Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Microsoft Dynamics NAV vs GP

Houston Neal, at Software Advice, asked me to blog about the differences between Navision and Great Plains accounting software, or, as they are currently known, Microsoft Dynamics NAV and GP.  Houston has done a great job of describing the different Microsoft ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning - an accounting system on steroids - i.e. including purchasing, manufacturing and distribution etc.) packages, so I will just give you my rule of thumb.

When I was with a company selling Great Plains, we talked about it being cheaper because the functionality came out of the box.  You didn't have to pay for a lot of customization, either during the initial implementation or later, during upgrades.  When I was with a company selling Navision, we talked about flexibility, how easy and cheaply the software could be customized to the individual needs of the customer

My take on this issue is that if Great Plains fits you out of the box, it's a better package.  If customization is needed, then Navision is the better pick.

Having said that, I think that both packages would work well for a wide variety of companies.  If that is the situation with you, then I recommend taking a close look at the consulting firms selling you the package.  A skilled, experienced consultant can make even a limited software package look good, while a bad one can ruin good software.

If you have looked at both packages are still unsure, try what we used to call a Boardroom Pilot.  Get a sample batch of different transactions and invite the vendors in to enter those transactions into their systems.  That will give you a side by side comparison of the software.

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Landing That First Job

Question from the editors of Forbes:

Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a jump in the unemployment rate to 10.2%.Some economists think we could be looking at 10.5% by early next year. 


Given these grim forecasts, how do you counsel recent college graduates and others entering the job market for the first time in this employment climate? Is there any advice or strategies you find particularly useful?

Answer:

My advice is to be enthusiastic.  You have youth on your side, so use it.  An interviewer early in my career said to me that I lacked experience, but if he decided that he wanted an accountant full of piss and vinegar, he'd call me.  I wrote off the interview and actually took another job.  I was kicking myself two weeks later when he called back.

My second piece of advice is to figure out what you're good at and keep improving.  Take courses, read books and magazines, follow bogs and webcasts, meet others in your field, go to conferences -- whatever it takes to stay current and build your skill.  If you are enthusiastic and skilled, people will want you on their team even if you have little experience.

Thirdly, give it away.  Volunteer your expertise, share your ideas.  Don't hoard your human capital.  Show them what you've got and they'll want to work with you.  Ideas are cheap.  The more you give away, the more you will get.

Finally, surround yourself with intelligent, focused people.  Some of it will rub off on you.  You can only get better.  But these days, watch out for naked ambition.  Watch out for people with get rich quick schemes.  Look for success in the long run and you'll be better able to balance your life.

You're probably thinking that this advice would be the same even if unemployment were going down.  You're right.  Use that kind of statistic as intelligence, not an excuse for inactivity.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What Accountants Know

What do accountants bring to the table for charitable donations? I would like to make the case for a special kind of support, something that will help EVERY charity and something that comes naturally with accounting training and experience.

The difficult fact that each charity faces is that nobody wants to support administrative costs. Governments don't fund this area, nor do foundations or private individuals as a rule. Yet every charity spends a significant amount of time and money on administration: paying the rent, keying in the payroll, buying insurance, etc.

As accountants, we are arguably experts on administration. We track it. We analyze it. We minimize it. We research it. And we appreciate it when it's done well.

So many not-for-profit organizations I've worked with actually underspend on administration. They use obsolete computers and inadequate software, forcing them to spend too much staff and volunteer time on admin. Often staff are not sufficiently trained in standard packages like word processors and spreadsheets, so too much time gets spent on the otherwise normal processing of transactions and reports. Others are lucky enough to have an endowment cover at least part of the administrative costs, but they are a small minority.

Sometimes this skimping on administration leads to self-defeating results. It takes resources to write grant proposals, report to donors, mount events or create fundraising campaigns. As any salesperson will tell you, you have to spend money to make money.

Administration is not exciting. Most people would rather see their money go towards a scholarship, a key piece of equipment or research into curing a disease, but with our specialized training and experience, accountants are different. We know how important effective administration is, how the very success of the charity may depend on it.

So, please consider marking your next donation to your favorite charity, "For ongoing administration". Your donation will get the attention it deserves!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Don't Manage Me!


The nice young man across the table was trying to help my wife and I renew our mortgage.  He had access to all of the transactions we had done at the bank, whether online, through the call center or through the branch.  It was clear that he was using a well designed Customer Relationship Management (CRM) package.   He had everything at his fingertips.  The problem is that CRM is no substitute for an actual relationship.

CRM started life as a Rolodex, a listing of the names and addresses of a salesperson's contacts.  Good salespeople knew they needed more than "tombstone" information about their customers, so they started taking notes on their customers.  When computers systems to replace Rolodex cards were created, they were called Contact Management systems.  Later on, it became clear that the sales team could benefit from knowing all of the ways customers interact with the company and Contact Management software morphed into CRM.  The problem is, CRM was built to support existing relationships, not replace them.

The nice young man we were talking about our mortgage a few years ago to was not actually a banker.  He was actually a high school teacher by day, working at the bank in the evenings.  His advice to us was to lock in the mortgage because, after all, how could rates go any lower?  (If you're smiling right now, you know where I'm headed.)  Well, rates did go lower.

Now, as my wife and I are planning our financial future, one source of information we will no longer use is our bank.  I have no relationship with anyone at the bank that I can trust.  I have nobody that I can go to who knows me well enough to advise me.  Each bank looks pretty much the same to me right now.  I feel no loyalty to the one I'm using.  This means it would be pretty easy for another bank to take my business by offering me a better rate.

But hey, my bank still has a good CRM system.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Experienced, Responsible, Reliable, BORING

In a blog post about hiring leaders, Wayne Floyd asks, "How would you describe the most important skills or qualifications that you bring to the position of leadership?"  He then gives the standard list:  "experienced, responsible, reliable, organized, competent, skilled, likeable, supportive, flexible, collaborative, knowledgeable, proficient person to …."

