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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 138: Sarah Langham on Micro-innovation and How It Impacts Company Culture

September 01, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Sarah Langham, an assurance partner at HoganTaylor LLP, alumna at Sam M. Walton College of Business and member of the Dean’s Alumni Advisory Council. During this episode, they discuss how HoganTaylor LLP implements micro-innovation. A core value at HoganTaylor is to be dynamic, and they do this by utilizing micro-innovation. Listen as Sarah recounts an experience with an intern that shows how micro-innovation can impact every aspect of a company.

Episode Transcript


0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.

0:00:28.6 Matt Waller: I have with me today Sarah Langham, who is a partner at HoganTaylor, and she's been there for almost 14 years. She has an undergraduate and a master's degree in accounting here from the Walton College. She's been on Dean's alumni advisory council, my advisory council for many years, and when she graduated, she went to work for Ernst & Young, EY, and then she eventually went to HoganTaylor, and she has hired a number of students, alumni of ours. I wanna talk about one thing in particular that you often don't think of from accounting firms, but HoganTaylor has really tried to implement innovation into their culture, and Sarah has some really interesting experiences I want you to hear about. So Sarah, thank you for taking time to visit with me today. I appreciate it.

0:01:27.0 Sarah Langham: Thank you, it's good to visit today.

0:01:29.8 Matt Waller: So, I know that HoganTaylor has been really trying to implement this concept of micro-innovation, would you mind explaining what that means a little bit?

0:01:41.8 Sarah Langham: So, micro-innovation follows under one of our core values, which is dynamic, which again is maybe not a word you would think of for a public accounting firm, but really for us, dynamic means we expect to be better tomorrow than we are today, and there's a lot of ways that that permeates our culture and the activities that we do, but micro-innovation is really just the incremental changes that people are taking that move them to getting better every day. And for us, micro-innovation are things that any individual has the authority, the resources to carry out, even if the resources are zero but they can do it on their own, and micro-innovations are things that you can pivot, you can hit the undo button, and so that's really a cultural thing that we have worked on for probably three years now, it's embedded in our language, it's helped empower all of our people, interns to partner, to be able to try new things, be confident in our ability to just get better.

0:02:48.0 Matt Waller: Well, Sarah, I remember a story you told a while back that I loved, and I've really encouraged students to hear that and to... I've told the story, hopefully I've told it accurately based on my memory, but I remember there was an intern that you hired, this intern really made a big difference, and if you wouldn't mind just tell the story again, I'd love to hear it.

0:03:17.2 Sarah Langham: So, I'm an auditor and we get data from our clients, that's not always beautiful data, and for a year or two as a brand new auditor, I had had the job of scrubbing the data, getting it in a format that we could then use it to do our audit procedures, and when I had an intern assigned under me, I was very excited to give her the task I had spent eight hours a year doing the previous two years, so I sat her down and I explained to her what needed to be done, and I gave her a little extra cushion, I told her it took me eight hours, but it was okay if it took her 10 hours, trying to be gracious, but she came back to me 15 minutes later with a finished product. I mean, it sticks with me, it's been over 10 years since that happened, but after take your slice of humble pie, pick your jaw up off the floor and say, "Okay, what did you do? Show me what you did." And really, she had just Googled it, she started doing what I told her to do and thought to herself, there has to be a better way.

0:04:16.5 Sarah Langham: And again, with micro-innovation, she had the authority, she knew what had to be done at the end, but she had the authority to decide how to do that thing, so she just tried, and I don't know how many times she tried, but she found a solution, finished the product within 15 minutes. And now, this many years later, we still get data that looks like that, and the way that she taught me how to do it in 15 minutes, we teach to everyone. So, as an intern she made an impact not only on that one job, but on jobs for a decade after that.

0:04:50.4 Matt Waller: There's so much here that I find fascinating. One, that an intern who's inexpensive helped create a solution to a problem that has saved your company a lot of time and money. How many years ago was that?

0:05:09.9 Sarah Langham: It was at least 10 years because I was a staff when that happened.

0:05:14.2 Matt Waller: Wow. So yeah, that's pretty impressive. Now, there's two variables here. One, some interns would be more inclined to step out and try something like that, but for a given student with a given proclivity to step out and try something like that, I think that the culture of the firm... So, someone who's right on the edge, if they stepped into the right culture, they might be willing to step out and try that, but in another culture, they might be afraid to do it.

0:05:47.7 Sarah Langham: Right.

0:05:49.5 Matt Waller: So, how do you create a culture that fosters that kind of confidence and allows people to step out?

