Process And IT Costs

August 30, 2010

Do you know if there is any value at all coming from your technology investment?

Unfortunately for many SME’s, they  don’t know. One reason for this disconnect is that we can have very little understanding on when money spent on IT is an investment, or well, just an expense.

One way to improve your value for price in technology is to look at where that money is being spent. And for many small to medium business, the primary two buckets your IT spending will fall into is supporting your direct activities or to increase their effectiveness. (note that more strategic use of IT for driving growth is beyond the scope of this post)

Process, IT Cost And Value

I want to demonstrate that taking a more holistic look at the way you do business can improve IT spending by ensuring that your IT spend is is being applied to those two buckets.

When there is work being performed, and that work is performed more than once, you can be sure that you are looking at a process. It may not be articulated, or formalized as a process – but it is a process.

As a SME business owner or executive, if you were to write down each step, and each event that happens when a new or existing customer calls looking for your product or service – what would that chain of events look like?

Many of us will make a mistake here!

We have the tendency to say; ‘Well sales gives that information to person ‘X’ who gets it out the door…’

I guarantee you – in most cases, you would be wrong.

I state wrong, because that statement is a generality, nice to say, but usually not the exact steps being performed.

If you look closer at what actually happens, it may look more like this;

a) phone call / email is received – maybe written down on a message slip?
b) if it is an existing customer, perhaps terms or conditions are looked up?
c) if a new customer – perhaps you collect information? even just in email?
d) is a message slip handed over to someone else to look at inventory or availability?
e) perhaps forward that message slip or email to someone else who can schedule or ship?

You get the idea. It is very, very rare that what you think happens in a particular situation is actually what is really happening.

Note: For a real example of a ‘process’ in action read this post titled; Don’t Automate Broken Processes

Once you have taken some time and drawn out each of these tasks and steps, you can begin to see where your technology investments can be made to support your direct activities.

In this case, any IT tools that can reduce manual steps and work in this process can be considered as directly supporting your activities.

To take a step further, look at how long each of the tasks you identified in the previous step take.

Any surprises?

Did you find one area where the majority of time is wasted before your product or service can actually be delivered to your customer?

Real World Example

A company I am familiar with is using an on-line sales force tool to track their sales funnel. In your sales funnel, I know that there are some critical numbers needed to gauge your success. Simple examples could include gross margins, cost of sales etc.

The automation tool that this organization was using had some sophisticated advanced metrics reporting, but as a higher cost option.

Because they wished to avoid paying for this reporting option?

From the president to the sales director, five senior people spend hours per month collating the data required for those metrics!

Looking at the time being wasted in their processes has shown them that getting the additional automated reports is more than worth the cost, in other words, to increase the effectiveness of their process.

The SMB Takeaway

Is a tech spend proposal supporting either of those buckets?

If not – why are you spending it?

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How Can I Plan?

August 24, 2010

If you aren’t telling me what your plans are?

My research, and my recommendations have to be based on what your strategic goals and tactical plans are.

If you are the CFO / CEO of a small to medium business and you are responsible for IT, yet in my IT leadership role I have no clue what your thinking?

Then I can’t support those tactics or plans can I?

Would I research and recommend an IT infrastructure upgrade if you have already decided that you have outgrown our facility and are planning to move?

Would I recommend deferring a particular expense if your strategic plan contains a new revenue generation activity where that cost would actually be an investment to get you there?

A simplistic example

If your primary revenue strategy is moving boxes by the truckload off a loading dock, fancy IT tools may be just an expense.

But if your strategy is changing to become the go-to business that gets every box off of that dock and into the right customers hands in the least amount of time – those fancy IT tools may become a critical investment.

The SMB Takeaway

IT investment needs to support your business goals and your operational strategies.

If your IT team has no clue what these are – you are not going to get the IT support you should be receiving.

If you disagree? tell me why!

We had some frustrating issues getting fonts that install with some Adobe products working in the 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows. Both Windows XP and Windows 7 ( I assume Vista would be the same)

It took too much time finding the resolution – so this post is a little lower ‘techie’ level than what I normally write, but maybe it will save someone else some hassle

Problem

When installing certain Adobe products such as inDesign or Photoshop, the Adobe fonts that ship with these packages are not visible within the Adobe applications.

Details

This issue seems to ocurr with Adobe applications using older Adobe Type 1 fonts. Adobe Type 1 fonts consist of two separate files, the font_name.PFB file and font_name.PFM. Installing the fonts into the Windows Fonts folder will allow the font to work with Microsoft Windows products such as MS Word or PowerPoint, but will not be visible to Adobe Products.

NOTE: Installing the fonts into the Windows Fonts will generate error messages for each PFB file – these can be ignored.

Resolution

To have you fonts visible in your Adobe applications, manually copy both the font.PFM and font.PFB files into the \Program Files(x86)\Common Files\Adobe\Fonts directory (folder) on the drive where Microsoft Windows is installed (usually the C:\ Drive)

Note, both files must be copied into the directory, and there are both a Program Files directory and Program Files(x86) directory in 64 bit Windows. The (x86) one is the correct one to use.

Uncertainty is Expensive

August 17, 2010

A truly excellent piece by Patty Azzarello  titled; Uncertainty is Expensive

Every unanswered strategic question leaves legions of people in your organization, less productive and more expensive than they would be with clear direction.

And I have to agree with that statement.

Nature, business & IT abhor a vacuum

When people have no specific instructions or direction,  what happens?