He goes on to challenge the standard list, saying that we should think carefully about what we need and use the right words to attract the right kind of leader.  He is looking for church leaders at a time when most mainline churches are in decline, so here's his want ad:

Wanted: A compulsive networker and incorrigibly hopeful futurist and wooer of the straying, a lifehacker full of tips and tricks for getting things done among people who often seem to have given up already, a visual storyteller and verbal artist — strategy orchestrator, textologist, and Experience Engineer, to serve as ….


Now, I know that when you hire an accountant, reliability and responsibility figure high on the list, but I wonder whether we need to crib some of the qualities from the list above and add them to our tool box.  We accountants need to be good communicators if we are going to get our message across.  We have to be nimble and able to package what we say into 10 second sound bytes.  We are often the bearers of bad news, so maybe a hopeful attitude and a capacity for getting things done would also be useful.

What life skills would you add to the list of requirements for the modern accountant?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Putting the Customer First - Really!

You, the software vendor, are making your pitch.  It breaks down into three sections:

  1. Microsoft has amazing software,
  2. You are an amazing Microsoft representative, and
  3. Here's how you would address my needs.
It's very logical, isn't it?  The problem is that every vendor I see has the same pitch.  It's like Microsoft has pre-packaged the sales presentation (actually, Microsoft does do that, but that's a story for another day).  Another problem is that my eyes have glazed over by the time you get to the good stuff.

Really.  I'm stifling yawns by the end of the first section.  You see, I can predict what you're going to present, so I lose interest.  There's no way you're going to say that Microsoft is anything other than perfect or that anybody might have a better team than yours.

What if we turned the whole presentation around?  What if the presentation started with my problems?  What if instead of filling the screen with the logos of the other companies that use the software, it was filled with diagrams showing what I need?  You'd have my attention.

Really.  I'd be on the edge of my seat.

Then, once you've got my attention by showing me that you understand me, what if the salesperson stands back and lets the team speak?  That would show me that you have confidence in the people who are going to do the work.  YES, let the techie speak!  Coach him/her before hand.  Tell them it's OK to be nervous, but let them say something like, "I spoke to your technical staff about your current hardware.  We think you can continue to use your existing workstations and network.  All that will be required is a separate server for the Microsoft system."  Then, your implementation manager could give me a run down of a sample implementation for a company my size.  I would get a chance to assess the chemistry between my staff and yours.

After that, I'd be all questions.  Have you done this kind of implementation before?  Who are your other clients?  Can the Microsoft system handle my requirements?  You could then do the rest of your presentation, and get through all of your material without a single yawn from me.

Really!

Energized Accounting Graduate

This posting appeared in craigslist: http://toronto.en.craigslist.ca/tor/res/1424093814.html

Hard Working Energized Accounting Graduate seeking employment (all of GTA)

I just want to say that while I am actively encouraging energized accounting, I haven't actually graduated anyone in this field. It is, however, wonderful to see others using the term Energized when describing accounting!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

2 > 2 X 1 (Accounting Can Be Lonely)


Accounting can be lonely.  So much of what we do is by ourselves.  I was at a the finance committee meeting of a charity last week.  We were discussing how much money the charity needs to have on hand as a contingency fund.  We decided that three month's worth of expenses was a realistic, practical amount.  After the discussion, the Treasurer thanked us.  He said he and the other management staff had wrestled with the question, but he felt better having the chance to work with other accountants.

I have to agree.  Having another professional accountant to challenge your thinking and check your work is invaluable.  The work of two together is worth more than the two individuals.  Sometimes you get that kind of discussion with your auditor, but I find a peer's advice so much more practical and useful.  It also helps that I'm usually not paying my peer by the hour!

Earlier this week I attended a meeting of an industry group.  They bring together representatives from the various organizations in our industry.  This, too, gives me a chance to check in with my peers.  I can stay up to date with them, check our performance against theirs, find out what issues they face and what opportunities there are to work together.

So, this is just a little reminder:  if you're feeling alone in your work, consider volunteering on the finance committee of a charity or getting involved in your industry association.  You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Cover Letter Blues

Reading all the resumes was depressing.  We're hiring a new manager and I was going through a stack of them with the human resources consultant.  The resumes looked remarkably similar and there wasn't a decent cover letter in the pile.  "We should have required applicants to have good communication skills," I joked to the consultant.  "We did," he replied.

Here's the way I see it.  My resume is all about me.  Me me me.  My cover letter needs to be about the employer.  You you you.  Here's my advice to anyone applying for a job:

  1. Go through the ad in detail.  Take all the requirements seriously.  Think about how your background fits with the job.  
  2. If this job is important to you, do some more digging.  Look for the challenges faced by the employer.  Look for things that aren't in the job ad.  Is the industry cyclical or in decline?  Are they threatened by foreign competitors?  Are they having to deal with explosive growth?  Check out the company's web site as well as any news articles that mentioned them.
  3. Pick the top three challenges and do a SHORT paragraph for each.  The opening sentence should start like this:  "You are looking for someone with solid industry experience who can lead the team."  You can then tie their requirement to the skills and experience outlined in your resume.  By the way, if the evidence you want to use is not in your resume, then update it.  There is no rule that says you have to use the same resume at each company.
  4. That is the meat of your letter.  Next you need an opening.  The opening is important because it needs to grab the attention of the reader.  Show them that's it's worth their time to read the rest of the letter.  Since so few people seem to do this, I would use the opening to show that I understand the challenges this company faces.
  5. Finally, your closing should be a call to action and a polite ending of the letter.
Remember, if you are applying for a management position, communications is part of the job, even if it isn't in the job ad. You need to show that you can analyze a situation, convey your thoughts briefly and clearly, make a persuasive case and be sensitive to the needs of others.

