Sunday, 23 November 2008

My Software is Better Than Yours

The software business is full of people trumpeting their software as being the best. At a conference I attended last week, someone waxed poetic about how much better Navision (Microsoft Dynamics NAV) is than Great Plains (Microsoft Dynamics GP). This happens to be a topic that I am qualified to weigh in on, being certified in both.

But I didn't. The only time I compare two software packages is when determining which is the better fit for a company.

When someone starts telling you how amazing the system they are selling is, my advice is to tune them out. I even tune out those charts that purport to compare software packages feature by feature. Why? Because you can't capture the differences in approach between two packages in a word or short sentence.

Take foreign currency exchange for example. Most major packages offer this feature, but when you get to know the individual packages you find out that there are significant differences in the way they actually handle foreign currency transactions. How does it treat foreign currency fluctuations in a standard costing environment? How does it do General Ledger revaluations? How does it reverse errors? Does it make adjustments only at the General Ledger level or does it affect the subledgers? How well do third part add-ons integrate with it? Will it allow the consolidation of subsidiary companies denominated in a foreign currency? These questions may be relevant to your company, in which case they are worth asking. If they are not, then why bother even making the comparison?

Before we even begin to implement software, I can guarantee you there will be significant areas where the software will not work the way you expect it to. We will have to look at the logic behind both the software and your business processes, as well as how expensive each is to alter. Then we will have to decide which way is best for your business. I would argue that how well a software package is implemented is as important to customer satisfaction as the underlying software. In other words, a great package poorly implemented will often be perceived as poor software. That is another reason I take personal opinions about software packages with a grain of salt.

At the end of the day, the question of which is best for your business is the only question worth asking. It will take a lot of research on your part to arrive at an objective answer, but the results are well worth the work.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

When to Call a Lawyer

It's the monthly church roast beef dinner fundraiser, only this time a health inspector has come and is asking probing questions. What do you do?

The insurance on your building is about to renew and the valuation is out of date. Why not save a few bucks on the premium?

The annual government Charity Information Return got sent to the old Treasurer's address and was never filed. What are the consequences?

When do you call in a lawyer? Last week, I went to the annual Church and Charity Law Seminar held by Terry Carter of the law firm Carters Professional Corporation. It answered these questions and more in a rapid fire format with a series of half hour presentations by a dozen lawyers in their area of specialty. Terry knows that the subjects are dry and technical, so he packs the seminar material with facts (and the occasional lawyer joke). The idea is that you can take your Carter's material back to the office with you. You don't have to remember the details. You just have to recognize when a situation might have legal implications. Then you can go to the notes and look up the issue. This was not a sales pitch. It was 100% practical.

This seminar is very popular. There were over 600 people there this year, the most they've ever had in the 14 years they've been running it. Of course, this is part of Carters marketing, but it works for everyone. Charities get excellent general legal tips for a very reasonable price and Carters keeps its name fresh in the minds of the clients it serves. Terry is clearly committed to helping charities and is willing to give up a day's billings from his professional team, not a small amount!

So if you're a charity and can make it to Toronto for a day, come to next year's seminar. Otherwise, subscribe to the Carters newsletter. If you're not a charity, think about this as an example of how to reach out to your clients or customers.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

New From Microsoft (NOT Software!)

There's something new from Microsoft, and it's not software. It's a methodology called Sure Step.

Why am I excited about a methodology? Because Microsoft has recognized that the reasons that projects fail or customers are unhappy with their system rarely have to do with the software. Just Google "why projects fail" (e.g. here, here and here). You typically don't see "the software was missing important features" as the reason. Project management issues usually top the list: lack of planning, scope creep, poor communications, lack of a proven methodology etc. etc.

In the world of medium sized accounting packages that I work in, project management is often viewed by customers as an unnecessary frill. When creating project budgets, I stopped putting in time for project management because it was routinely removed in the price negotiations with the customer. Instead, I built in time to create a project plan as well as for status meetings and progress reports.

The consultants and the software companies only have themselves to blame. During the sales process we minimize the difficulty of implementing new software. We talk about how easy it is, how everything is menu driven and can be accessed with the proverbial one click of the mouse. We minimize the work that needs to be done by the customer: designing their chart of accounts, downloading history from their existing accounting system or putting thought into how they want the reports to look.

Unless customers see themselves as at least a 50% partner in the success of the project, I guarantee you they will not get full use of the system they invested in. I'm not talking about a dramatic failure here. The result will just be that staff will not abandon their tried and true spreadsheets or side systems and embrace the new technology. Microsoft measures everything (just ask any Microsoft employee what getting a yellow or red light means). They measured software success and came up with the mind blowing statistic that 46% of software licenses go unused. This means that only half of the people you thought would use the new system will actually do so.

So, what should customers do? If you do nothing else, insist on a weekly progress meeting throughout the project, so you can be sure that the whole project gets completed, not just the minimum necessary to go live. The meetings should be short and only the senior people on the project need attend. This meeting is not for solving problems, it just brings them to light. The agenda is:

  • What was accomplished last week
  • What is planned for next week
  • Where we are in the project plan (you DO have a project plan, right?)
  • New or changed risks faced by the team
Weekly meetings force people to actually DO something or face the embarrassment of having nothing to report. They let you know who is waiting for whom. They inform everyone of the issues faced by others. They allow you to be proactive instead of just reacting to issues.

Also, during the sales process talk to your consultant about how they implement projects. If it's Microsoft software and the words "Sure Step" do not come up in the presentation, ask why. Ask them about what you need to do to ensure the project's success. Ask them how much of your staff's time you should budget for the project. If the answer seems too good to be true, then it probably is.