0:05:58.1 Sarah Langham: I think first it's, again, having a common language. So we tell everyone, it's okay to ask tactical questions. We expect that we don't know everything, and we expect, especially with our students coming out of school now, that they know technologies that I don't even understand how they work. You're producing students from the Walton College that know Power BI in ways that I don't even understand, and they can just do really neat things, and so from the get-go, we let them know that ask questions, know that there may be a better way and we want, we expect, we hope that you bring those ideas to the table.

0:06:36.7 Sarah Langham: I think the that other thing, especially with micro-innovation is that you have to be able to pivot or switch it up, but with these data sets, just create a back-up, you're not gonna break it, right? And I think that we don't even have to tell the students that, they know that. I think they're more comfortable playing with data than maybe I am, but if you're wanting to empower students and maybe they're in a culture that isn't quite so open to coming up with your own way, as long as everyone knows that you didn't break anything, that the information is still there, I think that gives you a lot more room to play and figure out things and make a real impact.

0:07:17.2 Matt Waller: Sarah, would you mind giving another example of how a micro-innovation came about that then was rolled out for the whole company?

0:07:27.3 Sarah Langham: Yeah, so as an auditor, we have to exchange documents with our clients. From the beginning of time, this is one of the most frustrating things, probably for auditors and for clients to have a good flow of that information. And within our firm, there were a couple of individuals that again, just got frustrated with the way that we've always done it, and so it started as a micro-innovation of them asking, "Is there a better way? How could I do this a better way?" And it blew up into developing a solution called "My Portal" that it's almost like a dashboard where you can see where the project status is, it's drag and drop, which in the past it was all email back and forth, and we know that that's not efficient. So my portal for us is an example that started as a micro-renovation and now is something that we commercialize, we license it to other firms to use, and our clients love it because it just makes the process easier and again, micro-innovations, we point to things, what's annoying or frustrating, or you think there has to be a better way because those are the areas that you should try something else, why would you keep doing it in a way that's frustrating to you?

0:08:39.1 Matt Waller: Sarah, public accounting firms are known for emphasizing efficiency, not innovation. I'm not saying they don't innovate, but they certainly have that reputation. So, would you mind telling me a little bit about the origins of micro-innovation and the drive to make it a part of the culture at HoganTaylor?

0:09:01.5 Sarah Langham: Sure, so the partner of innovation at HoganTaylor's name is Jason Shultz. And when he was thinking about how to move our culture forward and how to be a dynamic firm, he was thinking not only do we need big initiatives, new software or new offerings, ways to serve our clients better, but a foundation of just the culture of people that are willing to make changes, willing to try new things and willing to take the pause instead of just executing, we make a joke in public accounting, it's everything Saly, same as last year. So taking the pause from Saly and thinking about a new way to do things, that the discipline of that pause may take a minute, yeah, and that doesn't feel efficient, but the solutions that you come up with really can make a significant impact in the efficiencies of your jobs overall, so it came out of Jason understanding that the culture side had to be more nimble and had to be more comfortable and flexible, before any of the big innovation things are ever going to be successful.

0:10:10.5 Matt Waller: So Sarah, when you made your presentation to our students on micro-innovations, it was in our students achieving milestones programs, and that we call it SAM, students achieving milestones, and it's part of our student success program, and you spoke to it back then, this was right before we closed down because of the pandemic. So when you went into the pandemic, you all, as a firm, started operating differently, were you able to use your own methods in that process?

0:10:52.7 Sarah Langham: Yes, I kinda had to. In my same talk, I mentioned having to pull yourself off of the complain train, so when you're frustrated and you're just complaining, you have to step off the complain train, come up with solutions, and when I was at my house trying to bring some audit joy to the world with two children who I adore trying to deal with their school stuff and working with our clients who were facing all kinds of challenges, trying to take care of their clients, their customers, I really had to practice what I preach and just keep trying new things and different approaches, and how can we communicate with our clients when we're not sitting right across from them, is it phone calls, is it daily teams meetings? How do I work with my team? How do I make sure that everybody is okay and that we're connected right now? So, it definitely was great to watch that talk back, we'll pep talk to myself during the pandemic, and really is as we continue through the pandemic, honestly, that we have to be willing to just try new things and pivot and keep that little bit of optimism that things are going to be better, that tomorrow is going to be better, and we just have to keep trying new things.

0:12:12.8 Matt Waller: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today about innovation and culture, and I wish you the best on your future and in innovation.

0:12:24.2 Sarah Langham: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

0:12:27.4 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us, wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now Be EPIC.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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