Oh, and please spell the name of the company correctly!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Accountants Care

Karen was the accountant for a client of mine. She had twenty years of experience, starting as the receptionist and working her way up to become an indispensable part of the team. She was quiet and dependable, keeping the invoicing and payroll systems going through changes in legislation, system problems and people’s comings and goings. That is, unless you were trying to get away with anything. If a salesperson tried to get some of next month’s sales recorded in this month for bonus purposes, she had a way of making a grown man feel like a little boy caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. I don’t think she ever put the company before her children and husband, but it came a close second.

Accountants care about where they work. In my experience, they take their jobs personally. If anything goes wrong with the company, they feel it, even if it is something completely out of their control. At the same time, they are the company’s conscience, asking the difficult questions about why the budget was not met or why so much money was spent. In good times, accountants are invisible. In bad times, nobody wants to talk to us.

Last week, I attended a meeting with 15 volunteer treasurers from local churches. It was a three-hour meeting about such things as whether people paid by the church (e.g. musicians, choir directors, replacement ministers, etc.) should be treated as employees or contractors for income tax purposes. We also discussed reporting requirements for charities, budgeting, the disposal of church property and other technical matters. The treasurers then had the responsibility of going back to their churches, implementing any necessary changes and explaining the results to their boards.

As I looked around the table, I saw a lot of caring people. I remembered when my mother was elected treasurer of a volunteer group. The requirements were much simpler back then, but I remember her and my father, who actually had a business degree, spending a week of evenings wading through the mess of what had been done previously. We don’t thank volunteers like these nearly enough.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Accounting's Patron Saint

Here's the official patron saint of accounting, Saint Matthew:

"The patron saint of accountants, bankers, bookkeepers, security guards and tax collectors is Saint Matthew of Apostle fame, and he also was the author of one of the Gospels. Before becoming an Apostle, however, he started out as a Jewish tax collector at Capernaum. Little is known about him, outside the seven references he has in the Gospels. In medieval art, Saint Matthew is represented under the symbol of a winged man, carrying in his hand a lance as a characteristic emblem - his artistic calling card if you will. He is one of the originals in the pantheon of patron saints."

Okay, that's the official line. My nominee for the patron saint of accounting would be Cassandra from ancient Greek mythology (and not just because she's both smart and beautiful). She was the one who was condemned by Apollo to be able to see the future but have nobody believe her. She warned Paris that he was courting disaster when he went after Helen. She later warned the Trojans about the Greeks' horse statue, but do you think anyone listened?

Honestly, do you sometimes feel that way? I thought so.

I was accused of exceeding my mandate the other day because I recommended a strategic course of action. According to this person, my role as accountant is only to give the financial picture. I am supposed to tell people what the cost consequences of their decisions are, but not recommend a course of action. Now, I want to make it clear that this person is not my boss, nor did he represent a majority. Still, do you think he was right?

As accountants, are we just supposed to analyze the situation and nothing more? Do we destroy our objectivity or independence if we make specific recommendations? If you see a solution to a financial problem, should you wait for others to fix it or should you step in boldly and argue for your vision? Or are we condemned, like Cassandra, not to be believed?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The More Things Change . . .

My son is in the throws of selecting a university (no, he has no intention of studying accounting!)We are doing the usual rounds of visits to campuses, going to the university fair and my son is attending the events sponsored by the colleges at his school. This morning he was chuckling at the lame marketing slogans employed by the universities.


"'Discover the unexpected,' like, what's that supposed to mean?" he said to me on the subway this morning.

"You're not impressed with their marketing?"

"My generation learned about advertising when the Batman figure we bought at age six didn't work like the TV commercial."

"So you're not impressed by the free pens or mousepads?"

"Nope."

"Okay, so what should the universities use to attract teenagers to their displays?"

"Donuts."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

This Accounting Life

Late last night I was driving home from work, yeah I know it was Saturday - it's budget time, enough said - and I passed by a building where I used to work. There was a light on in one room and I realized it was my old office. Now, I have no way of knowing whether that's still the Controller's office or not, but I felt a stab of pity/empathy for a fellow sufferer. I pictured him / her sweating over the gap between revenues and expenses just as I had been doing.

Did we sign up for this? When you went to accounting school, did anyone stand at the front of the class and ask you why the hell you were choosing a life where you would be working late nights and weekends to meet this or that corporate / government / bureaucratic deadline? And they just keep coming. It isn't just year end. It's also month / quarter / budget / government form / system change / retroactively applying some new accounting pronouncement etc. etc. time. And then someone says they need a quick report / analysis / answer to an important question. Frankly, often that person is me. I stare at the numbers and something doesn't make sense, so I'm off on a hunt to find out what REALLY happened.

I know, I know. I shouldn't complain. Accounting has been a good career for me. It allowed me to move between companies and across industries when times were hard. I have been involved in challenging projects and meet some very caring people. But neither of my children has any interest in becoming an accountant. "You work too hard," my son told me. I just smiled. I'll let him figure that one out for himself.

So, what sparked this little diatribe? In yesterday's paper there was an essay about Kevin Page, "The Man Who Knows Too Much". He is the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office and his projections of the cost of the budget disagree with the government's. Surprise, surprise. He seems to think that the government's projections are too rosy and now he is being accused of violating his legislative mandate.

He sees the Parliamentary Budget Office, which has been in operation for a year and a half, as the Canadian equivalent of Washington's Congressional Budget Office, the powerful independent agency that, among its other duties, costs proposed legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The key word is "independent". Yesterday I was looking at a proposal that called for "independent legal advice". It occurred to me that that is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as independent legal advice because lawyers are paid to be advocates. Lawyers professionally represent their client's point of view. Accountants are the ones who crave independence and objectivity. The numbers need to stay the same regardless of who is using them. It shouldn't matter whether you are the government or the Parliamentary Budget Office, there is only one projected cost. Sure, you can attack the accountant's assumptions and methods, but you can bet (s)he was there past midnight making sure the numbers were right.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

What Should They Teach Professional Accountants?

