Our department spotlight continues as we feature three groups who are often seen as the backbone of many companies–Information Technology and Services, Finance and Human Resources. The finance group manages our financial security; the human resources team plays a large role in strengthening the SOA; and it's ITS' job to make sure our technical systems are running at top–notch speed so we can best serve our members.
By Sam PhillipsInformation Technology and Services
Information Technology and Services
Margaret Ann Jordan has more than five years of experience with the Society of Actuaries (SOA). She is the managing director of Information Technology and Services (ITS), the department that keeps the SOA glued together ... technologically speaking. Here's what members and candidates need to know about the ITS department at the SOA.
Please explain the responsibilities of the ITS department. ITS is charged with the responsibility to ensure that the SOA has the technology, infrastructure and tools to deliver high–tech, high–touch support to our members and candidates. We need to understand the needs of all the different functional areas and how those needs intersect. For example, if the Education department makes a change in one of their processes, it could affect the Finance department, and vice versa. ITS makes sure that one department's decision doesn't adversely impact another department. We also leverage developments in one area to benefit the rest of the organization–and ultimately to benefit our members and candidates.
The main functions within our group relate directly to the different types of technology we support. One team supports the member and candidate database. This includes all of our e–commerce, member contact information and the profession–wide directory of actuarial organizations. The database is a very important part of what we do. The second area, which is shared jointly with the Communications department, is the SOA's Web presence. The ITS group is responsible for the network (hardware and software) and the Communications department is responsible for the content. The way we often describe it is that ITS builds the highways and Communications drives the cars. Thirdly, we also operate a help desk whereby any SOA employee can make a call to a single contact number for anything that is technology related. If an employee has a problem with a telephone, laptop or Internet connection, he or she can simply call the help desk.
What are the short–and long–term goals of the ITS department? The short–term goal is to end every day with everything working. The long–term goal is to make the SOA accessible to a global membership on a 24/7 basis. In other words, we're moving a lot of our products and services to the Web. This will make it easier for all members and candidates to access what they need. We've moved a lot of our basic education to e–Learning functions and most registrations can be handled online. We're becoming more customer–centric by giving members and candidates easy–to–use tools they can access anytime, anywhere via a Web browser. We want to put high–tech tools in place, so that SOA staff can concentrate on providing high–touch support to members and candidates.
Do you have specific plans for which services will go online next? We are currently running several pilot projects using Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration tools. We plan to expand these over the next eight months. We're also working on behind–the–scenes tools that will make it easier for members of multiple organizations to keep their contact data synchronized.
What are your department's biggest challenges? I think the biggest challenge is the sheer complexity of the tools that everyone is using. In the old days, information processing took place one step at a time, and was pretty much controlled by the IT staff. Now, with Web–based self–service tools, we need to keep everything coordinated, even though at times we have little control over timing. As an example, member contact information used to be updated only by a carefully trained administrator. Now that individuals can change their own information, mistakes are sometimes introduced simply because the people making the changes don't know the complex relationships of the data elements and all the ways in which these may be used. For example, if a member types in his or her company name as a line in the address area rather than in its own special field, a search of employees for that company won't include this person on the list. It's really the number of moving parts, the number of potential points for error, that have become our biggest challenge.
How have you overcome those challenges? We're tuned into risk assessment: we work to identify the potential points of failure and then we build in mitigation. For example, if some component of the SOA's systems "hiccups," we're paged so that we can address it immediately.
What are your department's biggest successes to date? I think the move to e–commerce has been a huge success. It's a real win/win for our members, our candidates and their employers. For example, the vast majority of candidates registering for the entry–level exams are doing it online. Instead of waiting for several weeks to find out whether or not their registration was accepted, they get immediate feedback. Not only does this make it easier for the registrants, it also reduces the SOA's costs because no one is spending weeks and weeks entering data. The candidate is able to create his or her own account–there's no guessing; he or she moves forward easily because of the immediate confirmation that his or her registration has been achieved.
What good things can you say about your team? We have a superb technology team. I'm very fortunate to be working with a gifted group of colleagues. Not only do they have a deep understanding of the underlying technology, each and every one of them has a strong customer service orientation. They're a pleasure to work with and they clearly understand the relationship between the tools that ITS provides and the SOA's ability to deliver products and services. For example, if the order system is down, a candidate can't register for the exam he needs to advance his career. We know we're doing our best work when our work is invisible, when it takes no more thought than flipping on a light switch.
Tiffany Berger is director of Finance and Facilities for the SOA. In her role, she supervises the Finance department, creates the annual budget, manages the facility issues within the building and also works with the Actuarial Foundation staff and Board. Everything Berger does, makes cents.
Please explain the responsibilities of your department. The main responsibilities of the department are accounts payable; creation of the financial statements on a monthly basis and working with the auditors to perform the audit at the end of the year; everyone's favorite topic, payroll (processed biweekly); and providing financial data to the other departments, i.e., details on expenses, history, etc.
