Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don't just ask 'why'. Start with 'who'.

I was chatting with an associate in consulting firm yesterday about all kinds of software solution requirements. He shared a little revelation that put a lot of my day into perspective. He said to me something like,"I love working with vertical solutions, those things helping pest control companies, or lawn care companies, or whatever, work better. It is so much easier to be able to find the words describing what keeps the owner awake at night when you get your head into it, rather than trying to talk to the CIO of a major insurance company about strategic systems architecture". Gaining enough insight to see the issues a unique company is having is hard, but it gets so much easier when you can share war stories from similar businesses doing the same type of things. 

I have always believed in selling solutions to business problems, possibly because selling technology for the sake of technology seemed tough to me. What little salesman there is in me is true to the point I learned in "How to Win Friends and Influence People" years ago. You can't sell what you don't believe in, and if there is not a problem being solved I find it hard to get passionate about the technology. So I try hard to sink myself into business problems to make the technology desirable (to me and a potential customer).

Yesterday, I messed it up big style. I have been looking at solutions for real estate agents, among very many other industries. I have bought a house, admittedly in a different country years ago. House buying had a different set of terminology and rules, but I feel that I understand what it is like to be a home buyer. Things have moved along, and we now have smartphones, GPS, and QR Codes on the For Sale signs. Mobile websites make finding information about a house you are standing outside so much easier. I thought I could build enough empathy to feel what goes through a modern buyer's mind, and what will make them into a profitable client for a real estate agent. The thing is, I didn't keep an open enough mind to really see the power of mobile technology. I obsessed about the home buyer, the "realtor's" client. I missed the fact that an agent can benefit from mobile technology even more directly. 

Crap! I know nothing about selling houses. I know nothing about spending your week on the road visiting properties with clients. It should have been obvious to me that the agent is an even bigger consumer of mobile technology than the home buyer. It took a partner with real estate sales background to jam that thought home. Now I have it.

So, I may be the creator of some of my own thoughts, few of them completely unique I'm sure, but that doesn't mean that I know everything. Humility means that I'll assume nothing for a while and stop trying to be the expert in anything. I will ask more questions. Not just 'why' does something matter, but 'who' does it matter to. For any business involved in designing products or delivering solutions to customers, an occasional slap in the face like this is important. It keeps you grounded in not just what you think your customers want, but who your customers actually are!

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Break bad document filing. Give folders a personality.

Anonymous and dull.
No wonder nobody really
 files documents correctly.
I have held a theory for a long time that a new application that looks like another popular application (or operating system) will encourage users to use that application in the same way, bad behaviors and all. When I first started working with document management solutions 14 years ago, the constant push was for systems that looks just like Windows. Even before Vista, Windows was not very attractive and was clunky to use (so some things never change). But companies who had invested the time and effort to get users trained up to use the new-fangled technology wanted to make as much from that investment as possible. So if it looked like Windows, people could use it without extra thought, right?!

Fast forward 15 years and we are here in 2011. Windows really looks the same, despite a constant buffing to make it appear modern and slick. The common productivity apps, Microsoft Office continue to confuse the hell out of people by moving all the menus into a ribbon that constantly shifts where you expect to find things. And buyers of new software solutions still want document management solutions to look like Windows -- because everybody knows how to store things effectively on Windows, right? WRONG!

This is the big problem. We might have spent the last 20-ish years teaching new users how to work the basics of operating a desktop or laptop computer with a mouse. But we have never taught them the importance, or even basic know-how required to effectively manage documents. We could have guided them with predefined folder structures, but we didn't. We just let people throw their valuable creations  in whatever folder suits them. 

In the future, when we realize that there is a huge risk in our business, we start to put some structure in place with a formal document management system. We want this to be the quick fix we need, but we don't want to train people, so "that system had best look like Windows or nobody will use it - I know my people!" (the words from the General Manager or similar role). And with that new system, everybody still needs free rein to create their own messed up filing systems, just like on Windows. 

Why do we allow this? Because companies often don't realize that the software or OS is not to blame for terrible filing habits, it is the users, as a direct result of the fact that we have never helped them to do it right. People don't magically learn how to file documents, whether you give them 10 days or 10 years.

I have one great way to break bad filing habits. Give users a simple document management system that looks quite unlike Windows, but does have big pictures that look like individual clients, projects, employees or accounts or whatever it is they need to be filing documents for. Give those folders a personality. You instantly break the view of a faceless system that provides a bunch of anonymous folders, "so it doesn't really matter where I file stuff". When you give real people a face to match a folder, the reality that a document relates to somebody or something sets in, so "I have to put it in the right place". This is easy behavior to influence.

The anonymity of Windows, and the lack of guidance we have given people has made document management a disaster in many companies. It can be fixed with simple improvements to software that definitely does NOT look like Windows. Document management systems do not have to be faceless and dull - giving them personality helps people use them better, and understand why they are filing documents in the right way.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Is the process app store the future your business processes?

