Monday, December 21, 2009

Account opening improved?

I have had an interesting week of seeing how well, or badly banks are handling their account opening processes. I'm disappointed to see that despite obvious investments in technology, they still need some help to get their processes cleaned up so that they don't cause a new customer to jump through hoops to get things corrected right at the start of the relationship.

1) Bank of America - opening a personal checking account
I generally like BoA for their efficient and friendly customer service when you call them, and the decent online banking facility. It seems that their account opening still needs some help, or someone just didn't think things through.

In this example, my wife finally decided it was time to quit Citizens Bank, after they forced her to go to a branch to do something that should have been simple to do over the phone. So we quickly opened a BoA account online. Quick, easy, and a couple of days to wait for the welcome letter. All seemed to be going so well.

A debit card arrived two days later - with the wrong name on the card. It seems that previously having a credit card administered by BoA, then a new name from getting married was too much for BoA to handle. The credit card was reissued with her new name, but all other records still appeared in her old name. The account opening process thought it was being clever when it automatically linked the new checking account with the previous credit card account, and decided for itself that the name incorrectly floating around on the old account must have been correct after all, reverting all correspondence, cards, checks and so on to the previous name, while ignoring the account application form.

The account is effectively unusable until everything gets corrected. Not a good start to a relationship.

2) Bank of America - opening a business account for Consected
As I said, I liked BoA. Their online account opening is great (for both personal or business accounts), so I thought, unless you are not a citizen of the US. It does not matter if you have a relationship with the bank already, you must go to the branch to open a new account. Even something as simple as depositing money from a current checking account into a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD). This makes my life tricky, so I rarely put savings into BoA accounts.

Anyway, I went to the branch to open my new business account. Visiting a bank branch is slow and painful, but things went well. I was shocked at the complexity of the system the agent had to use to set up the account and the step that requires a telephone call to Chex Systems to validate my details. I have no problem with the need to do third party validation, but really can't it be more automated than recited my details over the phone to another agent?

The issue for me is that the systems that agents must use to set up accounts appear not to be at all customized to the type of account or the needs of the branch agent. It appears to be true that agents and brokers in financial institutions are limited in the types of accounts they can open less by the skills they have selling an appropriate product to a customer or being licensed to sell what is available, but in fact in the amount of training they have in the account opening systems. In all, it took me an hour to open the account. The agent was friendly and helpful, but how few customers can she help in a day if the systems force her to work at that rate?

3) Opening a Certificate of Deposit (CD) for savings with ING Direct
BoA could learn from the simplicity of opening a new account when you already have a customer relationship to work with. ING makes it easy to select a product, open the account and deposit money in it (even if I do not like their deceptive practice of indicating your available balance being your account total plus overdraft agreement where other banks just show the funds available to withdraw - I don't want to use my overdraft routinely, so don't show it to me unless I use it by accident).

ING has it right. They tailor the account opening process to the operator (me, an online customer), making it simple and easy to use, with virtually nothing to get wrong along the way. I bet that the number of 'not in good order' (NIGO) applications is near zero, though the customer base is limited to customers with an existing banking relationship with a well known institution.

This blog started out by discussing some of the issues around new account opening for financial services institutions. Three years in, despite a change of name and a broader focus, the issues around new account opening still exist. The banks need to shape up badly.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, December 10, 2009

PDF forms induce stress and panic

Its approaching tax season again - in the US I'm thinking about the end of the tax year and in the UK I'm finally going to do the online tax return I've been putting off since April. And with tax returns comes the all too familiar series of questions and forms that we always hope lead us to a complete, accurate and not too large tax bill. This style of question and answer form filling is pervasive for many large personal data capture requirements, where a simple underlying workflow helps you respond with only the relevant information, based on the previous questions you have answered. We see this style of form for taxes all the time, sometimes in financial services for opening a new account, but rarely in other places. In many other applications, we still get the pixel perfect rendition of the original paper form as an electronic document, typically a PDF, with fillable fields. To me, this is a cop-out.

If you have ever filled in a PDF form online, you will start to recognize what a terrible UI a typical paper form really is (in its paper or electronic format). The spaces to enter data often fail to follow a real flow or are too small to be useful, being crammed in to fit the constraints of being printed on a fixed sized page; the notes to assist in filling complex forms are in separate documents or on pages you have to manually scroll up or down to as you enter each response; typically the form can not be submitted electronically even if it can be saved locally. I dislike PDF forms for these reasons, and the fact that they are based on paper forms that were probably designed by 'forms professionals', who probably had little understanding that mere mortals would find them so difficult to understand or use. Even something as deceptively simple as the old US 'visa waiver' for tourists visiting the country required additional 'checkers' walking along the passport control line to validate what tourists had written before they reached the immigration officer, because the form was just so difficult to use. Most people I spoke to found that they could only fill out the form correctly one time in three, and this caused significant anxiety.

In the online world, my preference is always to present an electronic form that is designed for use online. A simple layout of a vertical series of fields enabling the user to always know that the next piece of information to enter is below the previous one, not wedged in a corner filling 'ugly' whitespace. This style is easier to use and easier (and cheaper) to create, so both users and organizations win. If you need a paper form for people unable to submit online (and regulations insist on this for many industries and government), use your current paper form. Don't spend a whole load of money trying to make that paper form electronic.

Of course, many companies and government organizations would not dream of presenting a form that did not look like its original paper version. Maybe this is due to the familiarity that they believe people have with paper forms that leads to less shock when presented with them. Or in a rare case, the form required certification from a regulator, therefore changing the layout is an even more costly proposition. In this case, organizations have to accept that the design of the forms for electronic use will be complex and costly. To do so, ensure that you use a dedicated form design tool that allows you to create the forms and manage their updates into the future.

Unless it has to be done, its always recommended to design and present forms for the medium they will be used in. Paper and electronic media rarely align as we all know from trying to read multi-column PDFs online, so when it comes to requiring data entry, spare your customers the pain of scrolling more than they are typing.

It is hard to attract clients in the first place, whatever service you provide, so its essential to avoid the situation where a prospective customer chooses not to sign up with your organization or for your service due to the anxiety that a complex form gives them. Don't believe me, watch your parents when they see a complex PDF form pop up when they click a link. The expression will be of stress and panic. Do you really want to put your new customers through that?

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Comcast's split personality, and what it means for businesses

Why on earth am I blogging about Comcast's joint venture with GE on NBC Universal? Since when have I been interested in such things? Well, when it touches a company that has been trying to appeal to small businesses so intensely, it seems only right that I talk 'entertainment news'.

Comcast, the largest cable company in the US, has two segments, one for the provision of the wired services, such as TV, broadband Internet and phone. The second in the programming segment, which already held some highly exciting content such as the Golf Channel and E Entertainment (depending on your TV watching preferences - I'm more of a Discovery and History watcher). My question is this: "How will the Comcast cable segment be distracted by the renewed focus on broadcast television?". Putting it another way, I see that Comcast has spent a significant amount of time recently pushing its range of non-broadcast capabilities to consumers and businesses. The provision of business Internet and VOIP solutions appears to have been a growth area, with the claim that Comcast can deliver these services better and cheaper than the 'phone' company. What happens to these now?

With the expected push from the parent company to make the NBC venture a success, will the cable segment be pushed back into focusing its growth on squeezing more out of the American consumer's pocket through broadcast TV? Will this slow its innovation of Internet, especially business focused Internet products? Or will the the new venture lead to a final opening up of the broadcast TV content onto mobile devices, on demand, with novel new subscription models? With this, will we see interesting new technology innovation with streaming video to the browser containing more than advertising and adult content? Will Internet bandwidth see a leap, with a drop in Mbits per dollar to the end customer?

