Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Improving an "information driven" business

Some businesses are driven by events (something happened and I need to respond), and others are driven by information (lots of things happened and I need to respond to them en-masse). Flows of work (as modeled, measured and improved by business process management - BPM), take individual events or transactions and guide them through to completion. So if you are an "event driven" company, your customer requests, orders and other transactions are generally easily improved. But what if you are an "information driven" company? Get reports, print them, file them, seems to be a common option. There are some really big challenges in improving the "information driven" company. 

Around this time last year I started working with a client on what seemed like a simple electronic document management project. As a company in the financial services sector, there are needs for managing transactions, obviously, but there is a huge amount of the business that is driven by information. Compliance and Credit especially are areas where firms like this need to look at the information about clients on an aggregate basis in order to make decisions and spot red-flags. So what was needed? Well, let's just take all the reports, deliver them electronically, and those that can't be processed in that way (too much manual line-by-line, page-by-page review and annotation) get scanned and stored.

This project was eye opening, and reinforced some ideas I hadn't seen in a while. When improving a business across many business processes there are some approaches that are worth considering:

  • Avoid rat-holes by working backwards: look at the end result of the paper trail that is produced and work backwards through the people that handled the information to identify the "happy path" process
  • Use the org-chart to find natural order: people tend to work within the constraints the organization places on them in terms of departments and teams. Understanding this can help you get familiar with a new business faster
  • People hate working on-screen:  if your people must stare at reports all day long to get the information they need, it is unlikely they will transition to working on-screen without a fight
The challenge is that a well trained human mind is a great tool for analyzing and understanding patterns across large amounts of data, allowing information on reports to translate into a distillation of information and possibly events that can be understood by people with different skills. How do you represent what goes on in an analytical human mind when processing information? Can you automate it (and do you really want to?)? And how can you make the processing of this information better, faster, repeatable, and less paper-based?

There are many options, depending on a specific needs. I'm looking at tools as simple as checklist, as common as rules engines, as widely used as 'business intelligence', and as futuristic-ly  powerful as Complex Event Processing. There is definitely not one hammer for every nail when dealing with information-driven problems.

It is the challenges like these in business improvement that sometimes are not easy to address, but are extremely important. These are the fun ones!

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's in your records?

Things have been quiet on this blog while I was kicking off a new project with a client. The good thing about this is that I have loads of ideas about things to talk about. At the top of my list is one that reinforces how important it is to maintain quality document records about a client if your customer relationship management (CRM) or equivalent client management system doesn't give you the absolute full story.

When you need to look at the whole history of a client, does the structured data you have about the client, usually stored in some sort of database or CRM system, show you everything you need to know? If you were pressed to show all the information, for an auditor or a lawyer, could you say when the client requested to change her address, when another client added a new service to his contract, or how many times a company had contacted you with a question or complaint? Although this sounds like pure CRM, I would bet that many companies with CRM in place just couldn't do it.

The problem is that clients communicate with companies in many ways - through email, the website, paper, phone, fax. If a company is good enough to have an organized repository for client communications, organized by client and type of communication (or better by the request or case), then the documentation gives you all the information you need. For this to work, you need to be sure of the following:

  • The information is complete
  • You can identify which documents and communications belong to which cases
  • The client information and related documents can be viewed side-by-side
  • There is no way that important discussions or communications with a client don't get captured
  • A full history of important client events can be easily identified without forensically picking through documents
If you have the full view of the client in this way, you have worked hard to get there - congratulations! 

Challenges come if you rely on documents for a history of your clients, but can't be sure that these documents contain a full history in a single view. This is case management, or just a complete client record if you want to avoid adding another unnecessary term to the mix. And when companies work out how to do it well, they are able to service their clients far better, and avoid troubles with auditor and lawyers.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Future payment transactions - not as dumb as paper

Pay by phone, the smart way to pay
(Image from Mobile Marketer)
Mobile payments technology is a hot space at the moment. The ultimate goal is to make small retail payments easy, fast and cheap for businesses and consumers. This means that the solutions have to get away from paper, coins and magnetic swipe cards with huge costs attached to every transaction. Add consumer interest in everything about mobile device apps on iPhone and Android, with location services and the ability for the devices to communicate for themselves (something no credit card can do), and there is a huge opportunity for the company that owns your data to direct your future spending with loyalty programs and offers. It is with this in mind that PayPal announced its acquisition of Fig Card - this story in Mobile Marketer adds some nice commentary.

Now that's not to say there aren't challenges with mobile payments. If it was all as easy as just tapping your phone on a black box to pay a retailer, we'd probably not be carrying cash already. The challenges amount to these, and Fig thinks they know the answers:

  • Making the hardware retailers need simple, cheap and secure
  • Getting enough retailers interested in doing something different
  • Educating consumers on a new approach to payment
  • Ensuring that consumers don't need new hardware, just a new app
  • Building a secure infrastructure that can capture payments for a retailer without them ever storing consumer's details
  • Being able to scale the infrastructure to support a nationwide, then international payment infrastructure
  • Putting together value add features such as loyalty programs that offer consumers more and make the service pay for itself
PayPal seems to be in a good position to offer much of this know-how and the backing to make it happen. Fig Card gives them the opportunity to go out and chase the incumbent credit cards with a viable alternative, addressing most, if not all of the challenges above. And they haven't forgotten the appeal to retailers, consumers, and their own bottom-line in the power of information.

If future payment "transactions can be as smart as a computer and not as dumb as paper,” (to quote Mr. Chu, Senior Director of PayPal Mobile), then PayPal could be hot on the heels of more than just the payment card industry. Move over Groupon - if you don't own the payments, you know nothing about potential customers. They may just stop coming to you, when more appropriate offers come to them at no cost.

A post from the Improving It blog
Let us help you improve your business today. Visit