to serve our customers better. I believe consolidation will produce both.”At the panel, Shapiro and the leaders of the eight centers — including leaders at two centers soon to be consolidated — also discussed the implementation of the Kuali Financial System. Kuali, which went into effect July 1, replaced the University’s 44-year-old system of electronic financial transaction processing, according to Shapiro.However, at the meeting, several staff members complained about the crippling backlog of invoice processing they faced in their departments.Shapiro acknowledged the severity of the problem and said that the system was not yet at the level it should be due to technological problems on the part of both the vendors and the University.“Kuali has a learning curve and problems of sluggishness that will be corrected,” Shapiro said in an interview Saturday. “I used to do a process order in fifteen minutes, and now with Kuali it is taking thirty minutes because bringing up pages is slow. That is a short term problem.”Shapiro said some of the issues raised at the brown bag lunch were to be expected with the establishment of any new system.“Kuali has already improved the invoice processing backlog,” Shapiro said. “[The backlog] is a problem that is going away.”The finance initiative is one of ten cost-cutting strategies being implemented by the Administrative Streamlining Program office. The overall streamlining efforts are projected to reduce operating costs $75 million to 85 million annually by fiscal year 2015, according to the University.The finance initiative went into effect at the beginning of fiscal year 2011 and is projected to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2014. Under the new system, four formal academic centers, called financial transaction centers, work exclusively on financial transactions for the various colleges at Cornell, while two administrative centers, called business service centers, handle budget and management reporting as well, according to Shapiro. The BSCs were already consolidated prior to the financial initiative.University employees at the meeting asked panel members to explain the benefits of transferring workers out of their departments and into the new centers. Working in a center with eight or nine people solely dedicated to the same job would foster teamwork and broaden the knowledge base for that particular type of work, said Robin Yager, director of the University BSC and program manager of the finance initiative.“One of the benefits of a center is you have this workforce and you can redistribute the work and alleviate backlog,” Yager said.In the old model, according to Shapiro, a single employee taking a sick day could prevent anything from being processed out of that department for the entire day.“Now you’ve got a center with backup, where you can move the Lego parts into any different transactions, so it doesn’t matter who gets — your transaction will get processed,” Shapiro said.Shapiro said she did not yet know whether there would be layoffs as a result of the consolidation, but said the University expected to reduce the number of employees necessary to process financial transactions once Kuali has settled.“Consolidation will enable any organization to do financial transaction processing with fewer staff,” Shapiro said. “It’s been demonstrated by centers that were consolidated earlier that fewer people are required.”However, Shapiro said this does not necessarily mean many jobs would be cut. While  some departments may choose to downsize as a part of cost-cutting efforts, she said another option would be to re-purpose employees to other areas in need of attention.“Maybe the outcome will be fewer staff, but I don’t think you can say the departments need to let go of people,” Shapiro said. “We’re trying to release people from financial transaction processing to free up their time to focus on their major job functions.”Another concern raised Friday was how to improve communication between the centers and individual departments. In the old model, according to Shapiro, financial transactions were processed right in the building of the department.“We had some feedback that departments would like to know the face of the overhead centers,” Shapiro said. “One challenge will be how to enhance face time between the centers and the departments they serve.”With the project less than a year old, it may be too early to accurately measure changes in efficiency and effectiveness brought about by the finance initiative.“The initiative is only a year old, and six months after it went live, Kuali went live,” Shapiro said. “The issues brought up at the brown bag lunch were problems of implementation. These are short term problems that are being resolved.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris