Shopping is Fun

You may or may not agree with the title with specific reference to the actual act of going out and buying something, and given some of my experiences in the UK on a busy Saturday lunch time I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you, but I think that nearly everyone appreciates the moment when they unwrap, physically or metaphorically, their latest toy.

That instant when you take something out of its wrapper and get your first proper look at it, or have your first go is a special moment. There’s something so very visceral about it. And it’s not just a human trait either. Whenever I buy a new ball for my dog, his excitement level is far greater than when he plays with what remains of the old one.

Lucky for me then that he doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy them for himself. The house would end up like one of those ball pits that kids play in.

“Ze plane, ze plane”

But, while dogs and household pets in general lack the skills to satisfy their shopping bug, the same cannot be said for those holding the purse strings in business, and to make matter worse, temptation is all around. Companies as I’ve written before are in the business of selling something, so it behoves us to ensure that we’re not sucked in by their promises of a corporate technological Utopia.

All too often we see a new software package arrive, or a new module added to an existing solution, that is touted to solve an array of issues. But, just like the folk who visited the enigmatic Fantasy Island, when it came to actually living the dream, they found to their chagrin that nothing was free.

Consider this graphic from Gartner showing how expectation and time combine to find a happy medium where we put aside disappointment and disillusionment and settle for that barely satisfying, and all too often, not overly comfortable middle ground.

We start off identifying a need, or at least a desire. This is followed by rampant enthusiasm when the slick sales machine gets in to full flow, only to be dashed by the harsh reality of implementation and collective ignorance as the users struggle with the their new found functionality. Over time, their expertise level rises and productivity returns to a level that is ideally some way above the previous systems.

“Get rich or die trying”

Of course, not all new system implementations go well and some don’t even get to the end. We need only look at the lemming like rush to implement Java around the turn of the century. I’ve encountered many companies that tried to develop their own internal applications, only to find the sheer complexity of the code and performance problems left them with failed projects that were canned after a couple of years with a bucket load of money down the gurgler.

And should that not be sufficient to frighten you a tiny bit, have a think about the resources wasted by these 6 SAP failures.

I even have a friend who wrote her degree dissertation on companies that actually went broke while implementing SAP, so the previous half dozen are just the tip of a huge, and very costly iceberg.

The Simpsons

Still, such cautionary tales are just that, cautionary tales, but forewarned is forearmed or so I’m told, so we would be well advised to try to learn from the mistakes of those who’ve gone before. We could I suppose follow Homer’s advice and “never try”, but that would defeat the purpose somewhat, and as seen, buying something new always comes at a cost, and some times a VERY BIG ONE!

So that just leaves the middle ground, which as ever is reliably boring and sensible. But that of course is as it should be. When we look at back office systems for business such as accounting, inventory, HR and orders, there’s nothing remotely fun and exciting about them, but they are the backbone of the company and without them working effectively, things will go badly very quickly.

Hidden treasure

Some systems will need replacing. It is the way of the world. But more often than not, there is enormous untapped potential in existing systems. Rather than looking for a silver bullet or the next big thing, we should look at how an organisation operates. We should ask if the staff are correctly trained and whether they’re making effective use of the software. What can we streamline? What can we modify and enhance?

In short, what can we do TODAY that will ensure that we wring every dollar of value out of our existing systems. And when we’ve done that, we can have another look to determine what we need for tomorrow.

By doing this, you’ll continue to strengthen your organisation every day and help deliver an improved profit per person.


Today’s Top Takeaway

In today’s increasingly disposable society, it’s always worth remembering the ethos behind “make do and mend”.


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Getting Your Priorities Right

It’s been a good week for the IT security business. It seems that some of the modern world was held hostage by a group of hackers who apparently made very little considering the trouble they caused by unleashing some ransomeware on the unsuspecting masses.

The vast majority of the commentary on this subject has been about the need for business to ensure that they have up to date virus software, proper backups and all the other good, sensible stuff that business should be doing.

Once Bitten?

The Conversation had an interesting piece about how it is that the malware was able to gain traction, particularly in light of the fact that Microsoft patched the vulnerability a couple of months ago. The long and the short of it is that users very often don’t want to restart their machines and when confronted by a number of updates, some of which aren’t flagged as being critical, they tend to be even less enthusiastic.