Where I live, in order to become a Chartered Accountant (the Canadian equivalent of a CPA), you need the following:

Courses Hours

Financial accounting 15
(introductory, intermediate and advanced)

Cost & management accounting 6

Advanced accounting elective 3

Auditing 9

Taxation 6

Business information systems 3

Finance/financial management 3

Economics 3

Law 3

Total credit hours 51


What do you think? Is the above enough? What skills seem to be lacking in the young accountants work with?

Here's my wish list:

Communications - how to explain financial information to non financial people, how to present clearly, making a clear case for action, how to organize the lines on a financial statement, how to analyze data so that the analysis leads to a clear course of action.

Working With Data - how to select, filter, sort and present data. How to build a spreadsheet model. How to use a report generator.

Project Accounting - I don't know why we teach cost accounting but not project accounting. Most of my clients have had some form of project work.

Business Ethics - These days, I think that is self-explanatory. If you don't start when you are a student, when will you have time for this subject?

Additional Topics Statistics, Interest calculations (discounting, annuities, mortgages) and risk management (including insurance).

What would you add?

The Worst of Both Worlds

Small companies are nimble and respond quickly to their customers' needs. Big companies can take on large projects and provide a wide range of products. But what happens when a big company downsizes to become a small company? Does it regain its nimbleness or does it end up as the worst of both worlds?

Having been through several downsizings, I have to say that it's a little like lovers trying to go back to being "just good friends". It's not impossible, but it takes a complete change of mindset.

It isn't enough to look at the budget constraints and downsize until the gap between revenues and expenses has been closed. You have to have a new vision for the resulting company and ensure that you have the right team in place to carry out that vision. Although it involves a lot of pain for everyone involved, the right long term answer might be to cut deeper than you have to in order to give yourself room to bring on the new people you need to move ahead.

As we move forward into uncertain economic times, the possibility of increasing inflation and taxes, accountants will be called upon to raise difficult questions of corporate sustainability. Courage!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Travel Heavy

Yes, yes, I know. ALL of the travel tips tell you to travel light. Pack one bag. Make it small enough to be carry on. That way you can take your laptop and your suitcase on the plane with you. They don't get lost. You don't have to wait to get your luggage at your destination. You can just waltz through to get to the front of the taxi / rental car line.

I used to be like that too. That system works well for the occasional over night or short trip, but when I was spending months commuting on the first plane out Monday morning and returning on the last flight Friday night, traveling light lost its lustre. I don't like eating alone. I don't like watching TV. I wanted to feel like I was accomplishing more than just logging another 40 hours on my client's account. I wanted to do something for me while I was away.

If you feel that way, then try taking a little of your personal life with you on your journey. In my case, it was my trumpet. Wait, before you freak at the thought that the guy in the hotel room next to yours might suddenly start wailing away in the middle of the night, I was using Yamaha's Silent Brass system, which completely deadens the sound and lets you hear yourself through earphones. In all my years of traveling, I never got any calls about noise. So yes, I packed my trumpet in my suitcase and found some sanity in my crazy life as a road warrior.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Boomers are Coming - Part 2

With the pending retirement of the Baby boom generation, we are about to lose a lot of hard won experience. Many of the Boomers are retiring early. They have the money they need. Why stay in the daily grind if you don't need to? But let's not write them off too quickly. We need to find ways to use their knowledge to help the next generation.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I was in a meeting with some bright young web developers. They were struggling with a client's requirements. Their problem was that a limitation in their web tools was forcing them to do a lot of customization for the client, customization that the client didn't want to pay for. Of course, the original deadline for the project had passed. There was a lot of tension in the room. The team lead wanted to scrap the work already done and go with a new tool. Recognizing that they shared some responsibility for the project, he was recommending that the costs of going back to square one be shared equally with the client. It was turning into a lose/lose situation.

Someone with years of development experience would recognize that this situation was actually normal. The software tool looks like a good fit during the initial phases of the project, but when you find out more about the client's needs and how the software works, inevitably you find some requirements that don't fit. Faced with this dilemma, a normal human reaction is to look to the newest software thinking that it will fix the problem. The risk is that the new system will have other areas where it won't meet the client requirements.

A seasoned project manager might make these recommendations:

  1. Talk to the current web tools developer - is this a known issue? Are they already working on it? Are there known work arounds?
  2. Talk to the client - is this issue major or minor for them? Are they willing to defer this requirement? Can they change their processes to do this work another way?
You will notice that the project manager does not have to be a whiz with this software in order to make these recommendations. All (s)he needs is experience.

Let's not let the experience of a whole generation go to waste. If you know a seasoned executive who is retiring, do your best to connect them with someone young. Too many of us go through our careers without a mentor and that's a shame.

The Boomers are Coming - Part 1

Modern day Paul Reveres are shouting, "The Boomers are coming!" from every digital rooftop. Magazines proclaim the changes to healthcare, investments, retirement homes etc. etc. that will accompany the retirement of the Baby boom generation. While there is a lot of hype surrounding this issue, there is a real opportunity for the accounting profession we need to address.

Have you tried to find a volunteer treasurer for a charity recently? Maybe they are plentiful in your area, but in mine they are scarce. Need someone to do a volunteer audit? They're even harder to find. Unfortunately, the situation is getting worse. Increasing professional liability insurance premiums combined with more stringent regulations make it more difficult to be a non-profit auditor.

We, the members of the accounting profession, need to put our heads together and come up with a way for retired professional accountants to volunteer their services to charities.

Good For Accountants

Many retired people are looking for work that is inspirational. They want to use their skills to make a change in the world. What better way than to find a charity in an area that is meaningful, using the skills developed over a lifetime?

Good for Charities

Time was when having a seat on a volunteer Board or giving a significant amount of time to a charity was an accepted use of an executive / professional's time. Currently there just seems to be less time for additional activities during the work day. Family time in two career households can be similarly squeezed. Charities need the time, skills and experienced that retired volunteers can bring.