As you can tell, I have none of the answers, and I would be surprised is Comcast doesn't go back to focus on what it does best - using up valuable bandwidth pushing broadcast TV across the country into people's homes. In my opinion, the revolution for TV, and the innovation of Internet services for consumers and businesses is likely to come from a different deal.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sealed with a loving kick

Software is unreliable. And it doesn't respond to the traditional approach for fixing mechanical issues - the proverbial "leather hammer". Worse still, it is easily thrown off balance by a simple change. A tweak here, an addition there, can appear to make things work in more exciting ways, though fundamentally put the whole system at risk. No warning sounds, no new clicking or grinding, just a sudden catastrophic failure.

The positive side of software is that the more that it runs, being pushed and pulled in new and unexpected ways by untrained testers (aka end-users), the more faults are found and subsequently ironed out. The problem for enterprise software vendors is that this really only happens after the software release, since beta testing is all very well, but it just delays the next round of killer functionality hitting the market and being saleable. And without that functionality being available now, how can the poor salesman be expected to hit his or her quarterly target. The reality is that software testing gets in the way of software license revenue.

This is where a software as a service (SaaS) model shows a huge benefit. Customers who are willing to take a little risk and use beta functionality can see the advantages of that functionality early, with a quick and easy rollback to the standard stuff if things start to get a little too hairy (no new installation required). The SaaS vendor can limit the availability of new functionality to just a subset of use cases it offers, while customers with different individual usages of the functionality test it in ways never considered by the designers.

With SaaS, the software that hits the masses is subsequently better tested than most enterprise software could ever dream of. There is no advantage to 'kicking' software to get it to work, but SaaS allows the next best thing - a constant prodding, poking and stretching by many people, ensuring the reliability of the software for everyone.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Business process improvement should not be scary and ugly

Focus - essential and difficult. With so many exciting opportunities to chase and things to do, it can be incredibly hard to focus on the ones that are necessary and may lead to greater success. I'm not suggesting that you or I are disorganized or easily distracted -- I just think that having to burn time on the essential but dull items of a running a business seem like such a waste. That's why I try to focus on using available services that can do some things cheaper and easier than I can, and automate (or at least simplify) those things that I can not (or do not want to) outsource.

In a way, that has been a goal of business process management (BPM) software for a while. The modeling of a business's processes has been made into something that can be done by the experts internally, while outsourcing the execution of it to a lump of software and hardware. The problem with this is that the business process management software that allows such a thing really does not exist. "What? There are loads of BPM software products!" I hear you cry. I absolutely agree - there are load. And they all do the same thing. They convince businesses that they can take control of improving their processes with the business experts they already have, draw a pretty picture, then you're done. You try it for real and reality kicks in. The salesman's shiny shoes are no longer gracing your office corridor, and you are stuck with a 3-6 month software project to get the first process running in a real environment. "I wasn't sold a software project" I hear you cry again. No, absolutely true. The truth of BPM software is that it just becomes a software project to get any useful level of solution in place. Its powerful stuff, but complex, ugly and all consuming of the resources you throw at it.

Have you noticed that there are many software solutions delivered directly online that don't need a software project to get them to work? That's because they have to be fully configurable as there is no option for the software developers to dig in and blow your budget. used to be a great example, but they've bowed to the financial pressure of appealing to the techies, and now they're all about their development platform. Taking that leap could be like jumping from one software development nightmare to another.

"So we are all stuck with email to run our processes?", you ask. No, I don't think so. I would like to show you an alternative, based on the familiar use of online email (like Gmail or Yahoo mail), but in a way that can capture data and documents, and control a workflow process in a way that email just can't do. It is something I have been working on for a while, and I'd love to show it to any supervisor, manager or executive that wants to improve the way their business runs, but does not have the time or energy to make it happen. And if you have a business case but not cash up front, that's fine too. Let's talk about a risk/reward structure (though the price-tag will not blow out your Amex card each month, so you probably won't need to).

There are some things that you are better off letting external resources help with, because they can do them better and cheaper. Designing, improving and running the solutions that manage your business processes is probably one of them.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reforming health care, one inefficiency at a time

We all know that the health care system in the US needs reform one way or another. There are some big overhauls required, for sure, but there is a general level of complete inefficiency from an administration, billing and payments perspective that many find shocking. These inefficiencies just cut into the profits of the providers, some would say. True enough, and they are then reflected in what providers charge insurers, which eventually comes back round to hit the businesses and individuals that must pay for that insurance. Nothing comes for free, and when there are unnecessary costs reducing the quality of service and the cash directed at actual patient care, these things matter.

So, whether you care about the fixing health care, or just making a business run better, one area for providers to look at is how they manage billing and collections. Even in fairly routine hospital encounters, a patient may receive services, drugs and other medical items that may be billed through multiple departments. How well have the Account Receivable departments for each department bothered to work together? How often are bills presented to patients from each department individually, often for an invoiced amount less than the cost of actually generating and collecting the amount due. The same is true for small providers such as a clinic or doctor's office. Here the issues are often focused on handling paper, tracking bills and payments and handling patient inquiries.

If it is the IT systems that are in place that force this inefficiency, that is a tough nut to crack. If it is really due to the business processes for managing the entry of billable items, the consolidation of invoices across departments, or the workflow for collections, those are things that should be simpler to address.

The great thing about business processes, especially those that span departments or help small organizations, is that they can skirt the edge of the business systems you already have in place. A new or improved business process can help join the dots - providing a way to put a meaningful line of communication between the current silos of activity. Initially, there is no need to consider a rip-and-replace of systems, or complex integration. Doing something is typically better than doing nothing - and when doing something saves a significant amount of money in printing invoices, mailing bills, chasing payers or patients and hiring temporary workers to handle high workloads, you can start to see the opportunities for doing something bigger in the future.

US health care needs to achieve some quick wins on its path to a full reform. A lesson in reducing waste, putting in some business processes where there are none, and streamlining others, could be a quick win for many.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HITECH HIPAA - HR can't just push the burden onto IT

Every healthcare and HR professional in the US knows about HIPAA. Its that difficult piece of legislation that says you can't treat an individual's protected health information in the same lax way that organizations do every other aspect of an individual's 'private' data - you can't leak it, share it, sell it, or generally let it out of your sight. The problem is, although everyone knew about the legislation and new at a high-level what it meant, at many levels it lacked any real threat to make people pay attention.

The penalties from the legislation itself appeared to be more like "we expect you to screw up and release a bunch of personal information, so if you do we'll scold you a little, and we know you'll do it again anyway, so we won't penalize you too much", than a real deterrent. The fact that HIPAA worked at all in healthcare appeared to me to be that the bad press that would come from a failure. For example, the Seattle health system, Providence, was finally hit with a $100k fine, but this took repeated offenses and the loss of healthcare records of 386,000 people. According to Anne Zieger on FierceHealthIT:
The fine that will be paid by Providence is actually fairly unusual, as very few HIPAA fines have actually been imposed to date. However, its security issues are also unique. While many health organizations have lost a single laptop or backup tape to theft or disorganization in recent years, I haven't encountered any that have actually had to report multiple losses. That might explain why federal monitors took a particular interest in this organization's troubles.
As I looked through the backlog of news I had been avoiding reading this week, I started to see more stories about the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. At a time when the government is pushing electronic medical records (welcome to the 20th century US healthcare), someone is also thinking about how badly companies are likely to implement their systems. This story jumped out at me: HIPAA Enforcement Gets More Teeth:

Prior to the HITECH Act, the maximum penalty was $100 for each violation or $25,000 for all identical violations of the same provision. A covered healthcare provider, health plan, or clearinghouse could also avoid the imposition of a fine by demonstrating that it did not know that it violated the HIPAA rules.

