Friday, 26 May 2017

Older software causing problems?

I had meetings some time ago with two companies. Both had older systems and it had become apparent that their software no longer quite met their business needs.

I sympathised: it really slows you down to use out-of-date software. But how to decide the best way to proceed? Changing software takes a long time, is usually expensive, and consumes lots of resources.

In one case I recommended using a good report writer to get better information out of the system. This would keep costs down and allow the company to draw breath before plunging ahead with all-out change.

For the other company I looked at the strengths and weaknesses of their existing software. It soon became apparent that changing system was the only sensible option, and that the short-term pain of changing had to be endured in order to benefit in the longer term. 

However the company did not have to change software right away: there was time to review all their options and plan thoroughly before starting the process.

After some time, where are they?  

The first company now has a range of reports which seem to meet most of their needs, although their software will never be brilliant and they are going to change system quite soon.

The second company now has a new system.  Despite the pains en route, this is a BIG improvement on the old way of operating.  (See their Case Study.)


The key point to realise when you have problems is that there is always a range of options available.

A discussion with me can help you decide which is best for your situation.





Saturday, 16 January 2016

IT issues are difficult to explain

One of my colleagues from some years ago recently reminded me of a problem which frustrates many people who deal with IT issues. (Which nowadays seems to mean all of us.)

When a person has an IT technical problem, they often get upset and cannot think clearly, with the result that they have difficulty explaining their problem. This can frustrate the listener, which is why many IT people are dismissive of “users”, and come across as patronising.

However this is actually a general issue. Even quite technical people often have difficulty thinking through their problems. That is why when you call a helpline nowadays they take you through a standard checklist, much of which is very boring: have you plugged it in? ... are any lights showing? ... have you switched it off and on again? ... 

A Great Opportunity

In the early part of my career I worked for the financial director of Arup’s, the design engineers for the Sydney Opera House. It was an exciting company to work in because of the leading-edge ideas which flew about the place.

Almost all the other IT staff worked on the technical side of the company, whereas I had the slightly more mundane task of ensuring that the financial systems performed appropriately. 

In fact I was working at a different cutting edge, and regularly had problems which were difficult to solve. Because I worked in a separate building from the rest of the IT staff, if I had a problem I would spend a while trying to solve it and then I would walk along the road to the main office to seek help. On the way I would rehearse my problem in my head – after all, I didn’t want to look stupid when I arrived.

Often I had solved the problem before I reached the other office! 

Benefit of a Silent Listener

I got to discussing this with my colleagues and we agreed that what was needed was a dummy in the middle of the room. When we had a technical problem we would explain it to the dummy, which would be designed to nod as if in understanding. We would keep explaining until we had the problem clear in our own heads, and then Eureka! our plan was that we would have found our own solution. 

We never did design the dummy, but an ex-colleague recently told me that one of his friends used to work in a company where they had a teddy bear mascot. His group were developers, and there was also a support team. If a support team member needed to talk to the developers, first they had to explain the problem to the bear. If they still didn't know the answer after explaining their problem to the bear, then the developers promised to listen.

Don't feel stupid - talk to the bear!

So in future remember that we all have difficulty getting our thoughts clear about IT – even the more technical of us. Don’t worry about sounding stupid if you have a problem – but make sure you explain it to a teddy bear first. 


Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Importance of IT Strategy

Many companies or departments have no formal IT Strategy.

Appropriate use of computer systems and their related processes can be crucial to profitability. Where large volumes of data need to be handled, well-run systems can often bring tremendous efficiencies.

Unfortunately, poor quality systems frequently bring the reverse situation, with duplication, excessive clerical input and inadequate reporting.

SYSTEMS CAN TRANSFORM PERFORMANCE

The key point about an IT Strategy is to develop a consistent and efficient approach in order to achieve the required results.

I have dealt with a wide range of companies of all sizes. Even with smaller organisations, but especially with larger ones, automation is vital in order to streamline the way they operate.

However, many companies have not advanced with computerisation. Frequently it seems that all that has been done is to bolt on a computer that uses a clerical approach to deal with increased numbers of transactions, while a few (or many) spreadsheets help to manipulate the data and produce reports.

Of course there are considerable numbers of companies who are using their systems well. By definition they tend not to call on me for assistance! However the ones in need of support provide some horror stories.

For example I did some work for a large retailer, where I was aghast at the duplication and triplication of input that occurred throughout the company. Their systems did not produce the reports that were required for management decision-making, and staff were continuously at work developing and populating spreadsheets, entering data from other systems or clerical records (or from memory) and then doing it all again the next month. They closed within a year.

WHAT IS IT THAT GOES WRONG?

