When Microsoft needed a more efficient way to deliver education to its global finance function, it tore down the classroom walls and created a flexible, Web-based learning model that enables people in different time zones to come together in an environment that fosters teamwork and yields a high retention rate.
In 2008, when Michelle Young, then a learning and development consultant, set out to help Microsoft’s CFO transform Microsoft Finance’s worldwide team from another pair of hands to a value-added business partner and trusted adviser, she didn’t predict that her virtual global learning pilot would become the model for scalable online distance learning across the company.
Prior to 2008, when it came to employee development, Microsoft held a subsection of course offerings in person twice a year in a centralized location in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and one in Asia-Pacific called Learning Weeks. In 2008, the bottom fell out of the market, and like everyone else, Microsoft tightened its belt, especially in finance, which cut out all non-customer related travel for more than a year, including travel to Learning Weeks.
Young, now senior learning and development manager for Microsoft Finance HR, had to find a way to provide learning to a global audience without in-person sessions.
The company’s growth in far-flung locations, especially India and China, made considering the Redmond, Wash., in-residence model too costly and cumbersome. In addition to hard costs, there was the time away from the office en route and spent in day-long meetings. Instead, Young created Microsoft’s Finance Academy — a learning portal for the company’s finance professionals.
Microsoft’s former CFO Chris Liddell wanted the finance function to be a value-added business partner. To do that, the company’s 2,500 finance professionals had to understand not just the financial side, but how all of the disciplines come together to run the business and how the decisions made by each can make or break a quarter’s financials.
Building a Virtual Academy
Young approached TRI Corp., which was already providing Microsoft with in-residence business simulation coursework (Editor’s note: the author works for TRI Corp.), to create an online distance learning program using Microsoft products — Live Meeting for virtual instructor-led and MSFT Groove (now SharePoint Workspace) — to create a virtual collaboration environment in which the participants played a game where they took a simulated company from struggling to profitability in six quarters. All correspondence was done within the threaded discussion in Groove and all files were stored in each team’s workspace.
A 2009 pilot program organized 18 self-selected finance professionals into three teams. Teams were given decisions to make about material orders, production, labor, leases, purchases, selling price, marketing and several other key factors, all within a virtual environment with no face-to face interaction. Now in year four, the program continues to evolve to fit into Microsoft’s business strategy.
Young’s mission is to:
Create programs to meet employees where and when they are most likely to be open to learning. Her goal is to help develop trusted advisers who can do much more than report financial results. Participants should exit the program able to build strategy for their specific functions and departments based on the company’s business goals.
Help finance professionals effectively communicate strategy to constituents.
Have tools that will aid employees in taking decisive actions to execute a business plan, often under pressure.
Know how to effectively develop, coach and motivate team members to accelerate business growth.
Help finance professionals make sound decisions with incomplete or uncertain information.
“Finance shouldn’t be just another pair of hands,” Young said. “If you know the business of your business partner, you can add value. Being able to work inside of the organization, not just to serve but to drive thought leadership is critical to their success and to the success of the business.”
Virtual Business Simulation
Using the Microsoft Finance Academy platform and the capabilities of TRI, Young transformed a three-day in-residence program into the Microsoft Finance Virtual Business Simulation, an action learning program that earned a 2010 Chief Learning Officer Learning In Practice award. The six-week program is scheduled to fit finance business cycles and promoted through an internal newsletter, e-blasts and on the Microsoft Finance Academy website.
The program uses role play as central to the simulation in a virtual world that includes an array of internal and external customers, vendors and industry experts. It also keeps participants, mentors and staff in two-way communication using Microsoft tools throughout the course.
Operational reviews are conducted virtually with senior Microsoft mentors, and the platform uses Microsoft technology, specifically Live Meeting and Microsoft Groove for course content, enabling participants to do most of the work on their own schedules.
