Thursday, 21 August 2008

Encouraging Technology Users

Stephen Covey has a wonderful story about teaching his son to take care of the lawn, which I won't spoil here except to say that it was a difficult process and he has to remind himself constantly that the goal was to raise children not grass. That lesson was particularly poignant for me as I was biting my tongue watching my own son mow our lawn. At first we had to come down pretty hard on him even to do that particular chore. There were so many times I wondered if this were worth all the trouble. It would have been much easier just to do it myself. But then one day I noticed that one part of the lawn looked much better. I commented to him about how good it looked. The next time he did a better job of it. Now he is taking some pride in his work. When a bolt loosened and got lost, he took the initiative of fixing it himself.

Encouraging people to use technology is a lot like teaching a boy to mow the lawn: you have to look diligently for things to praise and encourage. At the beginning it will seem like an uphill battle, but you need to be the cheerleader for the new system. Nowhere is this more important than in the accounting department. People guard their spreadsheets! They are very reluctant to leave the proven systems they know to go with something new and untried.

They are not wrong. All of us have experienced or know someone who has been through a computer failure. There are always potholes in the road in an implementation and sometimes those potholes are enough to stop the system in its tracks. We used to say that people are afraid of change, but that has not been my experience. I would say that they are wary of change and the way to deal with their reluctance is to include them in system planning and testing.

As a project manager I know that without full support by senior management, any project is destined for failure. There has to be someone clearing the obstacles faced by the team, reminding people of the reason for the change and helping them get through it. Of course the consultant is going to cheerlead. After all, that's how consultants make their money. But if the employees' Manager is the one cheering them on, they will listen.

In case cheerleading is not a subject you ever took in college, here are a few tips:

  • Get in there with them - My teen has taught me that if I don't do it, there's no way he's going to just listen to me telling him what to do. I have to model the behavior. So open the program and use the technology. Let your staff see you struggling with it the same way they are. Do you want to make someone's day? Let them show you how to do something in the new system. Just watch the spring in their step as they leave your office.
  • Don't lose faith - There will be issues. There will be times that the new system won't work as planned. Encourage your staff to keep a log of issues and follow them up with the implementers on a weekly basis. Take the stance that whatever happens, we're not going back.
  • Be patient - People need to feel like they are being heard. Some people will "get it" faster than others. Be patient with the slower ones and look for ways to support them. Maybe they need to sit with someone else and go over how to use the system. Maybe they are worried that something has been forgotten. Experience has taught me to listen to the data entry people's concerns. They are often aware of things that the Controller / Accounting Manager doesn't know about.
  • Be Sincere - If you don't believe in the new system yourself, it will show. It's tough to fake enthusiasm. So, if you have doubts yourself, get the consultant into your office, close the door and put everything on the table.
Change is never easy, but it can be managed. The sooner people can transition from thinking about the system as "theirs" (i.e. the consultant's) to "ours", the better.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Less Numbers, More Story

Harry is one of our unit managers. His normally calm, diplomatic voice takes on a sudden energy as he leans across the table and says, "People seem to think that any mission will do. That's just not true."

Harry has a point. Missions have to resonate with the team or they will not motivate them. I have worked for a passionate leader and I really felt the difference. When he announced his vision for the company, he made sure we all knew where we could make a difference. We worked together and supported each other. There was a well defined goal that was just beyond our reach.

Those are all good things, but, as I look back on that experience now, I see it differently. It was not the goal that motivated us, but the story of The Little Company That Could. We saw ourselves as a small Canadian company competing for recognition with our much larger colleagues south of the border. It was the classic David and Goliath story, and we were determined to create a happy ending.