A system is bought or developed to carry out one process, say invoicing. Then the users realise they have another business need which cannot easily be carried out by the system they already have, so they set up some spreadsheets, or buy another package to help them deal with the new problem, for example, keeping track of orders.

This frequently means that input is duplicated, which creates its own problems. Staff have to remember to keep two systems updated, and soon they provide different answers if similar questions are asked of each one. (One retailer I know has three databases, each providing a different number when asked how many branches they have!)

When another business need comes along, a fresh system is set up without regard to the effect this will have, and so it continues. This approach means that budgets are often exceeded, because no-one has any idea what will happen in future.

STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN!

The solution is to stop and take a long look at your current and anticipated requirements. Also review your Business Strategy. (See my article Have a Clear Business Strategy.)

Think carefully about how computer systems might be used to help as your business and your needs develop. This process is the start of the development of an IT Strategy – in other words, how you can use IT to help achieve your business aims. This approach, with careful planning, means that realistic budgets can be set in advance and IT expenditure can be much better controlled.

Don’t casually set up more systems or spreadsheets without allocating a true upkeep cost to each one you create. Many people have dozens of small spreadsheets requiring separate maintenance.

At least once a year pause and look at the proliferation of spreadsheets and independent systems, and decide whether there is a better way to move forward. This is where I come in useful – my visits ensure people stop what they are doing and think about what they should be doing. The result is a more consistent approach with a clearer view of the way forward. And money is saved.

(If this article was thought-provoking, have a look at this IT Strategy Case Study.)


Saturday, 13 June 2015

IT Strategy Case Study

Some time ago I was asked to provide assistance to a key department within a company, where a variety of IT issues needed to be addressed.

My approach was to examine the problems which existed and to determine a long-term IT Strategy which would handle both the current and any future issues which we believed might occur in the next 10 or so years. This is my preferred approach rather than to take "urgent" action, which companies often do, but which if not thought out fully can be misdirected and actually cause further difficulties.

One of the key steps in the creation of an IT Strategy is to identify typical problems and to fit them into a framework of standard actions which mean that (hopefully) there will be fewer surprises in future.

ISSUES

There were several issues which needed to be addressed. The main one was that there was a very old database system in use (Problem 1), but it was so inaccurate and difficult to use that many staff had set up their own spreadsheets (2) which were easier for them to use.

This is a crucial mistake. If staff have their own spreadsheets then they "know" they are correct. This makes them lax about keeping the central system up-to-date. If they make input errors they don't notice them (3) as they use their spreadsheets rather than the company system to help them make decisions. It is very important that organisations have their information in one central database, otherwise all sorts of problems can occur.

With my customer, when questions were asked, the various spreadsheets produced conflicting answers, and no-one really knew what the correct answer was. This applied to diverse areas which were crucial to my client's business.

In addition to the three main problems, a minor but irritating point for the staff was that they were based in several locations. In some of these Internet bandwidth was very limited, so that some staff never got good (timely) responses from the central system and gave up using it (4). In fact they often got a better response from their home PCs.

Again, if staff are not using the central system then it may well be that the data is not being validated as the staff are using other methods to obtain answers. (Another company I dealt with had staff who persisted in using paper files as they were easier to access than the main computer system.)

As with many systems, there was also no simple way for staff to obtain reports (5). When senior managers asked questions it was "all hands to the pumps" as staff rushed round looking at their spreadsheets, creating new ones with look-ups, totalling figures and generally committing a minimum of two man days work to produce any answers, without being sure that next week's answers would be the same.

Another issue which strongly affected my client was that accounting was carried out on a completely separate mainframe computer, updated by means of a multi-part paper document (6) which had long outlived its natural lifespan.

The accounts staff did not trust the information in the department's system so they ignored it, even though it was being used by company staff to assist with many of their day-to-day decisions. Another irritation was that when accounting reports were provided (at least two weeks after period end) staff often disagreed with the figures provided, but had no easy way of clarifying why there were discrepancies (7).

One area which affected my client department quite adversely was that there was no central system for recording orders (8), which meant that commitments already entered into were not understood. When invoices came through they were recorded against the current period and year, so that at any moment staff could think they were under or over budget by large amounts without being aware of the exact situation. As with many companies, towards the end of the financial year those areas which appeared to be under budget were ransacked to pay for areas which had gone over budget. The strongest tended to win.

Another minor issue was that many interactions with suppliers and customers were carried out by e-mail or telephone call, but there was no easy way of recording and filing what had happened (9). Some users dictated or typed (or handwrote) notes, while printouts of e-mails might also be filed. This resulted in bulky, difficult to read files and inconsistent results.