Participants are divided into three teams of five to six each, across cultures and time zones. The teams are allowed to self-select using a SharePoint discussion board called Teammate Finder to connect interested parties. There are some stipulations — team members cannot work in the same location, or for the same director, and the team needs to be culturally and functionally diverse.
Working completely virtually with fellow team members, each team submits its quarterly decisions and assumptions for pricing, production, sourcing, research and development, marketing, selling and innovation projects to the simulation staff. TRI reviews results and provides feedback to the teams, introducing competitive reality through an econometric model. Success is based on quantitative and qualitative factors that balance short- and long-term decision making.
During the course of the simulated business year teams are challenged with unexpected real-world business issues whose solutions require innovative thinking. Full-scale operational reviews take place after the simulation year is completed.
Ultimately, one team emerges the winner — that team creates the most value, taking into account top- and bottom-line growth, asset management and the meeting of commitments or variances to plan — and all teams learn lasting lessons from the process, from their own experience and from their peers’ perspectives as well as the simulation staff. Global word-of-mouth has been positive and lasting.
“What makes this so relevant and popular among our finance professionals is the pre-work that is done to draw out the cultural and real-life issues that the participants face,” Young said. “The course, therefore, is completely tailored to the participants. What they learn can be immediately applied to their work. One comment I received was ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done at Microsoft. Can I have more?’”
Critical Equations Online Distance Learning
In 2010 Microsoft added a new element to the academy encouraging finance professionals to answer critical questions many could not readily answer. Content is based on TRI’s guide of eight business equations every leader should know. The topics include pricing, variance analysis and cost of capital. Initially, the equations were used as pre-course white papers. Young said there was opportunity to go beyond having people just read them by applying the business equations to its work with supporting material available on the Finance Academy website.
Once enrolled in the program, participants are directed to the site for pre-course instruction. They are provided background materials and information that will prepare them for the coursework content and maximize individual and team productivity from the moment the course begins. Enrollees receive an email from the Finance Academy mailbox with their pre-reading and pre-work assignments. They are directed to a link on the learning portal, and they can read or download the white paper where they access the appropriate equation as well as a pre-work assignment discussing how to apply the session in practice.
The instructor and students convene during the Microsoft Live Meeting — a group online meeting in real time. Selected participants present how they either directly apply the critical equation or how they know it is applied in their finance organization during two-hour online meetings on the same day. One, in the early morning, is for the Europe, Middle East and Africa finance teams. Another, in the evening, targets the Asia-Pacific group and participants from Redmond and Latin America. Both sessions are recorded and made available to any participants who would like to review them at their own pace and time.
“Being a non-finance person in a finance organization, this helped me to understand the importance of why we look at the variances and what I can infer from the financials,” said Barbara Wong, a business finance manager of Microsoft’s Online Services Division in Finance. “It makes it more valuable. Over time, when I master this skill, I can call out the business patterns and be able to tell a better story on what happened and where we can make changes.”
Microsoft has tailored technology and programming so closely to participants’ needs that virtual learning has proven more effective. Because of the program’s flexibility participants:
Can keep their regular work schedules and devote three to four hours a week to the simulation.
Need not schedule travel to a central location for a set in-residence program.
Can work at home, in the office, in an airport lounge or at 35,000 feet — wherever and whenever it is most convenient for them to do so.
Have access to the corporate intranet, email and Microsoft SharePoint Workspace to access, view, edit and share files among team members and staff.
Use a Microsoft Excel-based planning model to input decisions and assumptions, analyze variances and perform sensitivity analysis.
Having launched in 2009, the virtual simulation program is in its fourth year, and the Critical Equations program in its second year. Both have touched the roughly one dozen locations where Microsoft has finance professionals. Users say the experience is visceral, providing a natural conduit for the application of learning on the job.
“You can give them all the theory, but unless the team can put it to work, it is not worth doing,” Young said.
Thomas E. Conine Jr. is president of TRI Corp., a business simulation provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.