This lack of interest in updating machines goes hand in hand with a majority of users having a negative reaction when the prospect of upgrades is mentioned.

Once bitten, twice shy perhaps?

Positive Mental Attitude

What’s missing in much of the narrative, The Conversation notwithstanding, is a failure to address the larger subject matter of the behaviour of organisations when it comes to updates.

The Conversation says,

“computer companies must try to convince us – and we must convince ourselves – that updates are important.”

Amen!

But we need to go further than that. Computers, while no different in practical terms to a chef’s knives or a truck used for deliveries, are rarely thought of as tools of the trade. All too often they’re though of as a necessary burden, a cost, a metaphorical ball and chain that one is forced to drag around while going about one’s job.

Look After Kit and Your Kit Will Look After You

What business needs to remember is that IT systems are a critical facet of corporate infrastructure, tools that are fundamental to the success of an organisation.

A chef will sharpen his knife the moment it becomes dull. The kitchen will be cleaned after each service, and fridges and stoves are maintained regularly. A delivery company will ensure that its fleet of vehicles is clean, well serviced and roadworthy. Even aircraft are out of service every once in a while.

So why would anyone let computers be updated when the end user deems it appropriate?

A Little Fat in the System

It is utterly unreasonable for you to expect your IT systems to just keep running without any maintenance schedule and without any interruptions. Such a dream is just that; a dream.

So make sure you factor in the costs of having machines down for a short while as and when is necessary. Build sufficient fat in to your systems so that users don’t feel obliged to keep working. Encourage your users to look after their PC and actively encourage them, or even force them to install updates, regardless of the time it will take.

It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.


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It’s All About The People

I read an article recently that discussed the relative merits of half a dozen competitive products that are all designed to bring your staff closer together, making it easier for them to communicate, collaborate, share documents, screens, and so on.

The article was ostensibly about the products themselves, highlighting the super-duper features that each had, or didn’t in some cases, and how adoption of these products would simplify the day to day existence of the many users. This in turn would save time, money, and improve the customer experience meaning that the many thousands of dollars invested in these products would be returned many fold.

How optimistic!

Dreams

This of course may well be the case for some organisations, but what such articles nearly always fail to mention is that adoption of new shiny IT systems is rarely as bright and cheery as it might at first appear.  Sure, these things look great in advertising copy, and when assessed by someone writing an opinion piece, but the reality is often rather different.

I’m reminded at this point of comedian Ben Elton who used to do a little piece on car advertising. What ground his gears was that when we see a car being driven in an ad, it invariably contains a happy loving couple driving along a beautiful road in beautiful country side, enjoying beautiful weather. Birds are singing in the trees, flowers are blooming and all in the world is wonderful and light.

This heavenly environment is of course utterly unrelated to the somewhat dystopian reality that is sitting in traffic, in a city, in the rain, with thousands of other disillusioned souls trying to get to their jobs or homes.

They never show them scraping the ice of the windscreen in the dark, first thing in the morning either, which is another motoring experience that isn’t remotely close to being as much fun as it sounds.

And yes, I’m well aware it doesn’t even sound the slightest bit enjoyable in the first place.

PEBCAK

It’s easy to understand how advertising is so divorced from reality when it comes to cars, but it’s perhaps not so obvious when it comes to IT and software packages. After all, we need do little more than install it on a few devices and we’re good to go, or so we’re told.

There is however, one tiny little wrinkle that ensures that no matter how well designed it is, how brilliant the developers or how well written the help, we’re likely to run in to a few implementation issues.

PEOPLE!

Relationships

Software has bugs: It’s just about inevitable. But as all programmers will tell you, ID-10T errors and users on a picnic (Problem in chair, not in computer) will out number the reports of real issues many times over.

It’s imperative then that when we’re choosing a package or building a tailored solution, the functionality must match not only the needs of the business, but more importantly, those of the user as well. We can make something that has all the bells, whistles and thingummies that we can dream of, but if it fails to engage the user sufficiently, it will not be a success.

And remember, your staff are going to be married to your new solution for many years. If the first date doesn’t go well, the resulting union will likely be somewhat tempestuous.

Invest in People

So, when deciding to invest thousands or perhaps millions of dollars in a solution, remember that the money you spend on the software itself will pale into insignificance compared to the money you’ll spend on the wages of those who use it.