Finally, budgets were set once a year using an arcane process which took two months and which no-one understood. Budgets when completed by the department staff went to accounts staff who modified them, often without referring back to the initiators, who were left bewildered as to why the changes had been made. (10)

AN IT STRATEGY

As indicated above, the approach proposed was to identify a clear, long-term IT Strategy. The agreed strategy was to implement a central, modern, fully-integrated, easily-accessible, Windows-style, Internet-based system. A key aspect of this was that data would only be entered into the system once, avoiding duplication. Staff would not enter data into spreadsheets, but were able to extract data into Excel or as reports.

This directly handled problems (1), (2) and (3), and indirectly addressed many of the others.

A modern, Internet-based, Windows-style system does not require great amounts of bandwidth, but in any case the company made sure that all staff had easy access to the Internet and reasonable download speeds. This addressed problem (4).

Now that all the staff are using the same system they are able to see any data errors and then to ensure that the central system is correct. Only one set of figures is now used for reports, and if similar information is asked for a week later, the two sets of figures agree.

The system that was installed had a range of reports provided (5). In addition it is very easy for users to query the data and then download an Excel spreadsheet containing the relevant subset of data. Users have been trained to use and discard spreadsheets so that the next time they ask a question they download a fresh set of data. The system came with a report writer which allows trained staff to write new reports, and even untrained staff can modify reports already in existence.

My client did not move to fully integrate their accounting, but there is no longer a multi-part paper form - updates are passed by means of an automated e-mail (6). In an ideal situation there would either be (a) one system which was both a database and an accounting system, or (b) complete integration between the departmental database and the external accounting system so that all updates to the one were reflected in the other.

Procedures at period end have been tightened up so that staff have a much better view of the ongoing figures and can readily query discrepancies, which handles problem (7). (And see below.)

Problem (8) - commitments - is handled by ensuring that all invoices are matched up with an order, complete with expense code. Ideally the order should be created at the time the work is authorised, but even where it is not, the invoice goes to the correct expense code and there cannot generally be any doubt about where amounts are charged. This helps considerably in the control of budgets, and there is no longer the end-of-year budget robbery which we all knew and loved.

The strategic approach to e-mails has been to ensure that many are generated automatically by the system, while others are stored within the database (9). [There is now - 2015 - a range of even better solutions available. Up-to-the minute systems will capture e-mails sent from clients or any person in the department's contact database and automatically store them.]

The handling of the year-end budget process has been transformed by the creation of the central database (10). The system generates a potential next year's budget using user-defined parameters, and each responsible person then spends a short amount of time checking this. Sometimes this is where data errors are discovered, but these are soon corrected and new figures produced in half the time and with one quarter of the hassle. Because the budget figures are in principle produced by a computer system the accounting staff cannot change them without agreeing why, so everyone (if not exactly happy) can understand what is going on.

THE FUTURE

So how are your systems? Call me if you would like me to help you set an IT Strategy.


Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Good Property Management System for Retailers and Occupiers

Companies which own, manage or occupy significant amounts of property would benefit considerably from a good property management system. Retailers especially often miss out on what I see as significant advantages.

Fast Access to Key Information

A good property system allows property managers access to all the information they need to perform their job – at a stroke, instead of having to dig out paper files, refer to spreadsheets or ask another person for information which is only contained within someone's head. (See my article on Succession Planning.)

Access to information is a major issue in some companies, even where the database is held centrally. And where the information is held in spreadsheets, different spreadsheets often hold contradictory information. A retailer I visited could not state categorically how many shops they had open at a given moment!

Empower Staff

A well-designed system can empower people throughout the company.

For retailers and similar companies it can hold all the branch addresses and telephone numbers as well as the names of the managers and staff. If this information is speedily available to everyone then time can be saved by accessing this information directly rather than (as often happens) one or more phone calls being needed to find this information.

One company had no clear list of who was responsible for the maintenance of different sites, so emergencies required a series of calls before the correct contact could be found.

Hold data only once

One key factor with a good system is that up-to-date information can be recorded just once in a central database and then disseminated throughout the company, accessible to all those who require it.

Retain Diverse Information

A good system can also hold financial and physical information, so senior staff can quickly see key figures like turnover per square metre, or profit per sale. Property charges are often one of the largest areas of costs that cannot easily be reduced, so control can be improved if they are recorded and made easily available for all appropriate staff to see and monitor.

As the organisation grows, an appropriate property system will grow also, and so it should not require significantly greater numbers of staff.

The system can record Health & Safety Information, purchasing information, energy information, “green” information; and can be used to address the large number of areas where the government is forcing companies to take action – either in reporting compliance or in assessing performance.

Allow Users Direct Access

Each user of property information should be able to directly access the information and reports they require. This should reduce or eliminate requests from other people. In fact, staff in other departments should be able to easily access the information they need to do their job. In one organisation I calculated that 20% of a staff member’s time was being spent answering requests for information from other departments – information that they could have had access to directly.