Changing the Profession

What can we do to make it easier for retired accountants to:
* Stay current on professional development?
* Maintain an appropriate level of Errors & Omissions insurance?
* Keep their license to practice?

Could we establish a limited license that would allow the accountant to perform audits on a voluntary basis only, providing a certain level of professional development and peer review was maintained? Could professional practice firms set up a way for retired members to contribute their skills to charity?

What do you think we should do? Please put your ideas in the comments.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Do Accountants Make Better Lovers?

An article in the Life section of the Globe and Mail caught my eye this week: "When love hurts you know it's good - It should be a raging inferno, not a firelight glow . . . if it doesn't cause you pain . . . it's not worth it." The paper was quoting Cristina Nehring's book, A Vindication of Love.

OK - if I were to write a book, I know that the title "Fatal Attraction" would sell way more copies than "Wedded Bliss", but if you ask men and women who have actually lived through a fatal attraction, I'm willing to bet that most of them would have gladly traded for wedded bliss.

Reading the article made me think of Jim and Joanne (not their real names). Jim is a retired senior partner in an international accounting firm. He also volunteered in the community and played a leadership role in the finances of his church. He and Joanne have been married close to fifty years. I'm sure that those years were filled with the ups and downs of any marriage, but when I see the two of them working in their garden or walking around the neighbourhood, I can't think of a happier couple. Their children are both happily married as well. I think Jim and Joanne found something special, which was NOT a raging inferno.

It is no accident that raging infernos tend to burn themselves out rather than gently fading into wedded bliss. There is solid research on brain chemistry that backs it up. Cupid's Poisoned Arrow by author Marnia Robinson shows the link between intense love making and addiction, based on the body's built in reward system. In a nutshell, an intense love (i.e. raging inferno) can create an intense internal contradiction. The lover desires their mate, but at the same time, their brain chemistry leads them to feel satiated. Instead of progressing to more intense feelings, it often leads the person to push their lover away. If both partners are feeling this kind of on-again, off-again pressure, then the relationship turns stormy.

In a nutshell, humans are actually wired for two very different types of love: the love between two mates and the love between a parent and child. The first kind of love manifests through the neurotransmitter dopamine (which is also present in other infernos, such as drug addiction). Parental love is expressed by the neurotransmitter oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone". If a relationship is to last a long time, the gentle intimacy of an oxytocin based relationship is a better base than the stormy dopamine high.

So, if you were to give me the choice between the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton or Jim/Joanne kind of loves, I'd have to opt for the accountant.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Where is the Blog Going?

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting as much lately. It's easy to dismiss not writing by talking about how busy I am. I don't travel as much any more, so I don't have that airport waiting room time to compose blog posts. I'm no longer a consultant, so I don't have the varied clients to provide blog fodder.

All those are true, but they don't explain the reason.

This morning I came across the blog of "The Bunny Suit Girl". One of her posts seemed particularly applicable to my situation:

Bitterness at work and blog entries
they really seem to be directly proportional
When I was unhappy at work
I had so much to blog about
Now I'm relatively happy
I barely write a line
No wonder,all those famous poets in Ancient China
most of them had very unhappy career
I am happy with my current position. Before taking it I hadn't realized how important it is to me to work for an organization that is making the world a better place.

I mentioned before that I will be spending more blog time on not for profit issues. I also plan to turn this blog into more of a column than just accounting software advice.

I would also like to find topics that spur others to add their comments. One thing that has surprised me over the past year is the lack of comments. At first, I took it personally, until I noticed that most accounting bloggers get few comments. So rather than thinking of this as an accounting blog, please consider it as a blog by an accountant and throw in your $0.02!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Action, Approval, Information - Which is it?

"Bill, I'm not sure what you're asking the committee to do with the material you sent out for the meeting." The man on the phone was the committee Chair and he wanted to be sure he understood what was being asked of him before going into the meeting.

That was my mistake. As the resource person supporting the work of the committee, my job is to organize the material so that its purpose is crystal clear. For example, there are only three things you can ask of a Board or Committee:

  • Action - You're asking them to do something
  • Approval - You need their approval in order to move something forward
  • Information - You are reporting back to them
If the Chair is clear on what is being asked of the Committee, (s)he can set the right tone for the discussion. If the supporting written material is already organized so that it flows towards a clear objective, less time will be wasted. With clarity of purpose and well organized supporting material, the work of the Committee can be done quickly and effectively.

It's when there is no clear purpose that Committees often flounder and meetings become protracted. Members end up trying to second guess the intent of the material before them or worse, re-write it completely. When that happens, when you look around the room and see a lot of tired faces, the best thing is to refer the work back to where it came from with instructions to re-draft it.

By this I do not mean to imply that Committees should be manipulated into one specific direction. If the intent of the work before them is clear, it is also easier to reject it or send it back for more work. My personal experience with Committees is that they respect a well reasoned argument and will put a lot of energy into reviewing it if the information is brief and well presented. They will usually come up with comments that I had not considered, so that the end result is better than it would have been had I been working alone.

Which brings me to the topic of brevity. Churchill famously insisted that all briefs be reduced to a single page, but your Board / Committee probably wants a little more background than that. Readable writing is more important than just the length, although if a brief is perceived as being too long you run the risk of your Committee not reading it at all. If writing is not one of your strengths, by all means delegate! There are lots of freelance editors who will help you structure your thoughts. Here are some tips:
  • Use bullet points - they break up the monotony of the text and make it easy to find the important parts of your argument,
  • Use sub-headings - they organize your work -- try reading just the sub-headings, they should give you a feel for the whole document
  • Keep your sentences short - avoid compound, complex sentences
  • Avoid the passive voice - keep your prose active
What has your Board experience been like, whether from the staff viewpoint or the Board member's? Please join the discussion and leave a comment.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Lock 'em Up and Throw Away the Key

Today's Globe and Mail newspaper had an article about a woman who clearly needed to be taught a lesson that would serve as a deterrent to others:

Bela Kosoian, a 38-year-old mother of two, says when she didn't hold the handrail [on the transit escalator] Wednesday, she was cuffed, dragged into a small holding cell and fined.