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase"Is the process app store the future of BPM?" was today's discussion on the ebizQ business process management forum. Should we buy business processes (such as travel expense processing) in an online app store, the same as we buy Angry Birds for our iPhone? As much as we would all like to believe that process applications can be delivered this way, getting a replacement business process implemented is tough. You have to:

  • find a process application that fits your needs
  • get it customized, configured and generally implemented
  • manage the change of people's attitudes and activities internally to get it to work. 
Since business processes are so much part of the DNA of a business, implementing new ones makes them extremely hard to deliver as apps. Even a simple travel expenses process or a holiday/vacation request process is done in a million different ways by a million and one businesses. Why would they want to change the way they work to fit some cheap application they bought online?

My own experience, putting pre-built process apps out on Google Marketplace is that even if small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) come to take a look, they can rarely spend the time to really dig in and understand what the app can do. A cursory single look, a "this sounds hard" internal discussion is about the best you can expect. No matter how much person-to-person hand holding you offer (and trust me, I've offered), the typical app buyer in a small business just doesn't have the time, resources or motivation to get a real process change implemented. As Ian Gotts commented on the forum:

For an SME this is too hard. Instead, they continue to run on "staff heroics"

Now I'm not saying that the apps we deliver at Consected are always perfectly simple to use! The ultimate flexibility that is rightly demanded by the buyer whatever size company, balanced against the "so simple a caveman could do it" need, makes these applications more expensive to develop than the $4.95 per user per month cap that seems to be the limit anybody will consider (often less). 

The next issue really comes from a complete lack of change management being possible when you sell through an app model. Being able to work with a customer remotely who doesn't have time to really speak to you, or any real wish to speak to you, makes any sensible change to the current business processes really hard. The best business process implementations come with a change to the way work is done, not just moving it "to the cloud". Apps give the impression that we can just install and go.

Apps need to be really well packaged if they are delivering business application functionality through a software as a service (SaaS) model. Which means that the value of a flexible process environment is lost on the end user, because too many options just get in the way. But without the flexibility they can do their job the way they need to. Somebody will work out the magic to this, though its definitely harder than it appears! 

Successful app vendors have to play a numbers game and sell large volumes to make any real money. And business processes seem to rarely fit the one size fits all requirement to make this happen. So please feel free to take a look at the Consected Instant Apps. They are free or cheap (by enterprise software standards). And although they require a little time, thought, and some communication with us to get them to really fit your needs, they can make a huge difference to your business.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Friday, April 01, 2011

Justifying business process improvement without being a fool

Drawing HP 9830 desktop computerImage via Wikipedia
This year is the fifteenth that I have been working with business process management, document management and business information systems. Or when people ask what I do, "I'm in IT, but I can't fix your PC". Over the years not much has changed. The same business problems are still there. Companies still have an over-reliance on paper or email, because it is just too hard to get started in a process improvement project. Communications with customers are still on paper. Yep, you can get your bank statement online, but that isn't a transaction that results in a business process. Nope, processes are still manually guided by individuals driving a desk and an email account. Am I a fool to think that people want to change this?

In the last two years, I have been focusing more on small and mid-sized businesses. They seem to offer a great opportunity, hanging on through grim economic times, and needing some attention to be able to work better. The problem is that there is never a lot of money or time to spare in small businesses to change the way things are done. Rightfully, people focus on doing what needs to be done right now, trying to grow the business (or just stay afloat). The idea of adding some process rigor, to make it easier to do common repetitive tasks in the future, just doesn't figure. In many cases, a process incorporates a grand total of one employee and a customer. A checklist is a more effective process management tool than a formal workflow, and managing information, data and documents with minimal hassle is a much bigger issue.

Mid-sized businesses have process needs that are reminiscent of the processes I have worked with in giant corporations. Since the multinational monsters are always split into business units and smaller departments, the scale of what needs to be done is often the same as the requirements of a mid-sized company anywhere in the world. Which is great news, as that means I have some great experience to offer these smaller companies from my time spent with the big guys. 

The problem is this: it is far more transparent where the cash comes from to pay for business improvement in a mid-sized company than a multinational corporation -- the owner's bank account. In large corporations, you can make an ROI and justify it two levels above you, and you're still not even in the peripheral vision of the CEO. In a mid-sized company, the ROI has to be real, and offer real results.

So am I just fooling myself trying to work with mid-sized businesses? Or will the lessons of transparent decision-making make me into a better process improvement specialist? My job is no longer in fabricating an ROI for an enterprise software salesman to present to his prospect in the department of a huge company. My job is to recognize that mid-sized businesses have process problems that need fixing, in sensible, justifiable ways. And if you can't justify making a change, things will carry on fine just the way they are. 

Reality is, in 15 years my job hasn't changed. I'm still "in IT, but can't fix your PC". I just have to focus on the real business problems, not the ones that used to make a salesman a fat commission!

A post from the Improving It blog
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