Informative Reports

Finally, one of the main problems I see over and over again is a lack of good, informative reports. A vital part of the development of any new system should be the creation of appropriate reports for all who need access to property information. These reports (which can of course be screen views or spreadsheets) should be available from icons on people’s desktops, or via the Intranet or Internet.

When detailed information is available at the touch of a button, it can transform performance.

BENEFITS

The key benefits from a good system are thus:

  • Information is held and updated only once
  • It is quickly and easily accessible
  • Information is directly available to all those who need to access it
  • It should be designed to grow as needed and hold a wide variety of information
  • Good reports should be available to disseminate information.

Contact me to discuss how to improve your systems.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Tenant Portals

Some property companies believe they can provide a better service through the use of on-line Tenant Portals.

One company advertises itself as “using cutting-edge software to provide tenants with 24-hour access to information about their property.” Residents are assigned a username and password to provide them with access to facilities.

Some typical features of Tenant Portals include:
  • Tenants can access their accounts and see both payment history and the detail of all charges
  • On-line payments can be made via internet banking or a credit card
  • Tenants can also make maintenance requests, and see the current status of previous requests
  • Access can be provided to a variety of documents, such as lease agreements, floor plans or notices relating to the property
  • Warnings can be sent regarding visits or e.g. “the hallway will be painted next week”
  • Often there is an easy way to communicate with management staff.
However I believe the true benefit of Tenant Portals to the property manager is to reduce the need to interact directly with the tenant.

In the residential world, most tenants are out during the day, then come home in the evening and that is when they think about maintenance, or their rent account. It is not so bad with commercial tenants, who tend to be in their premises during the day.

Nevertheless, the benefit to organisations of not having to handle lots of phone calls from tenants is invaluable. Tenant portals have become more common with Housing Associations and Student Letting Operators, but the benefits can apply to all types of tenant. Block management is an obvious area similar to these, but any company where the ratio of tenants to management staff exceeds say 50 to 1 could well benefit from tenant portals.

I have sat in many property company offices and listened to phone calls eating into staff time, where the answers could have been provided automatically, or at a time more suited to the pressures affecting us all nowadays. Even e-mails add to the strains staff are under.

In my opinion the more general automated approach now possible will be the way ahead. If it means your staff can balance their day better, then in the long run you will give a better service and be able to staff for the general workload rather than the peaks.

Call me today if you want to discuss this.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

The truth about property software

Many people are dissatisfied with their property software.

Systems regularly cost more than expected to purchase and implement. There is also a feeling that they don’t deliver what was promised, and some staff never learn how to use their system properly, while others only make do and mend.

It can be different!

There are some excellent systems out there, if you want to acquire one.

And even if you don’t want to change system, you can get more from what you have, saving money and improving management information.

Transforming how systems are used now can make a difference over the next five to ten years, or even longer. (See below for where savings can be identified.)

How to transform systems?

Firstly, your software and the systems around it should fit with the way your organisation works.

This may mean changing the way you operate, but it is worth tackling this in order to achieve significant long-term benefits. Whether you have new software or want to use an existing system better, take the time (or bring in an experienced person) to examine the way you work.

Ensure that your business processes use the available features of the software you have.

Agree what the system is being used for

As part of this process, staff and management should agree specifically what it is they are trying to achieve with the system, and (for example) what reports are needed.

An issue many people neglect is duplication of input. One company I dealt with had a property system which was not linked to their accounting system. Each day they retyped entries into their accounts system. I estimated that just linking their systems would save £20,000 over 5 years, not counting the impact on staff morale – and this was only one of the improvements I identified.

Make sure that your systems are fully integrated so that data is not input twice – a recipe for frustration and mistakes.

Training and procedures are vital

Secondly, staff should be fully trained in the appropriate method of using their systems, with all parties agreeing how and why systems are being used the way they are. (See my article on Why procedures need to be agreed.)

Far too often I have found that some staff think they can avoid dealing with their systems because they have urgent work to be attended to! But in the long term the system is a major resource to your organisation, and it is worth making the effort to keep it up-to-date.

Training should clearly identify how everyone will benefit from using the system as proposed.

Monitor system use

The final step is to monitor the use of the system on a regular basis.

Managers should note where people look for answers. If they don’t look in the system, then it’s probably not being kept up to date.

One large company I know of has installed a market-leading system, but they do not use it properly. All real work is done in Excel. What a waste of money.

Far too many people use Excel for day-to-day operations because it is easy and convenient. But they don’t realise the continuing, damaging effect it has on the organisation. (See my article on Succession Planning.)

Making sure the system is up-to-date and used regularly will mean it provides a long term resource for the whole organisation.

And if everyone understands the business objectives, then the system is more likely to be used properly.


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