My current company's story is very much in my mind as I put together the book that will become the blueprint for our company's 2009 year. People don't traditionally look to budgets for inspiration, but I am out to change all that. Here's what I'm planning:

  • Less Numbers, More Story - The budget will now include a narrative telling the reader what we are aiming to achieve. The detailed tables broken down by Cost Centre, Account and month that I need to import the budget into the accounting system will be sent to the Appendix. People don't read them anyway.
  • Align with the Organization's Priorities - The accounting system breaks the organization down into units, but the Board sees the operations in terms of their priorities. The budget book will take all of the individual managers' goals and show how they fit into the Board's priorities.
  • Support the Priorities with Graphics - I will use my Microsoft reporting tools to present the plans graphically, just like I promised. The reader will see that we are putting our money where our mouth is.
  • Get More People Involved - Some people view budgeting as a black box: a mysterious process with results that are beyond their control. The budget book will have a section describing the process and talking about how budget adjustments were made. We will ask for more input from the people most affected by the budget and actively seek their buy-in.
  • Use the Technology - Use the Financial Reporting Software rather than Excel for the Budget reports so that changes to the Budget ripple through all the reports, instead of relying on more fragile spreadsheet links. Use Navision (Microsoft Dynamics NAV) to track the original budget separately from subsequent transfers and updates, so that I can show both on financial reports.
There was an excellent demonstration of the power of a story in Drew McLellan's Marketing Minute today. It certainly inspired me.

The public may not be on the edge of their seats when this book is released, but I'm hoping that Harry will be.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

We're All In This Together

The first accounting system I had to supervise was an IBM product called MAPICS. I was an inexperienced newbie and knew nothing, so I joined a user group. Every couple of months we would meet at someone's office and someone would bring donuts. We would talk about our experiences with the product and try to answer people's questions. I got some excellent advice about how to handle program patches from IBM as well as where to go for programming assistance. Joining the user group was the best $25 I ever spent.

If there is one piece of advice that I can offer to everyone, regardless of the size of your company, your industry or the type of software you use, it's to join a user group. There is no better source of unbiased, practical information than other users of the same software. If there is a feature you would like to see added, getting a group of users together to request the change is the best way to get a developer's attention. If you are looking for trained staff, another user may be able to point you in the right direction. If you want to change your consultant, what better way than to ask for references from other users?

Many user groups are organized by software implementation consulting firms. I have heard these groups dismissed as being no more than upselling by the consultant. Of course consulting firms are interested in selling more software and services, but the ones I know go to great lengths to put useful content into the sessions. They know that providing practical, useful information is the only way they will get users to come back the next time.

Traditionally, however, user groups are started, organized and run by users. Vendors are often invited to make presentations, but user meetings are not about sales. When my Microsoft rep suggested I start a Dynamics NAV (Navision) user group in my area, my first thought was about all the administration of running the group. Then he told me about Dynamic Communities. They take all of the work out of running a user group, so you can concentrate on the meeting content.

All Dynamic Communities does is manage user groups, whether for Dynamics AX (Axapta), GP (Great Plains), NAV (Navision) or CRM. They just need one local person to lead and they will set up a local chapter. They will even give you a list of their members in your area. If you work through your local Microsoft rep, you can get help finding other users. Microsoft will also provide speakers if you give them enough notice. There is a sliding membership fee depending on the size of your business.
The typical local chapter has 10 - 15 members at any given meeting, with larger chapters averaging 30 - 35 members. The typical meeting goes from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, with a networking lunch. The morning session is usually a formal presentation, with break out sessions after lunch. I asked about the split between technical and accounting members and Bonnie, the Member Services Manager, noted that chapters started by IT Managers tended to have more technical members, where chapters started by accountants had more user members. You need both.

One of the problems with user groups is their small size. A huge advantage of a centralized organization is that it's possible to put on a conference. Dynamics Communities is hosting a 2 day conference (The link is to the NAV conference. The others have similar pages.) in Las Vegas for $499 per person, with optional additional training either before or after the main conference. When you add that to the user forums available at mibuso and Dynamics' webinars, we've come a long way from a box of donuts after work!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Exploding Conventional Wisdom

The accountant usually has a feel for what's really going on. My grandfather's accountant, Lloyd Smith, had a client in the construction business. While doing the financial statements, Lloyd realized that some of the projects were losing money. The owner brushed him off. He said he knew all his staff and suppliers. He knew what went into each project. There was no way he could lose money on any of them. Lloyd set out to determine the truth. All of the purchases for a project were stored in an envelope and the labour charges were written on the outside. Lloyd pored over the purchase journal and payroll records to find out exactly what a sample of projects was costing. Sure enough, he was able to prove that some of the projects were indeed losing money. That got the owner's attention and changes were immediately put into place.