The HITECH Act strengthened the enforcement program by establishing tiered ranges of increasing minimum penalty amounts, with a maximum penalty of $1.5 million for all violations of an identical provision. In addition, a covered entity can no longer prevent the imposition of a fine for an unknown violation unless it corrects the violation within 30 days of discovery.

The provisions for the hefty fines appear to only apply to health care providers, clearinghouses and health plans. Since HR does not fall into these categories, all the HR professionals are wondering why they were suffering HIPAA fatigue back in 2005 when the security regulations started to really hit them. The problem for HR is that they pass protected health information (often referred to as PHI) to the three types of "covered entity", therefore they fall under HIPAA security rules.

There is a a great article that talks about the role of HIPAA security in HR back in 2005: "HR's Role in HIPAA Security Compliance" By Philip L. Gordon of Littler Mendelson, P.C. As the article states, HR passed the data security issue to IT, "because that's what IT does, right?". The fact is that, unless HR takes care of its own controls and policies around the handling of protected health information, during every phase of a the relationship with an employee, including recruitment and employment through to beyond termination, there is little that IT can do but store already compromised information. If HR takes information into its own custody and loses it there (a desk drawer, papers on top of a broken shredder, files on a stolen laptop), IT can not take the blame.

For HR, make sure that the business processes you run that touch PHI can be enforced, the data captured can be secured from the point of receipt, and that there is full opportunity to audit everything that you do. You can absolutely do that with manual mechanisms, though email makes data security far more complex than you can imagine. To make HIPAA compliance less of a burden, suggest pushing the responsibility for business processes down to a dedicated business process / workflow automation tool. At a minimum this can show that you are following best practices should the worst happen and the HHS comes knocking at your door. And on a routine basis, the demonstration of compliance again becomes a 'systems' issue for IT or your software solutions vendor to handle.

Like many forms of compliance and governance, making use of process improvement technology designed for running your business better can automatically put you in a better position with HHS, and any other agency or regulator that pushes onerous, but necessary regulation.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ban Twitter, buy Chatter

Since every company wishes they could ban Facebook and Twitter in work time, why would a want to release a social networking app called 'Chatter', and who in the world would want to pay for it?

There are elements of the time-wasting social networking tools that are incredibly valuable to large organizations, or even smaller organizations that are distributed or where workers are on the road a lot. Keeping people in touch with one another is just one element. The type of features that businesses could leverage, if they could get their employees to adopt them for professional use are:
  • A LinkedIn style location for managing your professional profile, such as skills, education, and areas of company or product expertise - especially valuable in organizations where you don't always know who will be the expert in something specific you need for a project
  • Twitter homepage or Facebook wall for advertising your current status, broadcasting cries for help, and keeping in touch quickly with those people in the other offices that you know well but rarely see
  • Instant Messaging, like Google Talk, providing 'presence', so you know who's available and when, and the ability to contact them rapidly when they are there
  • Wikis, like the famous Wikipedia, allowing rapid online documentation libraries to be built up by anyone - perfect for any employee, project or product related documentation that changes frequently
  • Blogs, like this, providing a form of easy internal communications for employee information and updates, and the associated RSS feed reader
  • Groups or communities of interest (e.g. Google Groups), that allow people with related interests to share their ideas and experience with others - especially valuable in development and innovation based organizations
  • Online collaboration - like WebEx, or that highly hyped Google Wave, for seeing what is going on in somebody else's world and interact with it there and then
Most of these types of technology are available for use free of charge, inside or outside the firewall. In my opinion, the one thing that nobody has done well at this point is to pull them all together into a single, clean, secure, easy to use, and highly functional product that the CIO is willing to pay for.

Maybe, if Salesforce gets it right, they will be the first. What they will also need to get right is the ability to integrate this new stuff directly into the other applications that people use for business purposes, day in, day out. And embed collaboration into structured processes, and vice versa. Without that, collaborative, social networking tools remain an ad-hoc, "nice idea" for killing bored moments at work.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Monday, November 16, 2009

The value of the Internet is approaching zero

The value of the Internet is approaching zero, because it is driven by marketing, vested interests and lack of transparency, according to Colin Henderson on The Bankwatch blog. We can expect a collapse of a magnitude similar to (although consequences smaller than) the current financial crisis. Which is my way of paraphrasing Colin's dire predictions for a Web based on Twitter retweets of retweets that manipulate rankings and pretend there is actually a dialog happening between people. (Colin writes it better than me, and has some great links as well).

For a real example, to see how easily manipulated Twitter is for example, take a look at Edelman's Tweetlevel, a service that tries to demonstrate the value of social-media, by creating metrics their PR professionals probably work to enhance for their clients. I have no idea what an Edelman sales-pitch is like, but I can imagine it is starting to revolve around selling how great their Tweetlevel numbers are for 'representative' clients. Even more amusing will be the game that other PR agencies will play with it. Imagine agency X walks in to Edelman's own clients and shows directly in Tweetlevel how much better the client could be doing if they moved to work with agency X.

Oh and for the sake of transparency, my Twitter names (yes I have a semi-professional one and a company one) rate quite awfully. No excuses, except that I find it hard to actually engage with people on a meaningful level and get my work done without a paid resource to help, which would really defeat the object of engaging with people in a sincere way.

It seems that I am happier spending half and hour a day writing some lengthy, sometimes original drivel on this blog, than half an hour total distracting myself every ten minutes to type 140 characters and point to a website that I found only for the purpose of manipulating my Twitter follower count. And if you occasionally enjoy what you read here, that makes it all worthwhile.

For another perspective, take a read of William Gibson's "Idoru", amazingly published in 1996. Gibson gives a high-energy and insightful view of how the Net becomes overwhelmed with corporate interests and legislation, and a dark-net called the Walled City springs up to allow people (by invitation only) to live and express themselves in a meaningful way, outside the grasp of corporate manipulation.

Yes - this blog is attached to a company website, but the thoughts expressed here are my own. Since the product you may buy from the website is also representative of my thinking, that seems to be the fairest marketing you can hope to get.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Friday, November 13, 2009

Reduction in travel saves us from misguided use of mobile technology

As the global recession bites deeply, the number of miles flown by the road-warrior and regular employees has dropped considerably. As far back as May last year, Michelle Conlin of BusinessWeek reported how:
[...] companies as varied as Advanced Micro Devices, Xerox, Cisco Systems, AstraZeneca, and Adecco are cutting internal business travel (grinding from corporate office to office) by as much as 50 percent.
Not only has this increased the need for the online collaborative tools such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, it has made me question whether companies need to focus on the expensive development of mobile clients for their traditional business applications. When everyone was constantly 'out of office', having a Blackberry UI, iPhone app, or at least a dumbed-down portal suitable for access from airport security queues around the country was an essential 'me-too' for business application vendors. The question now is whether there is sufficient value in providing this, for the vendors, or the companies that use their tools.

More and more, companies seem to want to keep track of employees, and the work they are doing. Less and less, they want them being only partially connected as they flit from city to city. Home-office working allows use of a decent laptop and a broadband network. Netbooks enable a reasonable sized screen for accessing regular web based applications on a fast-enough 3G network. So what is the value in business applications on tiny little mobile devices?

