Based in Washington, DC, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) has members in 95 countries worldwide, representing the entire spectrum of land use and real estate development disciplines working in private enterprise and public service.
The Urban Land Institute is a member-supported research and education organization with headquarters in Washington, DC. Its approximately 30,000 members are community builders; the people who develop and redevelop neighborhoods, business districts and communities across the U.S. and around the world. Under volunteer leadership, District Council offices create local programming and events to promote real estate development in their area and advocate for best practice solutions identified by headquarters research staff.
Financial reporting is done centrally off Microsoft Dynamics GP. As the number of District Councils in the U.S. grew to 51 offices all over the country, reporting became very time and resource-intensive. Each month the Finance staff under the direction of Debra Throckmorton, ULI’s Senior Vice President, Finance, generated about 2,500 pages of reports drawn from two different systems: monthly financials in FRx and General Ledger supporting detail reports directly out of Dynamics GP. Because FRx did not support delivery of reports via the Internet, reports were static and distribution was a manual process.
Jerry Kirschenman, District Council Finance Manager, says, “Each month, I generated two sets of the reports, printed the pages out and put them together. Another person was responsible for scanning and emailing them to a third person who actually posted the reports on the web as PDF’s. It took a couple of days start to finish. It was not very efficient. Then usually around once a day, someone in a District Council would want a special report and I would pull one and send it off.”
A previous attempt to provide Internet access to the reports had suffered from usability issues. Throckmorton says, “The reporting portal kept crashing so everybody got frustrated with that. So we went back to generating and scanning the reports for them. Everybody in corporate as well as the District Councils wanted a real solution. In addition, Jerry and I wanted to provide the District Council staff and leadership with real-time access to information, not just static reports, to help them manage day to day.”
A task force was formed to review what the District Councils needed, not just from accounting but from all ULI departments. At the end of FY 2011, Throckmorton contacted Wipfli, a Microsoft Partner they had relied on for many years, and commissioned a proof of concept for what they were trying to make happen.
Wipfli evaluated the current business process, and presented various possible technical solutions with relevant costs and enhanced workflow capabilities for each. ULI selected a solution that focused on Microsoft Reporting Services as the best fit for their needs.
The project was technically challenging because of the way the chart of accounts is structured. Throckmorton says, “The District Councils each get a set series of account numbers which are, in effect, recycled every year. From one year to the next, unique titles are attached to recurring numbers for that Council for that year. We keep the event titles in Excel files. Brittenford figured out a way to link that information so that the correct titles for each event will appear on the report being generated. Event registrations are the main revenue source for the Councils, so it’s critical to have event titles in the reporting solution. In addition, at the beginning of the year, the District Councils don’t know all the events they will be organizing or what project numbers they will use. As the numbers are assigned, the reporting spreadsheet is updated with that title. Through a monthly administrative step those titles are updated for the current fiscal year. That was hugely complex. We were really quite impressed with Brittenford.”
Development started in August 2011 and the new reporting solution was showcased during ULI’s annual Fall meeting to District Council staff and leadership in November 2011. It went live soon after. “That month was the last time we went through the process of generating, printing, scanning, and posting the reports,” Throckmorton recalls. “We told them that they would need to learn how to use the new system, and we would provide the resources to help them learn.”
Two things had been done to reduce the learning curve and gain a high degree of acceptance for the new reporting solution. First, Brittenford replicated the reports from the old system; users had a new way of getting information but not a new report to learn. “All we added were some enhancements that enabled them to choose how to generate the report, the time period and the projects they wanted to include in the report. By contrast, when they were getting it from us, it was all or nothing for event data,” Throckmorton says.
Secondly, the plan included a well thought-out approach for knowledge transfer. Kirschenman says, “Leadership in the District Councils is a volunteer position, so every two years, the volunteer leadership (chair and treasurer) will cycle off and be replaced with new leadership. Keeping people trained would have been a huge challenge if it continued to rely on physical training or webinars (which we did at first). The easier route was to create an actual end user guide with screen shots, FAQs, and hyperlinks that they could click on to run any report that they want to.” Kirschenman created this on the basis of a more technical administrative user guide that Brittenford had developed.
The solution launched at ULI’s 2011 annual Fall meeting and was a great success. Kirschenman says, “I think people were surprised in a good way--that it was a system they could all use and it wasn’t overly complex and it actually worked.” Over the following year, it produced “great results that really helped everybody out.” It freed up the resources of the Finance team and it gave the District Councils secure, real-time, distributed financial reporting on demand, so that they can always know exactly where they stand. Throckmorton adds, “Now that we’ve got the basics down, we are going to Phase 2. This time, the Councils will receive more executive summary type reports and an accounts payable inquiry report that they can run on demand to help them manage their projects and their finances. I look forward to presenting it at this year’s meeting.” The new reporting solution has definitely made Jerry Kirschenman’s job a lot easier, but he thinks “the real return on investment is in terms of the satisfaction of the District Councils. This is something that they definitely wanted—a better delivery system for these reports—and Brittenford delivered that wonderfully.”