The SOA is a large and complex organization, and we manage its cash flow. Our accounts–payable section issued 5,000 checks in 2007, totaling $23 million. In each and every case, we verify that the payment is for a legitimate purpose and has been approved at the required level of authority. Staff can authorize checks up to specified dollar limits, above which we need approval from our elected leadership. We also manage the SOA's membership equity, which was $21 million at the end of 2007.
What are the short–and long–term goals of the department? Our short–term goals involve budgeting tools, to increase our efficiency and researching new technology, such as electronic expense reports. We're looking at different products that are available on the market–different ways to enhance what we're currently doing or to streamline processes. These changes will benefit the entire SOA.
Our major long–term goal is aligning the SOA's budget with the strategic plan. In the recent past, our budgeting process consisted of looking at the needs of each department singularly. Now we're looking at the strategic plan and the overall function of the SOA, and that requires a new mindset for people–getting them to think differently and taking the strategic plan and making it a working blueprint for the SOA. The strategic plan will be an integral piece in the budgeting process.
What are your department's greatest challenges? Budgeting is always the big one for us. It's very complex and a great deal of discussion time goes into it–due to the exam redesign, changing economics and exam fluctuations, and funding strategic initiatives.
And what are your group's or department's biggest successes? The biggest success we had this year was centered around online dues. We had been mailing out around 19,000 pieces of paper for invoicing and we were able to cut costs dramatically by encouraging members to pay dues online. For the 2007 dues year, all the members could pay online if they chose to, but we also sent them paper invoices.
In 2008, we kept the dues amount constant and virtually eliminated the paper invoice. We had to mail paper invoices to those who didn't have valid e–mail addresses or who didn't have an e–mail address at all. But mailing approximately 3,000 pieces of paper, instead of 19,000 pieces, was a dramatic decrease. We did have a few concerns about going paperless, such as: "will this affect our cash flow?" and, "are people going to forget that they have to pay online and sit and wait for a piece of paper?" Happily that didn't happen. We've been trending payments each month and have been right on target–that's a huge success. Also, encouraging members to pay online increased the efficiency of the customer service team, because they aren't processing pieces of paper. We went from roughly 17 percent of members paying online to where we are currently, which is 56 percent.
We also updated our finance policies in 2007. We improved the policies by building out the authority levels for contracts and strategic initiatives.
What are some good things you can say about your team? I feel very fortunate to work with a wonderfully talented team. They're tremendous people with a great amount of respect, not only for their colleagues, but also for the SOA itself and our members. I feel truly honored to have a great team that supports the SOA and helps to achieve all of our goals.
Being a new hire herself, it seems fitting that Toni Murril is the director of Human Resources for the SOA. Here's the inside scoop on how Murril is working hard to ensure the SOA has the best employees possible.
Please explain the responsibilities of your department. Selecting staff, training staff, developing them, designing and administering the compensation and benefit programs, rewarding staff, recognizing staff–anything that has to do with the human resources of the organization is our responsibility.
How does the Human Resources department benefit the membership? The Human Resources department indirectly benefits the membership by ensuring that we have the right people resources in place to serve member needs. That includes selecting the right people for jobs, training, developing, motivating and retaining those people. We look for employees who not only have the requisite skills to perform the job, but also whose values are congruent with those of the SOA. We want people to work here who enjoy mission–driven work and who, at the end of the day, are enthusiastic about their contribution to the SOA. That's what we look for in the interview process. In terms of designing compensation and benefit programs, we look to see what are the best practices in the market. Then we evaluate what would work best in the SOA culture. Our goal is to provide a competitive total rewards program for our employees that will attract and retain top talent.
What are the short– and long–term goals of the department? Our short–term goal is to review and revise the practices in Human Resources and make sure that we are conducting business as efficiently and effectively as possible. And long–term, we really need to make sure that the Human Resources department is a true, strategic business partner to all of the staff functions of the SOA.
What are the biggest challenges for your department? I would say the biggest challenge is changing the perception of Human Resources from a transactional processing, paper processing department to one of a true strategic business partner in the organization. Traditionally, Human Resources departments have been viewed as the place that you come to get your paycheck. Human Resources plans parties and takes care of all the transactions related to the employees. A good deal of that is still the case and it's essential that we do it very well. If we don't take care of our fundamentals, we can't ever get to the other things we can add. However, the ultimate Human Resources value is providing that strategic component to the business. Meaning, people are involved in every aspect of a business. So every decision that is made has a human resource perspective. A good Human Resources department will be able to bring that perspective to the forefront and offer assistance in intertwining the people aspect with the business. We need to change that old mind–set.
Has the role of the Human Resources professional/manager in general changed over the last 10 years? How so? The move from a transactional Human Resources department to a strategic Human Resources department probably began in the 1990s. Human Resources has not reached the pinnacle of that move yet, but we are continuing to develop.
What good things can you say about your team? They're a fun bunch of people to work with. They're also very committed and hard–working. They have welcomed me and in the short time I've been here, I've learned I can truly depend on them.