Perhaps then, you should make doubly sure that your users are adequately trained, engaged and motivated, so that using your new technological marvel will be more like a nice drive in the country, and less like the misery of rush hour.


Today’s Top Takeaway

People are expensive and a failure to train them is an opportunity lost.


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Cruise Control – The Dangers of “Set And Forget” IT Systems

Without a doubt, “set and forget” is one of the most frightening phrases any serious IT professional can hear.  It’s one of those throw away lines that non-IT people casually use in a conversation about hardware and software solutions when it turns to the nearly always thorny subject of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Total Cost of Ownership

Actually, before I go any further, let’s take 30 seconds to make sure that we understand what this means in the wonderful world of grown up Information Technology. TCO refers to the hard earned lucre that you’re going to have to part with once you’ve bought some software or hardware. It’ll be used to cover support costs, maintenance or upgrades, bespoke package changes, training, productivity losses during transition and so on.

It’s a bit like having to inflate your tyres or put oil in the car. TCO is simply the time, effort and money that goes in to making sure your car keeps moving in a generally safe and comfortable manner.

This stuff goes along way to helping us understand why people so often think of IT systems as a cost.

“We’re gonna crash, Clyde”

Having got that out of the way, let’s get back to setting and forgetting. For the sake of continuity, I’ll stick with the automotive analogies.

So, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of cruise control. It’s not that I don’t trust it, it’s simply that I’ve always driven my car myself, so I’m quite comfortable maintaining an appropriate speed. But I do understand that it makes life easier for some people, so I’m happy to endorse this particular technology and its use.

However, like all technologies, we must ensure we’re aware of its limitations, and cruise control has one that has been known to be over looked, which is of course that it doesn’t do corners.

That’s right, YOU HAVE TO STEER THE CAR YOURSELF!

Cruise control helps us travel the highways and byways with minimal effort, but when there’s a change of direction or circumstances, we need to adjust the direction of the car so that we can continue in the required direction.

Setting and Forgetting

Just like roads, businesses don’t (ok…shouldn’t) travel in straight lines. They twist and turn, adapting to subtle changes in the market, suppliers, staffing, legislation and a great many other contributory factors. IT systems however tend to be somewhat less pragmatic, and, just like a car on cruise control, they continue to travel the same unwavering path.

So, should we metaphorically fall asleep at the wheel, when we wake we may be lucky enough to find that the road has been straight and pothole free while we were away in the land of nod.

We may however find that we’ve missed a junction and we’re now many miles from where we’d like to be. It’ll cost us a little to get back on track, but there’s no real harm done.

Or we could wake to find that there’s a bend in the road and our only viable option is to quickly ensure we’re buckled up, brace for impact, and hope that it doesn’t hurt too much.

Annual Service

Roads are rarely straight for very long, so we regularly correct our course. Similarly, only the simplest of simple enterprises continues without change, so IT systems need to be adjusted accordingly.

A regular health check will ensure that your IT systems will continue to travel in the right direction. You service your vehicles regularly to ensure they stay on the road, so why not apply the same logic to your computer systems?

So just one more cautionary note. You know that noise that mechanics make? It’s the “you’re not going to like it, it’s going to be expensive” noise, they make by sucking air through pursed lips.

That’s a noise you NEVER EVER want to hear that from software, hardware and support providers when they come to assess the wreckage.

Perhaps then, a few little regular adjustments, like an annual service, will ensure that your IT continues to operate efficiently and effectively, and heads in the same direction as the business that it serves.


Today’s Top Takeaway

Look after your kit and your kit will look after you.


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How Usable Are Your IT Systems?

You know, I never really gave it any thought.

That’s the typical response coming from owners and managers when talking about the usability of their IT systems. Of course, if you were to ask whether the systems can solve the problems or produce the information that they’re supposed to, you’d get a slightly more informed reply.

But usability…?

“It Works, Doesn’t It?”

Yes it does…probably.

Getting bang for your buck from an IT system is something that’s hard to measure, particularly when looking at internal systems, so the fact that a particular piece of software does its job is usually enough to convince someone that it’s usable.

Sadly, functional capabilities and usability are two very different things and when it comes to a fight between the two, it’s not a fair one. Resources are spent on functionality first and poor old usability is left begging in the street for whatever scraps it can find.