Mr/Mrs Road Warrior will be picking up a mass of email, and won't be trying to write his/her opportunity report for the regional sales VP on a Blackberry. So why waste the company's money implementing a complex system to allow such misguided use of technology.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Maybe Google has it right...

A couple of weeks back I blogged 'Your desktop will get a facelift. Who is holding the scalpel?'. It got me some interesting feedback by email that I won't repeat here from proponents of a couple of the technologies mentioned. The post, and some subsequent discussions have led me to think more about the browser's role in applications, SaaS and keeping IT costs down.

The reality of the situation is that the browser is a big, bloated, resource hog of an application that business users' PCs can not live without. IT has to maintain it, keep it updated, keep it secure, whether they like it or not. So the benefit of SaaS running in a pure, unadulterated browser, whether it is Internet Explorer or Firefox (or maybe Safari, Chrome, Opera, ...) is that the application just works. No additional IT expense managing another application. No extra resource hog (one, in the form of a browser, is sufficient for most PCs).

If you ever present your IT group with the idea of adding a new installed desktop application to the standard stack of stuff users have on their PCs already, they cringe. Why? Its not just a one off cost of installing a hundred desktops that worries them, you can add to it:
  • maintenance and upgrades for the installed application going forward
  • updating the standard 'build' that a new employee gets when they join the team
  • keeping the standard build up to date as the new application is updated
  • ensuring that the application does not put the network, PC or other data at risk of security flaws
  • handling the issues with dependencies on other applications (where the new application breaks an old one)
  • installing additional components (such as Java, .NET, Adobe Air, Silverlight), thereby adding more hassles and costs
  • compliance with software licenses, and handling licenses embedded in the installed software
  • additional complexity of disaster recovery and business continuity plans that cover desktop environments (you can't easily move to a temporary facility if proprietary software has to be installed)
SaaS solutions are designed for browsers. They should not require plugins to work effectively, although power-users may benefit from them, they should also be able to work without them. If the user's laptop falls out of the overhead bin on a transatlantic flight, real browser applications allow the user to be up and running as soon as they get to the hotel business center and the battered desktop PC.

It seems that we are not going to get a precise scalpel with Internet browsers - they are often a sledgehammer against a nut. But for business applications, one sledgehammer should be quite enough.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

VMWare and SaaS really can make office PCs a cheap commodity

Any business that is vaguely serious about their IT infrastructure and its security is probably worried about the cost and hassle involved with keeping their PC software up to date and operating effectively. Then comes the need to replace a bunch of PCs or handle a damaged laptop, and the day to day management of updates becomes an even bigger hassle for the IT team.

There are a huge number of day-to-day and one-off expenses associated with maintaining a PC infrastructure that are associated with the software on the PC, rather than the hardware itself. When the PC and associated software should help people get their jobs done, rather than waste their time, its easy to see why many companies are looking for alternatives to the Dell + Windows + expensive service contract approach to desktop management.

Fortunately there has been a recent explosion of alternatives. In the last week we have seen Ubuntu, the easy to install and use Linux desktop, release version 9.10. That release competed in the same launch timeframe as the 200 dollar upgrade to Windows 7 Professional, which does little to change the status quo. We are seeing an aggressive push by Google to get the ultimately easy to maintain office productivity suite (all you have to maintain is the browser on the desktop, not even fileservers or email), with a 50 dollar per year pricepoint. Zoho provide a a more feature rich alternative to Microsoft Office online than Google, and Microsoft Office is competing with itself in the online, zero management hassles space.

Now VMWare has announced its newest version of virtualization for the desktop, allowing you to handle user PC desktops as a managed service, running centrally much like Citrix used to offer, but done differently. Something goes wrong with a user's PC? Get a new lump of hardware and they are up and running just as before. Add twenty new employees this month? Just hit 'go' to provision their desktop environment on the server and make sure they have a lump of hardware to run it (I know of a large insurance company that was doing this for the last two years for their home-based workers, to great success).

Oh Mr Dell, the hardware is so much less important now - as long as it works. Maybe you'll go back to your roots of building cheap, reliable hardware through an innovative supply chain and assembly model, rather than trying to compete with Apple (or even Sony or HP), who can market the expensive, desirable personal PC products so much better. My six year old Dell laptop is so much more robust and reliable than the two year old equivalent my wife bought, but if my wife's PC were a disposable price and easy to switch out to another box with no delay or hassle I might just do it.

Maybe we all need virtualized desktops. We appear to have accepted that PC hardware is consumable, a commodity that will get used then added to a festering pile of toxic waste on a foreign shore, as much as we hide from the horrible reality. So for business's sake, let's make hardware cheap, with no frills (and therefore a big percentage less waste to pretend we might recycle). Alternatively, leave a pile of solid, built to last desktop PCs under desks in offices, for use on a first-come, first-served basis, and hand out cheap Netbooks for the traveling workers who want convenience and mobile access to their applications anywhere. What makes these models work in practice? Separating the software from the users' hardware, with all the software that people run managed centrally, with VMWare hosted desktops in our your own server rooms, Ubuntu servers in the cloud, office apps at Google, CRM at Salesforce, oh and don't forget business processes managed run by Consected.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Case management - follow the bouncing ball

I just had the unfortunate pleasure of tuning in to a sponsored webinar called "Smart Case Management: Why it's so smart" on ebizQ - unfortunate because I tuned out before the end and missed what was so smart about it. Unless I really missed the punchline though, I am starting to believe that nobody in the traditional business process management (BPM) software industry really understands case management. This is probably because it doesn't fit their view of the world, so they'll just force fit everything into fixed workflows (sorry, 'executable business processes' is the marketing term) and add a rules engine, or a pretty collaborative-esque UI, or whatever other thing they own that helps them try a new marketing tactic.

If you know that you have a major business process with a need for real case management, not 'smart, slideware case management', how do you convince your boss that traditional BPM might not be the real answer? See if these five attributes fit your business process:
  1. A large chunk of the process is centered around knowledge workers, experts, brokers, underwriters, assessors, analysts, specialists, or whatever else you might call the people using brainpower to get the work done
  2. Your process has many starting points, and channels through which a 'case' may begin, or be identified as being part of a pre-existing case (phone, email, customer call, broker, management edict)
  3. There are many possible successful (and possibly unsuccessful) outcomes that represent the end of this process, but not necessarily signify the end of the whole case (the client lives on)
  4. The users of the system need to be guided when to deal with work in workflows centered on this case, but also need to be able to interact with it at any other time (such as when a client calls unexpectedly or the auditor stops by)
  5. The general flow of work may follow a fairly basic structure, but a case must always have the opportunity to deviate from that previously defined path, to cater to: the unusual situations; the escalations; the high-risk / high-value opportunities; the client threatening litigation; the partner offering a huge deal.

To visualize what case management is, try this. Think of the bouncing-ball that used to guide you in singing the lyrics on TV and early karaoke. (Image courtesy of ASIFA)

The ball is the 'case' (an account, partner, client, policy, etc or combination thereof). As the ball bounces along its path, the singer is guided and assisted in singing the song to the predefined flow. Real life says that the singer, being the expert in vocalization of words and tunes (the animator of the ball maybe can't sing), may actually deviate from the written words, as he or she ad-libs a little. The TV doesn't prevent them from doing so, but certainly makes it easier for them in an unfamiliar tune if they can follow the flow.

As the ball is bouncing along, you look closer at it and realize that it has a bunch of other items revolving around it (visualize electrons around the neutron if the ball was an atom). These other items are the processes and communications that go on as needed around the core case (such as the auditor digging in to the detail). Typically they interact with the ball and the words, but unless something goes wrong, they don't throw it off its bouncing path.

