Welcome to the world of Mack Tennyson, director of accounting software for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who with a team of around 30 is responsible for implementing its financials systems worldwide.
Tennyson's globetrotting role takes him to a diverse set of institutions. With a mission that emphasizes both spiritual and physical welfare, the Adventist movement is active in education, health and development and relief work. As well as 750 ecclesiastical organizations worldwide, it operates over 300 hospitals, more than a hundred universities and many thousands of schools, while its development and relief agency works with more than 1400 government programs around the globe.
With 18 million members worldwide and rising, receipts from donations alone total more than $4 billion annually. Total turnover is significantly more, but since each organization operates independently, there's no consolidation into a global figure.
The Church started with its own custom version of Sun accounting in 1981, at a time when the original developer was still a two-person startup. In 2001 it became one of the earliest adopters of SunSystems 5.0, which it adapted for its custom purposes under the name SunPlus. It is currently in the final stages of moving SunPlus to the latest version of SunSystems, which has become part of the Infor product set.
Building common practices
It is up to Tennyson and his team to keep rolling out SunPlus to the more than 3,500 entities they work with, at a target rate of 130 per year — though the switch to a new version may slow the pace this year, he believes:
"The more organizations we have on the software, the more stable and valid the project. The highest priority is not to have a break in the momentum. I'll bet we'll do eighty this year just because we're making this switch."
Even though Tennyson admits that SunSystems is overpowered for smaller local units, this is outweighed by the benefits of having everyone using the same software as people move between roles:
"We take a missionary from the Philippines and send them to Africa and they walk through the door and they know what we're talking about."
Even more important is building a common understanding about financial practices.
"Our big problem is building a unity of thought across all these organizations — the practical unity of a common chart of accounts, common practices of expressing things ...
"We need to be on the same songsheet not only for spiritual reasons but also for administration reasons."
Often, implementing the software is a useful proxy for introducing more professional financial management.
"Places that have serious lack in internal controls, we go in and say we're doing a software implementation — and at the same time, we put in the controls."
But the nature of the organization is such that every implementation has to be 'sold' in. Treasurers are elected at local level by church members, while staff work out of a sense of vocation, not because of the paycheck. "It's not a hierarchical project, it's a network," says Tennyson.
Thus Tennyson's team has to evangelize the merits of standardizing on SunPlus, assisted by the Church's leadership. He even calls on a nineteenth century exhortation by one of the Church's founding fathers, who wrote in the 1840s:
"For Christ's sake, as the chosen people of God, call yourselves to task and inaugurate a sound financial system."
His advice to others that have to work with a globally distributed workforce is to be sensitive to the different attitudes people have to authority around the world — a factor that has been measured by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede as the Power Distance Index (PDI).
"The biggest thing is really identifying the dramatic cultural differences in the way decisions are made and the way people approach authority. If you don't have the sensitivity in understanding those cultural differences it will bring you down.
"Places like South Korea, Brazil, Russia have the highest PDI index. Our headquarters in Korea rolled it out — in about a year they had all their organizations done. The Europe division, every organization, I've got to twist their arms and persuade them.
"If you're doing this global rollout, you've got to realize that in some places you can schedule the implementation and let them know what you've decided; in other places you've got to baby them along."
The move to the new version will also include a cloud-hosted option, although Tennyson says adoption is likely to be slow.
"Some of the big arguments for going to cloud aren't as cut and dried as they sound."
The move to a subscription model is a significant obstacle in developing countries, especially when the on-premise system has typically been donated. Tennyson is critical of cloud providers for not adjusting their prices for local markets:
"These software companies have not figured out price discrimination. It really takes study in each of these market locations to see what the value is. The cloud people quote one price everywhere, and it's easier for the developed countries to pick it up."
Therefore the dozen or so organizations that have gone cloud so far are typically in the wealthier countries. One exception is where the Adventists are providing accounting for the AGRA Alliance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, using a dial-up line for the connection. Tennyson explains:
"The security is so much greater in the hosted environment it overcomes the weakness of the poor connection. It might take a long time to enter it in, but once it's in, it's in. They don't have to worry about whether the server's still there the next day."
Keeping in touch
As well as a headquarters team of seven based in Washington DC, Tennyson has up to two or three direct reports working in each of the Church's thirteen global divisions. He encourages colleagues to make direct contact to resolve issues rather than writing lengthy emails.
"I do like to get the guys on the phone and say let's solve this problem. When they email, I tell them, I'm not reading anything but the first screen. If you want me to do something just put it in the first line of the email."
The team had been using Skype but Tennyson complains that because he has so many contacts around the world, he finds he is overwhelmed by social chat any time he logs on.
"We've had to pull away from Skype. Everyone's on it. The minute I log onto Skype, I will get five or six contacts. I could spend all day just doing that relationship building."
After a failed test of Lync, they have now standardized on Google Hangouts — while restricting usage to the immediate team.
"We have been very happy with it. It seems that Hangouts will work with the more troubled bandwidth, even than Skype.
"I've had to tell my team that they can't use Hangouts for anybody except their immediate family and me."
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