More aggressive managers start to push their own – often conflicting agenda’s.

Disconnected and competing silo’s start being built.

And IT costs?

They can grow by staggering amounts as managers with clout want duplicate IT infrastructure, software or tools that they believe is best for them. Not what is necessarily best for the organization.

Along with these duplicate or unnecessary expenses, some IT investments can be made that may run counter to your strategic direction.

I have witnessed enterprise class software purchased, installed and training being performed – then canceled for a competitive product due to lack of communication and decision on strategic direction.

I have witnessed the most insignificant and minor issues take days or weeks to resolve because the silo’s built by those managers with clout refuse to talk to each other, or provide clear direction on strategies and goals for their parts of the organization.

The SMB Takeaway

Ms. Azzarello says it perfectly; Uncertainty is expensive

Eliminate uncertainty. Ensure that clear direction is available for everyone in the organization, and lastly – make sure that you have the governance and management processes to ensure that decisions meet these goals.

Silo's are Expensive

Photo Credit Eirikref via flickr

Unless you are living under a rock, you have heard about the situation where a JetBlue flight attendant lost his temper at the years of boorish behaviour and abuse he’d taken and quite dramatically quit his job.

I  don’t want to rehash that here.

Our Behaviour

I ask you; why do so many of us feel that customer service staff are our personal pinata’s to beat and smash at will?

Here are two incidents I have witnessed just in the past few weeks.

1) A suite in my office complex houses a customer service desk for a government department. Now we can make all government service jokes we want, but I watched flabbergasted as a woman chewed the head off of a service staffer because she thought the signage on the building was not big enough!!

She then called a supervisor, yelled, screamed and went into some more histrionics and stated she was going to escalate this ‘incident’ right to her member of parliament.

Excuse me?

Because she perceived that the signage on the building was not big enough? Yell and scream at staff? I believe that any reasonable individual (assuming there are any of us left) would agree that the staffer at the front desk has truly negligible input on the building signage. I can just imagine;  “Hi this is Elliot in customer service – can we re brand the Goodyear blimp and hang it over the building please??”

That is just being an ignorant asinine individual – period.

2) I was behind an individual at a retailer – that individual ripped apart the cashier because some product was out of stock.

Man – that must be some critically important part of your life if you feel screaming and yelling at the 16 year old part time student at the cash register is required.

I am truly certain that young woman at the cash has complete input and visibility into that retailers supply chain and stocking processes.

(forgive the sarcasm)

As a historical note, in the mid ’90’s I worked customer support under contract to a large software company and experience some of that bull crap myself.

Customer Service

Yes – we can all understand that we dislike some below par service we have experienced – I am no different.

When it happens – make your opinion known – make it known logically and reasonably.

But leave the bloody vitriol, ignorance and boorish behaviour at home. I know I sure as hell don’t want to listen to you – and I bet that staffer does not either.

Rant over

Yes it is Friday the 13th – and my wife broke a large mirror today – so if you are superstitious, stay home in bed!

Forbes has a good interview with both the CIO and CFO of an organization titled; The Perfect IT Department

In a larger context the article discusses several of the business / IT issues I have written about here for SME business managers. I want to pull out one really good quote;

Because when I look at the maturity of an IT organization it’s not about infrastructure. It’s not about apps. It’s really about information

The SMB Takeaway

Technology by itself should be last on your agenda.

Photo Credit norrix via flickr

On Meetings

August 11, 2010

In last weeks book review about ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson I mentioned that you may not agree with every point the authors mention.

I think the one point in that text I don’t fully agree with is the one on meetings.

The authors, to paraphrase slightly, state; don’t have meetings at all, except in an emergency.

For most of us SME’s, there are good reasons that you should have meetings.

1) In many small to medium businesses here is the primary disconnect I often see when dealing with IT staff or suppliers.

The business management responsible for IT?

Well, they never speak to technology staff unless something is broken. For non-technology managers (ie COO, CFO etc) responsible for their IT, if you are not in regular communication and demanding both tactical and strategic updates, I consider you to be abdicating, not delegating your technology function.

2) You know the old story of the blind men trying to identify an elephant when they can only touch very small pieces?

In our fast paced world, many of us travel, many of us also work solo – often not even in the same location. We can begin to get a feeling of The big picturedisconnect, a feeling of absence. We begin to lose sight of the bigger picture. We begin to be like the blind men, never seeing that bigger picture.

An occasional meeting (even with only video) can help keep people feeling connected and ‘in the loop’. Enabling them to take a look at that elephant.

3) Simply enough – Ambiguity.

Have you every been caught in email CC (carbon copy) hell as people argue, negotiate or discuss?

I am sure most of us have!

Email or other non-visual methods of communication when the issue is explicit instructions or a request, I agree – no need to waste time on a meeting.

But if there is any form of ambiguity? if participants need to negotiate? to discuss? to resolve? (even on a one to one basis) Get it on the table, and get it cleared up quickly. Don’t sit through eight hours of back and forth email hell.

The Caveat

With the above being said, I disagree with vague, useless, time sucking meetings just as much as any body else!

You don’t need everybody in the company to attend a meeting, only the people required for a decision.

Proper agenda, and follow it. Don’t wander off track.

Explicitly clarify and repeat what was decided – and what was not decided – and summarize the  next steps and each deliverable.

The SMB Takeaway

There are many really, really bad meetings going on in most of our businesses, yes – you need to fix them! but a blanket No meetings! is usually not the right response.

Photo Credit decafinata via flickr