Okay, if the police are going to arrest people for that kind of violation, I have a few other transgressions that deserve their attention.
  1. Accountants who cram too many columns of numbers onto one page. You know the ones I mean. They put the monthly actual, budget, last year month, budget variance, and last year month variance on the left side of the report, then the year to date actual, budget, last year, budget variance, last year variance and full year budget on the right side, making the font so small you need an electron microscope to see the numbers let alone make sense of them. Book 'em Danno.
  2. Blaming the new system. The new computer has been blamed so many times for so many things, that I'm not buying that excuse any more. If you can't get your computer system to work, send me a manual payment. I'm not that picky, really.
  3. Balanced with a difference. As Yoda says, "Balanced you are or unbalanced you are. There is no balanced with a difference." Take away their bookkeeping license!
  4. Oh, I forgot to give you this last receipt. Everyone who prepares personal tax returns knows this miscreant, the person who lets you do all your work on their return only to come to you at the last minute with a piece of paper to add to the shoebox of forms they already dumped on you. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?
  5. I just want to push a button and . . . This one's personal. I hate it when people oversimplify their reporting needs and assume that the system is designed to give them exactly what they need at the proverbial push of a button. We recommend the maximum penalty the law allows your honor.
  6. It's immaterial. Auditors can say, "It's immaterial" all they like. That's music to my ears because it means I can stop working on that issue. But when anyone else hides behind materiality, they should be cuffed and jailed. If it isn't right, it's wrong. Off with their heads!
  7. Blame the budget. If an expense is over budget or a revenue doesn't come in as planned, it's pointless to say the budget was wrong. You had your chance at budget time. Now it's "fixing the problem" time, so get out there and do it!
  8. Put down the client. If a client complains, you should get down on your knees and thank them for the opportunity to serve them better. Most clients don't complain. They just take their business elsewhere. Officer, arrest this accountant!
  9. Incomprehensible gobbledygook. Arguably, communication is half of the job of an accountant. Financial analysts who fill their reports with talk of accruals and negative variances being partially offset by timing differences deserve to be led off in chains.
  10. Excel sins. They should reopen Alcatraz for people who:
  • Override the formula in a long column of calculations,
  • Change standard templates, such as budget or expense forms,
  • Type in the totals instead of calculating them,
  • Insert blank lines and columns into a table - you can make it readable without making it unsortable,
  • Allow different, incompatible versions of a spreadsheet float around,
  • Type numbers into cells without leaving any trail for others to follow, and
  • Forget to round their formula results so that their totals don't add.
What other indictable crimes do you know? Please use the comments below so I can pass them onto the authorities. They clearly have the time!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Who Says Accountants Aren't Cutting Edge?

Recently, I have been twittering under the name AccountingWEB as we build the readership to that web site. I have found over 1,000 professional accountants on Twitter, arguably the most cutting edge of the new social networking tools. You guys rock!

If you don't know Twitter, it's a messaging (they call it "micro blogging") web site that allows you to post messages of up to 140 characters. You can then "follow" others, meaning that their messages will appear in your account. My friends who don't know Twitter directly tease me that Twitter is about people saying what they had for breakfast. That's true. There are some people who talk about the little things in their lives, but you don't have to follow them. You can follow people who write about technical issues (e.g. tax and regulatory changes), people who are funny, people who are political, etc. If you like to hear about the ways the Big 4 auditing firms are shooting themselves in the foot, may I recommend ReTheAuditors? Francine is funny to read.

To people who say Twitter is a big waste of time, I say, it sure can be! Just like gathering around the coffee pot, you can spend as little or as much time there as you want. When you're new to it, you tend to spend more time, but then you get comfortable with following a certain group of people and you get into a rhythm of what you want to post and suddenly, it doesn't take up so much time.

Try it, you'll like it! And if you want to follow me, try http://twitter.com/energized or http://twitter.com/AccountingWEB

This morning's breakfast: peanut butter bagel and banana.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Don't Shoot The Accountant . . .

. . . he's doing his best.

Yesterday, David Kellermann, the newly appointed CFO of mortgage giant Freddie Mac committed suicide according to The Globe and Mail newspaper. This was an avoidable tragedy, one which we accountants need to learn from.

Some facts from the article:

  • The Federal Housing Finance Agency described him as "a person of the utmost ethical standards who was hardworking and knowledgeable in his field"
  • With Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac is responsible for about $6-trillion in mortgages, many of which are currently in default
  • Kellermann was one of the executives reviled because he was to receive a "bonus" of $850,000 over 16 months for his dedication and hard work pulling the company through this difficult time
  • Reporters and camera crews appeared at his home, making him fear for his family and property
  • He began working non-stop, sometimes returning home only to change clothes
  • He told a friend that no matter what he did, someone was always angry at him
I can see so many of my accounting friends in this picture, people who quietly put in the long hours to get the books right, people who shun the limelight, but are deeply committed and loyal to the company they serve. People who deserve support, but who are routinely overlooked because they are quiet and taken for granted.

When a company founders, the accountant is often put into an impossible situation, responding to critics and keeping the administration going despite layoffs and other crises. David had nothing to do with the bad lending decisions made by his employer. All he did was keep the books. Yet here he is, a victim of the sins of others.

If the world is caving in on you, talk to someone. Start with your partner, spouse, parent or best friend, but get it all out. Let someone see the impossible situation you're in and let them help you see where your responsibilities lie. You can't take on the whole problem yourself.

We are all poorer for the loss of this fine person.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

R-E-S-P-E-C-T - IFRS for Nonprofits

What might make some private companies or non-profit organizations in the United States adopt IFRS?
The eventual adoption of IFRS by small businesses and not-for-profit organizations is likely to be market driven. The IASB is developing a version of IFRS for small and medium-size entities that would minimize complexity and reduce the cost of financial statement preparation, yet allow users of those entities’ financial statements to assess financial position, cash flows, and performance.

