Q&A | A Change Agent’s Perspective on AP Transformation


Q&A | A Change Agent’s Perspective on AP Transformation

Tammie Norman, Director of Accounts Payable at Discovery Communications,
shares insights and experiences gained through a career acting as a catalyst for change.

Throughout your career, you have been at the forefront of transformational change in the AP environment. How has your unique approach won you the title of “change agent”?

It boils down to having a history of success. You must approach each project with the mindset of “failure is not an option.” How one defines failure is also key. I have failed if my clients, internal or external, feel that any aspect of the transformation initiative has not bettered the previous state.

What key triggers help gauge if a transformation has been adopted successfully?

As with any system change, there are phases of success. There is the “go-live success,” meaning that we’re on time and the system is running as expected—all very measurable. The second part of success comes six months later when you see more progressive change. With any transformation, it’s not just about the system and processes that the change agent establishes. The existing team must also buy into the new system and learn the rules.

What fundamental drivers ensure a successful transformation?

Tone from the top is first and foremost. Without support from management, the team will not feel obligated to partake in the transformation. People often ask me, “Is that a new policy? I didn’t know the policy changed. Can you send that to me?” It’s their way of finding an excuse to not partake in the change. With management’s support, you will be able to respond, “This is a mandate from the CFO. Did you not see communication?” People are inherently averse to change. Having senior support is critical to seeing a successful transformation through.

What innovative approaches have companies taken to ensure early buy-in?

Early buy-in can be established through the most straightforward of approaches, such as introducing the transformation effort formally at a town hall meeting. When a company gets ready to go through an IPO, you do a roadshow to pitch the company. It’s the same thing when you’re going through a major change in procedure. You get out there and sell what you’re doing. You get people to buy in.

Would you say that there is really not a No. 2 priority?

Yes, without early buy-in from senior management, you’re at a loss because early buy-in confirms that the transformation is supported both strategically and financially. With management’s support, not only are you establishing that this is a change we’re making and this is the direction we’re going, but you are also ensuring financial commitment. At the end of the day, every system upgrade and change initiative has a price tag associated with it.

Humans are inherently resistant to change. What is your secret for motivating teams to focus on doing what they have always done—but doing it better?

It is critical to understand exactly what each member of the team affected by the transformation does. I once took over a large payroll group that was scattered across the country. In the first few weeks, I analyzed and observed. Then I made personal visits to team members in surrounding regional offices. After evaluating on-site operations, I reached out with recommendations for improvement. My recommendations were well received and implemented since I had first taken the time to understand exactly what each job entailed.

In your years of experience, you have observed how the AP function can be impacted by an organization’s culture. Can you share an example of bringing a team together with a left- and right-brained dynamic?

It is important that people understand the impact of what they are handling. It is easy to get into the mindset of, “We’re a big company and we have $1 million to spend. What’s the big deal?” But when you encourage your team to take a step back and treat money as if it’s their own, they take much more ownership and think hard before allocating or spending.

AP’s role is sometimes stereotyped as inefficient. How can a successful transformation serve as an internal marketing tool for the department’s culture?

It boils down to good customer service. Good customer service means your team would not tell a customer, “Well, that’s not my job.” Instead, they would find the right person to field the request.

I also implemented a dress code to enhance the team’s overall image. Before our procure-to-pay (P2P) rollout, our communications team took a picture of my group and put it on the portal that communicated our new P2P process. Additionally, with the project kickoff, we had a big open house and gave out mugs with a custom logo for our P2P project. It’s all about image, and it made the difference.

How has the digital world improved AP’s reputation?

It has had a huge effect from an organizational, efficiency, and accuracy standpoint. With today’s advanced systems, we now have the opportunity to track an invoice from the time it was emailed to when it is indexed in our system—and track any red flags. This has also established a self-servicing business environment where customers are able to track purchase order history without reaching out to the team.

What are your recommendations for creating a well-trained AP team?

The 24/7, fast-paced media culture requires strong performance. In this environment and others, it is critical to set goals, make expectations very clear, define time frames, and give staff the training and tools needed to set them up for success.

What does cross-training in the AP environment entail?

We have a two-step processing practice: indexing and posting. Inevitably, you have some team members that index all the time and master that process while others master posting. There are many different aspects of each position. For example, team members that post need to better understand what is taxable and not taxable in which states and rates, as well as understand the withholding and reporting requirements and electronically upload postings. Therefore, I try to move people around on a rotation schedule. While there is a segregation of duties for a reason, moving people around to observe different aspects of the process will make them all around better at what they do. My logic has always been, “Don’t just focus on one piece of the puzzle. Understand the big picture.”