Occasionally a separate harmony kicks in, and the ball (here the visual messes up a bit) floats between multiple lines of lyrics being sung by different people. No one person is the owner of the tune, and they all interact a lot, or slightly as they harmonize. The case follows the tracks of the different processes, for as long as required, though not necessarily according to a predefined path.

Finally the song ends and there is a successful outcome. The singer, and the ball, don't disappear though, they just go off to do different things for now.

So, if you were able to visualize that, you have a good sense of the complexity of case management, and why it is so valuable for some business processes. It is the facilitator to the case (the ball), following its general path, while allowing everything else to get on with what needs to be done around it, and enabling the 'ad-libs' to result in a better outcome than a strictly mechanical approach. In reality, case management reflects the real life of business, clients, opportunities and day to day work, and the value that smart people can bring to what they do when the systems the use allow them to do so.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Running a project should not be mismanagement by email

If you have ever run a project, or even been on the blunt end of the tasks coming out of a project manager, you'll understand how difficult effective tracking of communication can be. The tracking of individual tasks on the GANTT prove hard enough, with many projects resorting to a printed copy that gets a thorough paint-job with a green highlighter at regular intervals. Now try and track the implicit communications and requests that make up the tasks on the plan (or often outside of it), and you'll prove to yourself that there really has never been a good way to track your project related conversations and responses, many of them getting lost in email. So, for my newest consulting project, I decided to 'drink my own champagne / eat my own dog-food' and use Consected to manage the structure of my project, track the communications with the joint teams, track the project plan and record the masses of notes that I normally expect to generate or receive.

What did I want to achieve? First for the good of the project I wanted to make sure that all of my project information was carefully organized so that I could find it at any time, and so I could track follow ups with the client and vendor (I'm sitting in the middle, trying to clean up a messy project) without driving myself make sure that all of my project information was carefully organized so that I could find it at any time, or the post-it notes into crisis. Second, I wanted to get a better handle on the strengths and shortcomings of using the Consected solution for a project that doesn't have a lengthy business process or workflow.

What is the outcome? The project appears to be picking itself up well, due to (or despite) my last minute introduction to it (the aim being to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and beat it into shape). And Consected has proven what a great fit it is for this type of unstructured or semi-structured project management or case management work. Even better, it now has a nice, simple, but powerful ready-to-run solution for managing consulting projects, or likely many ad-hoc projects you see in typical organizations.

Does this sound like something you could use to track your projects and communication better? Great, because this is a preview that Consected will offer this Consulting Project service, and some accompanying solutions for immediate sign up and use in the coming weeks. If anyone is interested in signing up for the free, public beta of this ready-to-run solution, drop me an email at phil_ayres @ or go to the contact page of, so I can add your name to the list of people to notify on release day.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Monday, November 02, 2009

Listen to your gut when process intelligence fails you

Business leaders seem to pick for themselves one of two styles of decision making: decisions based on data or decisions based on gut-feel. Both have their place, but only the former can seem to be enhanced through the use of technology. When measuring work inside business processes, gaps in data are assumed to be a failure of the analysis, rather than an underlying indicator of something worse.

If you take a read of ZDNet's Is BI ready to meet the real world? article today, it should reinforce the fact that leaders pick their own style, though the article pushes the belief that logic trumps intuition, even if the data it is based on is only 70% complete. The article suggests that intuition and the gut can be all too easily influenced by such 'evils' as marketing and branding, things that are designed to generate a reaction at a subconscious level. The problem is that a leader making a decision based on data is also being manipulated - by the often blinkered assumption that the data shows all the facts, or is even relevant to the decision he or she is trying to make. Numbers, charts, and 'lies, damned lies and statistics' present a view that one can not argue with.

My experience working with business process management (BPM) tools and the statistics they show are that rarely, if ever, is the performance information they present at all truly valuable to a business leader attempting to make high level decisions. The data is valuable only to a micro-manager concerned with the task-level supervisory role. The so called 'process intelligence' (that I admitted to be a novice of, back in 2006 when I first wrote about it) that is provided by BPM is limited to the slice and dice of individual workers' times to complete work, or such similar metrics; experience has shown me that there is little relationship to the actual value of the work to the business. To give you two examples of where process intelligence and BPM really fails:

1) The process intelligence does nothing to help make an assessment of where in the organization your highest value sales-leads are, what the conversion factor is, and whether increasing or decreasing the opportunity count in any part of the sales process generates higher or lower total revenue.

2) BPM does a fine job of allocating work, but a terrible job of understanding the complexity of the work that it is delivering. When the BPM analytics look at the work that was pushed around, it sees it only by the simple classifications that the data contain (this was a 'work order', that was an 'employee onboarding' case). There is nothing about the complexity of the work, since BPM can't handle the ad-hoc nature of the requirements and these continue in email as before.

"OK, so BPM and process intelligence don't give me that information. I'll just use the information I do get from it.". The problem here is that the data will lull you into a false sense of security - you will believe that you have everything you need, and will force fit decisions into what the data shows you. It is hard to get the gut and logic to work fairly, side-by-side, when both know that they are right.

So instead, it becomes important that you gain a better view of what is really going on inside your business processes, while actually running them better. If BPM can't provide the data for what your people are doing, its probably because the tool or implementation can't actually influence or assist them in what they are doing. That is what the data is really telling you: there is a gap in your data because there is a gap in your processes.

If you want your business to run better, don't try and fill the data with gut-instinct. Instead follow what your gut is really trying to tell you: the BPM implementation you currently have is not delivering all it should. Work to improve it, or replace it with something more appropriate.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Download the podcast of this blog post

Friday, October 30, 2009

Your desktop will get a facelift. Who is holding the scalpel?

There are discussions everywhere you look on whether desktop applications, such as the Microsoft Office productivity suite, have any value in a future of cheaper PCs and netbooks, software as a service (SaaS), and a need to cut energy consumption (aka less powerful desktop computers). One example of this discussion is a recent ebizQ forum, talking about exactly this. Windows 7 has also refocused people on the fact that the desktop is important. But the operating system wars are unlikely to be where the next big facelift for the desktop comes from.

In this discussion, much attention has been placed on the new platforms that provide a rich internet application experience (like Adobe Air and Microsoft Silverlight), software that is installed on your computer that supports the building of pretty application UIs that work well with centralized Internet based services. An evolution of the pretty Flash advertising that is everywhere, into something that might offer the end user some actual value.

What does this mean? It means that software developers have identified the traditional desktop operating systems of Windows, OSX and Linux (Gnome, et al.) to be insufficient for building visually attractive applications quickly and reliably that rely heavily on central web servers for information. Users have noticed that old traditional applications don't work in an Web environment either (have you ever tried to use Outlook on VPN for any period of time). And web browsers are tied to their standards for displaying traditional document type pages that they are too limited for stunning user experiences to be built.

The new platforms provide a polished look and feel, some decent software development tools (essential for adoption by the guys that make the software to choose one platform over another) and a way to almost make the OS that the application is running on irrelevant. For Adobe, for example, by getting a huge adoption of their Air/Flex platform across all different OS types, more and more applications get built on their platform. Much like Acrobat for reading PDF documents, once you have a majority level of adoption, you can assume that computer users can use your applications. Suddenly Adobe takes control of the desktop and its experience, not in a malicious spyware attack way, but in a subtle, corporate, 'we are more important than the OS vendors' kinda way.