Back Pain

But it’s OK, humans, being the infinitely adaptable creatures that we are, take usability issues in our stride. We learn the limitations, often via the tried and trusted path of repeated trial and error, and then we learn to live with them.

So that would be kinda like that dull ache in your lower back then: the one just to the left of your spine. It’s there constantly, reminding you that you should probably see someone about it, but it’ll be OK, you’ll mention it the next time you see someone.

The trouble is, that someone is often the friend you talk to in the kitchen when heating up your leftovers. You both agree that you should get a referral from your doctor to see a specialist, but the moment you hear that word, the dollar signs appear before your eyes and you quickly decide that you’ll stick with the status quo.

Whatever You Want

Of course, not all of the IT systems are left to wallow in self pity. Websites, the poster boys of corporate software, are primped within an inch of their lives.

Why?

Because points make prizes!

There’s a clear correlation between the performance of a website and sales revenue, so we spend big on making sure that everything is easy to access, aesthetically pleasing, the number of clicks required is small, performance is fast and so on.

Btw…I’m acutely aware that I’m not practising what I preach currently. I will though…promise.

Odd though that this is done with such fervour for the great unwashed because they might spend a few dollars with us, but we care little for the welfare of those tolerating the systems we have internally, and they cost us a fortune.

Time and Money

And there’s the rub. Staff costs are a huge drain on corporate resources, so we should be maximising the usability of internal systems to ensure that users can do their work efficiently, effectively and without those twinges of pain we all ignore as best we can.

If we did, we’d find that they were happier in their jobs and that they could achieve more, and this is without doubt a good thing.

Why?

Because when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune find their mark, the last thing we need is IT systems getting in the way.

So, is it about time that you saw that specialist?


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Is Your Business Playing IT Whack-a-Mole?

Do you have an IT strategy or do you deal with issues as and when they arise?

If this question were to be posed to a random cross section of small to medium enterprise, it’s reasonable to suggest that the split would be around 50/50. Certainly, anecdotal evidence would suggest this to be the case.

Sadly, there seems to be little by way of supporting evidence.  This report in ComputerWeekly, which dates back to 2003 would indicate that a meeting in the middle is about right. Of course, this is over 10 years ago, but nothing has really changed in the way that SMEs deal with their IT systems since then, so 50/50 will do for now.

Who’s Spending What?

There are approximately 2.1 million businesses in Australia, with 12% having 5 or more employees. Most of these will have IT needs of some sort and yet only half of them are giving any real though as to how IT can help shape their business.

That leaves 125,000 businesses who are playing it by ear, tactically spending money on their IT needs when problems present themselves.

This is hardly ideal and certainly not what one would call good business practice, but one can still be a little sanguine in the face of rampant, random IT spending, and say that at least they’re investing in it to some extent.

Who’s Not Spending What?

Optimism aside though, not all of the 125,000 will be playing IT “whack-a-mole” buying software and hardware when they get an itch. A significant portion of them will be “set-and-forgetters”. These are the companies who bought something some years ago and who have had no real issues since then, or who have always done things a certain way.

I can only assume they’re content with how things are.

If only they knew what they were missing out on.

Why Do You Need a Strategy?

No one can accurately predict the future, although many will have a good go, and this ignorance should be a compelling motivator for making a good solid plan. Technology change, business changes and the miserable spectre of business interruption are just about inevitable, so when they do arrive we should be in a position to deal with them in the best possible way.

If one is to embrace the opportunities presented by the technological revolution, systems today need to be designed and implemented in a way that means they’re agile, flexible and portable. Similarly, should the proverbial hit the fan, we need to have disaster recovery policies in place to ensure minimum disruption.

The alternative is to leave it to luck, but I don’t think that quite qualifies as a strategy.

It’s Never Too Late

You wouldn’t buy manufacturing equipment, hire staff, take out a lease or spend money on marketing unless you had a business case to back it up and it was part of your over all strategy.

So why would any one spend many thousands of dollars annually on IT without having the same level of commitment to understanding how it fits in to your organisation?

And yet here we are, with tens of thousands of businesses throwing money at something they have little understanding of and no real plan for its use.

Perhaps now is the time to talk to someone who can help you maximise your investment.


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