That's the AICPA's position on the adoption by non-profit organizations of IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards). We have the same issue here in Canada. The CICA (Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants) is asking for input from charities. A number of church accountants convened recently in Toronto to consider the matter. We were unanimous: we like the current fund and deferral methods of accounting.

As it was explained to us, comparability is the goal of IFRS: every organization's financial statements need to be prepared on the same basis as every other organization. There is no provision for non-profits. There is no recognition that a non-profit is a fundamentally different kind of organization.

Fundamentally Different

When you buy a widget from ABC Company, you don't care what they do with the money you gave them. They could put it towards research, pay it out as a commission, dividend it to the owners, whatever. You don't care.

But when someone gives a dollar to a charity, they care where it is spent. They want to know which program it goes to, how much is used in administration and whether part of it has been saved as endowment capital. That's how fund accounting developed. A fund is like that jar in your kitchen you put a little of your pay into every week to save for a vacation. Funds are intuitive and simple. They keep the money sorted by the purpose it was intended for.

Another example: assets and liabilities are currently required to be valued at market value. Interest free loans are very common in charities. Discounting them using some arbitrary rate doesn't make sense in the non-profit world. The lender isn't looking for a monetary return on the loan. They want to support the cause. Charities end up having to set up complicated transactions in order for the "right" accounting result to be achieved under new rules. The donor's / lender's wishes have no effect.

The IFRS people really needed to get to know us before they threw us out with the bathwater! The overriding principles of non-profit accounting are stewardship and integrity: how well the non-profit looked after the resources put at its disposal and how well it fulfilled the funders' instructions. As the professional accountant was ending his IFRS explanation an image flashed into my mind. It was of a married couple sitting down with the financial statements of the Anglican (Episcopal) and United Churches and using financial analysis to decide which one to attend. I couldn't help but laugh.

All we want is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Accounting Idol

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the last show of Accounting Idol. We started with 50 eager bean counters and now it's down to the final three. Tonight one, two or all three of you will be eliminated. Who will it be?

You thought that the final test was going to be easy, didn't you? All you had to do was represent the auditors at the annual general meeting of the shareholders. What you didn't know was that the company, your client, would be Enwrong, the most greedy, dishonest, uncaring corporation in North America.

Brad, please step forward. Brad, we have watched you struggle to become a person of the people. You changed your clothes, your hair, the music you listen to. You took communications courses. You studied popular psychology. You read self-help books. You did everything you could to be sympathetic, to be liked. Was that a tear we saw as you reported to the shareholders? But. And it's a big but. The people in that meeting didn't want a friend. They wanted blood. You didn't win them over, Brad, not even close. They mistook your offer of friendship for weakness. You lost your balance, Brad and now it's time for you to leave.

Wanda, please step forward. Wanda, you have the image. You are every inch the corporate accountant, from your conservative heels to your power suit to the steely look in your eyes. You have statistics at your finger tips. All the power brokers are in your Blackberry speed dial list. You can justify every decision. You have avoided any and all responsibility. But you forgot something. You can't find the truth by reading corporate press releases. You are the accountant, not the apologist. Just because the corporation pays your bill doesn't mean that you have to parrot the party line. Take your golden parachute and go.

Bob, you look like you slept in your suit. Your style is bland. You are gaining weight and losing hair. To be blunt, Bob, you don't have a commanding presence. But when you speak, Bob, you tell it like it is. You don't embellish, editorialize or emote. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there is only one set of facts. Your language is plain and simple. You faced the music, Bob. You didn't duck and dodge the questions. You gave them what they needed to hear, the truth. That's what the people want from their accountants. Congratulations, you are this year's Accounting Idol!

[Wild applause. Zoom out. Roll credits. Fade to black. Go to commercial.]

New Newsletter for Charities

Deloitte has just started a new newsletter called "A State of Change" for Canadian charities and not for profit organizations. Its goal:


With the rapid change in accounting standards, rules and regulations over the past few years and the anticipated changes in the upcoming years, this newsletter is being issued to provide information to assist you in understanding the impact that these changes will have on your organization.


The first issue is filled with changes to accounting and Canada Revenue Agency rules, which is a good thing. I applaud any effort to disseminate these changes in a readable and logical way. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse, but with the constantly changing rules and the nature of volunteer run organizations, it often is the reality.

Thank you, Deloitte!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Why Aren't You Using My Software?

The picture on the screen was your average warehouse, but it wasn't your typical Microsoft corporate shot, i.e. it wasn't a perfect company with gleaming boxes on pristine shelves, where you'd swear you could eat off the floor. This one looked real. It was even a little -- dare I say it? -- messy. The Navision (Microsoft Dynamics NAV) developer from Copenhagen explained that this was a company they had used for research. The company had about $10 million dollars worth of inventory and already used Navision, but they weren't using the inventory features. That was why the developers were there. They wanted to see for themselves. They wanted to talk to real people in a real company and find out how they could make the software easier to use.

Sometimes it isn't enough to ask people what they want. They can tell you what they don't like, but they often have trouble telling you how to fix it. Then you have to be sure that the fix for one person doesn't cause problems for someone else. In this case, the reason the company wasn't using Inventory was that they found it too complicated and cumbersome. There were too many features they would never use. Theirs was just a simple business.

That's how the role tailored client was born in NAV2009. Every person has their own role to play. Each person needs access to different features. Jumping around between menus just wastes time and makes the system look complicated. The lay out of the options should tell their order. People should be able to tell at a glance how many transactions they have waiting for them so they can decide what to do next. If something isn't being used, it should be taken off the window. Even if you are filling in for someone else, it should be clear what needs to be done.