Control of the platform gives Adobe three advantages: the ability to drive the direction of future applications through the platform functionality they provide; a justifiable way of charging a bunch of money for better developer tools; earlier access to the platform than anyone else so that their applications look better and work better than anyone else. The latter two are the items that will make Adobe the money.

I've spoken about Adobe as if they are already the winner in this. Its not true of course. There are too many vested interests for it to be that easy. But unlike the early days of the PC, where users were tied to the OS, cos that's what came in the box, today tech-savvy consumers demand openness and choice. This is why Microsoft may struggle with Silverlight - the platform ain't half bad, but it carries a stigma and assumption that it will only work well on a Windows OS (despite offering Max OSX and Linux versions). Linux and/or Java based offerings may end up being technically superior, but will be late to the game, and almost certainly lack the visual shine that comes from teams of paid designers working alongside the tech guys. I've talked about Adobe already. But I missed one -- Google.

A quick inroads with the Chrome browser and Google Desktop has brought many people a Google mindset to the desktop. Chrome is a way of perpetuating the current web application approach with some speed and simplicity, while Google gets their heads around whether Google desktop and it's gadget/plugin approach can grow into something bigger.

This is not a new fight, and is likely to continue for ages yet. Your PC, Mac or Linux desktop is going to get a facelift, we just don't know who is holding the scalpel.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What are the required attributes or skills of an excellent professional?

"What are the required attributes or skills of an excellent professional?". That was the question I was asked for a recent research study. "Give me some guidance or categories to guide my thinking", was my response. The five aspects are below; what would your responses be?
  1. the technical background
  2. the educational qualification or the Breadth of knowledge
  3. the essential character of the leader
  4. the management ability
  5. the interpersonal relationship

If you don't have the time for a long winded response, feel free to add a single click to the short poll.

Here is what I responded, quickly and without much deep thought (which may mean they represent more or less truth than 'marketing'):

1st, the technical background

Technical background appears to be most important early in the career of a professional and can get a person a foot in the door of a company of interest. It is after getting in that the other attributes really take over (though #5 is essential to getting in as well).

2nd, the educational qualification or the Breadth of knowledge

I hold more importance around the relevant experience and adaptability of the person than their educational qualifications. In the US at least, there is a trend to making the minimum requirement for any senior position an MBA. I believe that this represents HR laziness, or the lack of an organization's ability to spot real talent, since 'MBA required' is an easy filter to a minimal level of capability. A breadth of knowledge is essential, since a person will not be focused on a single task or category of work, especially as they progress beyond their starting point in a company. It is also more appealing to customers to work with a well rounded individual

3rd, the essential character of the leader

There are only a handful of great leaders in my opinion. Most CEOs seem to lack the interpersonal skills or even traditional leadership skills people around them have come to expect. In the US, if the compensation (salary + potential big bonus) is right, people put up with CEOs that typically say one thing and do another. I'm not a fan of many of the CEOs I have had to work with, and the others were not successful in that particular company (though may have been successful in others).

4th, the management ability

Below CEO level, management ability for me suggests that the person is focused, and communicates clearly and honestly about the company's goals and their own goals. For me, great managers have often been great mentors -- people who have really shaped my progress in a company, and helped me through gentle guidance to be better and do better. True, personal, honest mentoring, rather than the formulaic approach that some companies try and approach (you must check in with your mentor once per month for coffee) is invaluable.

5th, the interpersonal relationship

This of course is what makes or breaks a professional. Close bonds with your peers (both in your department and beyond) is essential in any profession that requires management through influence rather than 'chain of command'. For example, a product manager role requires personal relationships to be formed with every department in a business - sales, marketing, customer services, manufacturing or R&D, etc, etc, since the product manager has no resources, but must persuade people to do specific work based on their own needs, rather than as a manager telling them to do it. Without interpersonal skills, a product manager will fail, since nobody will help and nothing will get done outside of the employees defined tasks to move the products forward. For most people, it is the people they work with that make the job exciting and interesting. Without interpersonal relationships, that is impossible.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

EMC 'consumes' Sharepoint, saving IT from becoming backoffice cleaners

The SearchStorage channel on TechTarget (Australia) reports EMC's drop in sales in its Content Management and Archiving (CMA) division, due to what some may call uncharacteristic tardiness on the part of EMC when it comes to technology acquisitions. If you didn't know about EMC's CMA division, you have probably heard the names Documentum or DiskXtender, so just think of it as the banner for that stuff and anything else that consumes documents and emails at a software level. In general I try to avoid talking about the dynamics of corporate M&A on this blog, since it is the technology strategy (and therefore customer solutions) that companies eventually develop from it that really interests me. So I'll stick to the strategy and what it means for companies that may never even speak to EMC.

There is nothing really exciting about the SearchStorage story, apart from the stuff going on between the lines: 'corporations are back on the defensive, worrying about compliance, governance and litigation'. EMC and OpenText have been hit by Microsoft's Sharepoint, since the latter has given organizations a rapid and more cost effective way of deploying content management systems that were previously extremely costly (I'm ignoring the many hidden licensing costs of Sharepoint for now). In doing so, as Microsoft succeeded in selling Sharepoint in all directions, little silos of high value documents, data, wikis and blogs have popped up across the enterprise in standalone Sharepoint servers, barely recognized by IT, but causing insomnia for Legal.

Imagine this scenario... a particularly aggressive competitor, or aggrieved customer or partner of Company X wishes to inflict financial and operational pain on that company. They design a well placed lawsuit to support subpoena of documents across the enterprise (especially many of those Sharepoint servers). This turns Company X's IT team into little more than backoffice cleaning staff for weeks on end as they search under desks and in rarely vacuumed back offices, dusting off Sharepoint servers and other file storage assets.

This is what EMC is playing catch up on. The eDiscovery game got bigger when Sharepoint made the ability to find all the information related to a customer, partner, contract, product or whatever, so much more difficult by enabling employees to unthinkingly spread it around the organization on servers often unmanaged by IT. A bit of a boon to the employee, since finally they got a server with their department's name on it to put stuff in, but a nightmare for anyone trying to find information. EMC has worked out, a little later than its competitors, that understanding and consuming data from Sharepoint is a good thing, if you can make it easier to find stuff. Enterprise search, the ability to Google content across all sources inside the firewall, is a good start, though nothing new (Autonomy has been doing it for years, and Microsoft bought the technology to do it). As we all know, 'Search' is not 'Find'. eDiscovery demands Find, because the lawyers will ensure you do.

EMC are visibly playing catch-up to get the fundamentals in place for managing documents they don't control. As they know, the key to solving eDiscovery is ensuring that all documents and data are classified when they are created so that there is a perfect understanding of what the documents contain. An alternative is ensuring that an unclassified the document ceases to exist (the Mission: Impossible self-destructing message). Putting controls around ad-hoc documents becomes essential. Preventing documents (e.g. contracts) from leaving the organization that have not been classified and stored securely becomes important (one draconian and highly effective approach is to block all attachments from outbound emails). Automatically working out how to classify all data that exist already and isn't in the ERP is equally important.

Whatever EMC is doing behind the scenes (and I hope they are doing something big, or they are losing their touch) just reflects one thing: whether you are a huge multi-national or a more unique mid-sized business, having the information around your customers, partners, contracts, projects and employees, available for access, without having to hunt every corner of the organization, can save you big if lawyers come knocking.