That's what I call Business Intelligence. The purpose of BI is to support better business decision making. One of its best uses is to build a case to explode conventional wisdom, those tired explanations (excuses?) for why things are the way they are.

The paper in my file had been photocopied and carried forward so many years that it was almost illegible. It explained why the fuel oil inventory at my client showed as negative. Apparently, the oil was taken out of inventory faster than the purchase records could catch up with it. I used a report writer to look at the ins and outs of fuel oil. The conventional wisdom had to be wrong. January 2nd at the northern Ontario mine site was cold and snowy as the inventory supervisor and I climbed to the top of the storage tank to lower the knotted rope and see just how much oil was in the tank. I'm sure he was swearing at auditors in general and me in particular, but outwardly the man was friendly. The result, however, was significant. The difference between my computer report and what we found in the tank turned out to have been caused by a computer field that was too small to hold the large quantity of oil (measured in liters). It was dropping two decimal places from the calculations. As a result, immediate changes were made to the computer system.

In your company, are you hearing the same explanations over and over as to why sales are below budget? Does something just seem wonky in the direct costs or manufacturing overhead? This is where all that money you spent on technology and training can really pay off. If your spider senses are tingling as you look at the financial statements, go with your gut and delve into the data.

Start with the conventional wisdom, e.g. "sales are down because of the high Canadian dollar". Ask yourself how you could prove that statement true or false. For example, you could determine the actual effect of the change in exchange rates and see if it's significant. You could drill down on sales by product / salesperson / sales territory to see if the effect is across the board or only with a specific item / salesperson / geographic location. Follow your experience, but use the technology to support your results. People are not going to change just because you say so. They will need documented proof. Conventional wisdom is difficult to refute.

When you have your answer, spend a little more time with the technology to make the resulting report easy to read, then show it to the operational people responsible. Better decision making may just be the result.

Friday, 1 August 2008

The Most Advanced Accounting Software on the Planet

"Tally 9.0 has been dubbed the most advanced accounting software on the planet." That claim is obviously more marketing spin than carefully researched fact, but it points to a trap that we so frequently fall into: comparing accounting software as though there were some perfect system against which all others must be measured.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm a Microsoft fan. In my quarter century of accounting, I have spent a decade implementing Dynamics GP (Great Plains) and Dynamics NAV (Navision). But I still wouldn't claim that it's the most advanced accounting software on the planet. The issue is not how advanced it is, but how well it fits the client's needs and budget.

"Unlike other accounting software, Tally accounting software makes sure all data is protected and backed up automatically" (further on in the same article). If someone starts comparing two accounting packages, stop them right there. There is no standardized language in accounting software upon which to base a fair comparison. Two packages may claim to have advanced inventory features, multi-currency, role based security etc. etc., but when you investigate, you find that they have addressed these features in very different ways. Furthermore, there are hidden assumptions included in the words. I would challenge anyone who claimed that their system automatically backs up data. How can their system ensure that backup media are being properly rotated and taken off site? These are both critical aspects to the back up process. The word "automatic" sends up red flags for me, as do the words "easy", "user friendly" and "at the click of a button".

Frankly, we accounting software implementers have done ourselves a lot of harm by raising people's expectations to unrealistic levels about how easy it is to change accounting systems. Yes, the software installs quickly. Yes, everything is menu driven. Yes, the manuals are online and there's an extensive help system. All of those features do not change the fact that accounting is done very differently in different companies, even those in the same industry. The bulk of the time spent in an accounting implementation is in marrying the new system to the company's procedures and requirements, as well as migrating the historical data to the new system, not installing the software. One thing I admire about Microsoft is the way they insist that all customers work with a local firm ("Partner"), so that there is someone familiar with the customer's business environment on the ground to deal with specific issues.

Microsoft actually goes one step further. They design their systems in layers, the top layer being the changes needed to make the software fit the individual client. They don't claim to be the most advanced software on the planet. They claim to provide a set of flexible tools so that you and your Partner can make the system fit your needs.