Rather than waiting for the giant software vendors to work out some magic for automating the handling of random, ad-hoc documents, there is another approach. Give employees a system to communicate with organizations outside their own four walls in a controlled and tracked manner. Removing the need for email, Word and Excel can boost efficiency and accuracy, and even better can be done today with targeted business solutions, simple business processes and automated workflows.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Monday, October 26, 2009

'The Cloud' is big, therefore BPM is irrelevant

A new study, commissioned by Avanade and reported by Joe McKendrick on ZDNet, talks about some solid evidence for the drivers of companies to 'cloud computing'. This made me consider how the cloud became such big news, when other technology spaces, such as business process management (BPM) touted by vendors and analysts never quite make it to the top of the list.

For me, much of the 'cloud' buzz and adoption comes from the fact that everybody is talking about it, and the traditional guys with big marketing budgets have latched onto the concept. The 'cloud' could have remained a niche market, profitable to a small group of unusual players when it came to enterprise software (Amazon, Google). Much like service oriented architecture (SOA) in fact, which in my opinion would have remained niche if it was not for the mega-vendors attention. For me, business process management (BPM) sits in that category, since IBM, Oracle and SAP had too much invested in SOA at the same time for them to be distracted, so BPM had to wait on the sidelines for its time. Now that the cloud has them focused on what could be a whole new business model, its down to the independent BPM vendors to make BPM relevant again.

How will they do that? Well, I'm not going to give them the benefit of my opinion on that one for free (since they'll just profit from it), though it seems obvious based on the Avanade sponsored research that a service-based (SaaS) delivery model is essential:
More than half of respondents report that they are currently using Software as a Service applications. In the United States, that number increases to more than two-thirds (68 percent).

The problem of course is that current pure-play BPM is a terrible fit for delivery as a service, since it has relied so heavily on a delivery model revolving around skilled, expensive consultants with a mix of business and technology acumen.

It is time for a new model for business process improvement based software, and it works a little something like this... Oh, almost let the secret out there. That though is why I am working on business process improvement as a service.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The 'process maven' and reaching employee buy-in

Its hard to get employees to buy-in to any form of change, and process improvement is a really tough one. This strikes at the core of people's working existences and identities, making them resist the change more than can sometimes be considered rational. But its OK, you have an undiscovered ally. There is a largely untapped resource that companies need to identify, who can really make employee buy-in achievable, if not easy.

A forum question on ebizQ asks what it takes to achieve buy from end-users in the use of business process management (BPM) software. My response is out there, but it seemed like a question worthy of a more detailed post too.

BPM software vendors obviously know the value of BPM - their marketing departments ensure that the benefits are well understood. My opinion, and this is a hard one to test objectively, is that most companies outside of the software community just don't get the value of process improvement through BPM:
Without a burning need, BPM is unlikely to spring to mind at all. Sure, you can try and persuade prospective clients and users that they need BPM and it will save them time and money, but without them really feeling pained by a current process they are unlikely to actively respond.
It takes real process chaos to get companies to react and change what they are doing. Otherwise they will typically just throw more resources (often the same employees, working longer hours) at the problem. Its not rejection of BPM as a waste of time, its the lack of realization that something can and should be done.

So, let's assume that a company discovers that process improvement is required, and that some form of workflow or BPM tool could be valuable in that change. That realization typically starts with one, strong minding, and fairly senior manager in an organization - often at the department level. That person puts a lot on the line to start selling the idea to the senior executives, but that's easy -- the ROI has to be right in most cases.

For the real workers, getting the buy-in for any change to current working practices can be harder, as we all know. The efforts of the manager in persuading his or her bosses of the ROI of process improvement can be misconstrued (or possibly interpreted correctly, depending on your level of cynicism).
At an individual user level there is likely to be buy-in once they have truly acknowledged there is a need to change, and its not just the current management team's desire to leave their mark with an expensive software solution.
One problem is that the right employees are rarely engaged early enough in the process. This shouldn't be about including a couple of worker representatives in a vendor selection process, purely because it seems like the right thing to do. Companies embarking on process improvement projects should be looking at really involving some of the powerful resources they have, in a way that is quite unusual.

... the high profile employees, the most vocal, the potential advocates among their peers have to be able to see, feel and experience a working solution as soon as possible, possibly even pre-sale.

If this sounds difficult, it probably is. Traditional BPM vendors are good at showing demos, although they may run to a proof of concept project for the company's developers and analysts. As for real end-users, they are harder to support without building out a solution.

It is worth the effort to get specific end-users involved early. Why? Well there is one department (you never thought you would learn something useful from) that has been refining the use of expert advocates, sometimes called mavens, for many years:

This is where we can learn something from marketing - spending your (both the vendor and the customer) effort on gaining the buy-in of the users who are the most vocal, highly respected among their peers. These end users 'BPM mavens' will go out of their way to get buy-in from the majority of other users. But don't oversell the maven, because they can as easily destroy your product after it fails to please.

I believe this is the key to getting buy-in for your process improvement project. Now all you need is to make sure you have a solution that can facilitate the conversion of the mavens, up-front, honestly and early in the process. The solution must be one that can address their needs and that they can actually use in hours, not months. Don't give them promises and Powerpoints, which they are sure will disappoint.

To achieve buy-in of end users, first convert your mavens by giving them what they really desire: a solution that they can see, touch, and experience immediately.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Comic-book software projects

If software projects were comic-book characters they would NOT be Dilbert, nor would they be ugly beasts with two heads and dripping slime. Instead they would be insidious, vicious, but mostly normally proportioned human beings, with a exterior veneer of smooth style and a hidden core of vile aggression.

Put another way, software projects can be compared to one of two sports (sorry if you only follow US sports): rugby, a thug's game played by gentlemen; or football (soccer), a gentlemen's game, played by thugs. Which you get depends on the vendor you pick, but that's another story.

Does this mean I don't like software project? No.

It does mean that I treat software projects (either the implementation of products or the deployment of customer systems) with the utmost respect. I know they can bite. I've been bitten in previous lives, and I would never trust a software professional who won't admit to having been involved in (but of course was never leading) a software project that hadn't failed fairly spectacularly. You learn from these failures, not so much from the successes.

Software projects make for an interesting challenge. For the uninitiated, trust me when I tell you that this is not like dealing with some other services vendor your company may employ to get stuff done. Software is unpredictable at the best of times. So if you don't really know the rules of that particular game, expect that the other team - the inanimate software, not the software vendor itself - will get the better of you.

The moral of this comic-book tale? If you don't know the software industry well, find an expert who can help you run that project your are planning, or at least set best-practices upfront and track the milestones for it throughout. We cost more after a project is already on the way down the tubes.

Alternatively, don't run a software project at all. Use prepackaged, ready to run solutions based on software that is already running, hosted and maintained by a single vendor (the software as a server, or SaaS model). When the solution you need is already running and just needs you to set up account, there is a lot less to go wrong.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Monday, October 19, 2009

Survey! What is the biggest business process headache for small businesses

You'll see a few changes around here as this blog starts to evolve. First, apart from the new template and URL, to reflect the blog's link to Consected (though the old URL and feeds continue to work), I'm going to try out some online surveys. Here is the first.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how mid-sized businesses could (and should) improve their business processes, to reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction, achieve more repeat business, etc. From what I have seen, there is very little tangible evidence of exactly which processes they should go about enhancing. I would love to know what your thoughts are.

If you have an opinion, please respond to the one-click survey (no registration required) at:

If you'd like to add some additional thoughts, add a comment below!

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Balancing free, subscription and paid software licenses

Laurie McCabe writes an interesting blog about computing for small businesses, though I think that many of his thoughts make a lot of sense to anyone interested in cloud computing, SaaS and online collaboration tools. A little while back, Laurie posted about the pricing model for subscription based SaaS services and whether it is time for SaaS vendors to get creative in their pricing models, to get their subscription levels to a more 'meaningful' level and prevent the fatigue that comes from vendors constantly asking for a little more for extra services. He posted an interesting survey (Poll: Do SaaS Vendors need new pricing models to attract more small businesses?), which show pretty decisively that a new model is something that customers would like to see.

This is obviously important for all SaaS vendors, since creating a model that helps them grow their subscription base without giving away their services for free, is going to become more important as the number of credible online service offerings grows.

In my opinion, as the traditional enterprise software companies enter this market as well, pricing models are likely to stagnate. Publicly traded companies are generally not in a position to get highly creative on their pricing, due to the accounting rules surrounding VSOE. This really only applies once they have started to sell and recognize revenue, and although I can't claim to understand the technical accounting rules for revenue recognition around starting new subscription services, I think that their stockholders may envision a watering-down of profits. For this, the smallers independent SaaS vendors should be able to stay ahead, as long as they can work out a model that benefits their customers and themselves.

If you have any experience, good or bad, with SaaS subscriptions, please leave a comment.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wasting money measuring Turn-around Time

Many years ago, I remember my father talking about being involved in a time and motion study. In his office, managing the movement of railway equipment and trains to ensure the optimal performance of the London commuter rail network (given the suboptimal resources they had), working efficiently and effectively was key to many millions of journeys being completed on-time. It was a fascinating idea for me.

I haven't heard the term 'time and motion' in a long time, and to me it sounds dated. Taking the 'time' piece of it is still very relevant for business process improvement, and frankly studying the time in a process that needs some improvement is something that seems unfortunately overly hard to achieve.

I have worked on business process management (BPM) software projects that try and achieve the study of time alone, rather than any real process improvement goal. The projects had the single goal of putting a basic work delivery solution in place so that the business analysts could start to measure (and management could work with users to improve) the turn-around time (sometimes called TaT) for individual tasks within a process.

The time analysis solutions provided a very simple mechanism for packaging up work items or cases, then delivering them under the control of individual users, as a single step process without any real rules in place. These processes allowed the measurement of the time taken to complete tasks (the turn-around time), and the amount of time work was sat waiting to be acted on (wait-time). The solutions were a minimal use of expensive and complex BPM technology in my opinion. The processes gained from automating the manual delivery of documents and information, but little additional control was provided to further improve them.

It seems to me that the analysis of time used in processes that have yet to be remodelled and improved with BPM would be better handled use lighter weight, easier to deploy and cheaper to buy tools designed with this type workflow delivery in mind. It seems even more important, when you think that many of those processes that were initially analyzed for TaT and other simple measurements, using expensive BPM licenses and consultants, where never actually enhanced afterwards to benefit from all the features of the product they were using.

Understanding the processes you run in your business today is desirable. Improving them quickly is essential. Doing that in a way that doesn't waste money goes without saying.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Download the podcast of this blog post

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The (hush, hush) next big thing for your business processes

If you ever wondered how to improve your business processes today, to run your business better at a lower cost, you'll probably not be excited to hear that all the business process management (BPM) software industry can do is debate what the next big thing in BPM will be tomorrow (a related ebizQ forum is here). BPM is tied to big businesses who want to spend money, and as we all unfortunately know, there aren't too many of them around. So the software vendors need to guess where their next big buck is coming from.

Business processes are the workflows that are followed by your people, clients, partners and suppliers, and are internally how your employees respond to the requests to get the results that are needed, fast, accurately, and at minimum cost to everybody. Getting this right makes a huge difference to your business. So what are BPM vendors focusing on? Pretty diagrams of business processes that involve no more than five people and suddenly appear to have 53 steps; dashboards optimizing the sub-second response of stuff that is out of your control; and complex technology filled with buzzwords to keep their software developers in kicks.

Mid-sized businesses and departments of big businesses are in fact incredible similar. They need results and improvements in how they operate, today, not tomorrow. They need to use technology that is not for the laggards (to use a common, slightly derogatory marketing expression), but is still quite innovative, without managers and users struggling with its complexity to understand, configure or use.

Making business processes run better, by helping people track the work they do, across the many people they work with and systems they are forced to use, is what BPM vendors should be focusing on today. Taking that one step further and making that simplicity available as a service which you can sign up for, online, with no software to install is where email has already gone, CRM has gone and BPM is going.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Look mom, we do Six Sigma too! - Part 2

In Part 1 of Look Mom, we do Six Sigma too!, I reiterated some of my views on the use and misuse of lean thinking and agile development in business process management projects. I suggested that a standard approach to improving business processes often follows this rather lame approach:
Let's draw a pretty picture of your as-is process, then have everyone collaborate around that to remove the waste. Look mom, we do Six Sigma too!

Practitioners of Six Sigma have pointed out to me the benefits of the 'collaborate' part. I agree that there is a huge benefit in taking workers out of their usual environments for a while, to disconnect from email and daily tasks, and actually think about what it is that they do. Only when a worker is not embedded in the daily grind can he or she start to separate the wheat from the chaff - the valuable activities from the tasks we do 'because we always do it that way'. Despit this, my feeling is that the longer workers are kept in the abstract mode (aka the conference room), the more likely it is that they will also forget the reality of work. The temptation to oversimplify kicks in - 80:20 rules are great, until you get to the point where improving the 80% of common use cases actually prevents you from doing the 20% that are more complex, but often more profitable.

My view is that a short period of time away from real work is a benefit. Workers realize that a change to their working practices is necessary and inevitable; they start to look at what they do differently and can see some of the wasteful practices in a new way; and they get a feeling of ownership for the subsequent, painful changes that will happen to their work tasks.

This is where I would like to propose a different model for improving business processes. Rather than continuing to try and redesign the business processes in a conference room away from where the real work is done, send the workers back to their working lives. In a conference room, when thinking about the pain-points of their work, employees tend to fixate on the most recent and most painful issue they had, or are having, not necessarily the issues that are the most common. What you need is some way of seeing and measuring where the real problems are and a way of seeing what can be done to improve them, within the real context of the work being done. But how can you do this?

Here is how you could go about it:
  1. Put in place a workflow or process automation system that manages the main work process, as it is today.
  2. Ensure the system is flexible enough to handle the many use cases you have not thought about or never knew existed, so that users don't have to revert to email.
  3. Use the system to track the activities that workers perform and who they interact with to get their jobs done. This is not Big Brother spying on users; we are trying to get an accurate and non-judgemental view of the flow of work in reality.
  4. Now use the same system to enhance one part of the process that appears painful. Use the employees involved to understand what is going on, and why they do certain activities. Now agree on a change and implement it immediately.
  5. Go back every so often to see how the change has improved the process, making enhancements and responding to the way workers have adapted to (and possibly found new flaws) in the new way of working.
Doing this, you take the best bits of 'lean' and 'agile' methodologies (reduced waste and 'release early and often') and keep the processes you design real by adapting them within the context of the business. For this to work, you need two things: a software solution that can automate a workflow and make it ready for use within hours; the flexibility to support work that the modelled workflow can not handle directly.

I don't believe that I'm proposing anything particularly radical here. My aim is to reduce the amount of time and effort businesses have to spend on analyzing and improving their business processes, and to provide them results that fit their unique working environment better. As I talked about in Part 1, this approach probably does not fit business processes that can never fail. But if you have processes that need some help urgently because they are less than perfect, taking a new approach to making them better can only help your business, especially if that approach requires the investment of hours, not weeks.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Download the podcast of this blog post