Sometimes important steps are taken without any technological wizardry. Sometimes all it takes is a watchful eye and a curious mind.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

How to Connect at a Convention

At 7,000 attendees, Microsoft Convergence was the biggest convention I have ever gone to. With that many people, connecting to the ones who are important to you becomes a challenge. The people going to Convergence are from different parts of the country, different industries and use different versions of Microsoft Dynamics. Just finding someone to have lunch with is a planning exercise. This picture is what I saw coming in for breakfast on the first day. Note that the tables are numbered. That helps you call someone on their cell phone to say where you are.

Microsoft works hard to help people connect. From the moment you register, you can set up a personal profile in the Convergence Connect web site. The web site also allows you to set up meetings at the conference in an area set aside for that purpose. For example, someone invited all CFO's using Dynamics NAV to a meeting. Even though we were in industries ranging from a zinc parts manufacturer to a church, we found we had a lot in common and decided to meet again after the conference.

Microsoft also plans for chance encounters. Here is a picture of my conference badge. You can tell which software I use (Microsoft Dynamics NAV), which industry I'm in (Non-Profit) and which user group I belong to (NAVUG) because there were bins where I could pick up the buttons. On the last day of the conference, someone with another faith based organization saw my Non-Profit button and said she had been looking all over for someone to talk to about the software choice they were about to make. We talked for about half an hour about NAV and also agreed to contact each other after the convention.

Other features: on the back of the badge is a pouch with a miniature schedule, which helps you know where to be when. People also used it to store their business cards. It wouldn't be Microsoft if it weren't computerized. The plastic name badge contained a chip with my information in it. All a trade show vendor or the people at the doors of the sessions had to do was point a reader at the card to record my information. I didn't even have to remove the card from the pouch.

Getting conference feedback is difficult. Microsoft computerized the session evaluations, made them short, offered a $5,000 travel voucher as a prize and said they would donate money to a the local Boys and Girls club for every evaluation completed. Still the number of evals completed was a fraction of the total number of sessions attended.

Finally, with that many people, it can be hard to make them all feel welcome. At Convergence, they had information booths as well as a small army of people in red shirts available to answer questions or tell you how to find the room you're searching for.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Is Your A/P Clerk a Knowledge Worker?

Knowledge workers. The hype is everywhere, from Microsoft commercials to Gartner reports. This is the age of the knowledge worker. Just what does that mean? How has the job of the typical Accounts Payable clerk been transformed?

Let's take a little trip back in time to a retail operation I audited early in my career. Their accounts payable department took up one half of a floor in a small office building. The women (yes, they were all women and one of them actually tried to match me up with that nice young single credit manager) had large manual calculators called comptometers on their desks. Every day they would take the invoices received from the retail outlets for products received and check the calculations and the tax. They would then create batches of fifty invoices, attach an adding machine tape and send the stack off to the data entry department to be entered into the computer by another group.

Fast forward twenty years to that same department. There are far fewer accounts payable clerks and the data entry department is long gone. The clerks enter the invoices directly into the computer which does all the calculations so they can just check that the total on the invoice is correct. The system also compares the pricing back to the company's purchase order, another step that used to be handled manually. Have we reached the knowledge worker stage yet? Not quite.

Fast forward to now. There is about the same number of people in accounts payable, but they are handling a lot more transactions because the company has grown. There is no data entry because supplier invoices come into the system automatically via electronic data interchange (EDI). When accounts payable staff sit down at their workstations they see an icon to tell them how many documents are waiting for approval. As they open each document, information about the supplier pops up in a fact window. They can see statistics about the volume of transactions as well as being able to examine past transactions. If they see a large number of returns or problems with documentation, they are in a position to recommend that the supplier relationship be reviewed.

When I asked a Microsoft employee about their view of the typical accounting system user, his response was immediate, "Everyone sees the KPI's" (key performance indicators - i.e. the statistical analysis which measures progress). In this world everyone is a decision maker. Everyone is responsible for their goals. It isn't enough to just show up and put in your eight hours. Everyone is a manager of something.

Is that how you view your accounting staff? The more I think about it, the more I think that is the way to go. Things happen too quickly for all the decision making to climb up the chain of command. Besides, who has the time anyway? You just have to make sure that the internal processes and systems stay in synch. It's pointless to make all kinds of information available to someone who is not in a position to make any decisions. It just clutters the screen. Conversely, it's pointless to make people responsible for outcomes without giving them the information they need.

Does your company employ accounting clerks or knowledge workers? Please leave me a comment.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Passionate Consultant

Tucked away in the middle of the Latin Quarter of New Orleans is a hole in the wall dedicated to music. Not just any music, but jazz as it was played way back when. "Nawlins" is full of songs and this band knows them all. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band loves what it does. The plaster is barely hanging onto the walls. There is no sound system. Most of the people squeezed into the small space have to stand, but nobody cares. It's all about the music. Listening to it, I was struck by how happy it sounded, even when they were playing the blues.

After the show was over, we moved to a bar down the street. Also dedicated to jazz, this bar had polished tables, a stage for the band and a full sound system. But somehow the band just didn't seem to have that same passion for the music. They were all great musicians. The quality was good, but it looked to me like they were just doing their job.

Consulting is like that. At the end of the day, you don't hire a firm, you hire a person or a team. If they have passion for what they do, then they will put in the extra effort to find the best fit between you and your accounting system.

So how can you tell the difference?

Most firms will claim to be passionate about what they do. Usually, it's true. One or more people working there will truly have that extra drive. The question is, will they be on your project?

Here are some tips:

  1. Before you agree to hire the consultants, meet the people who will be on your team. If the team is changed, you need the right to approve the new people.
  2. Ask about experience with your industry / size of firm / geographic location. Make sure it's not just the consulting firm who has that experience, but it's also the team members.
  3. Follow up on customer references. Ask the other customer about how well the team worked as well as the accounting system. Ask them what they would do differently the next time.
  4. Passion is an emotion. Ask the proposed consulting team to describe other jobs they have worked on. Look for clues in their words, voice and body language. Are they enthusiastic? Do they embrace challenges? Is their language clear and direct? Can they talk intelligently about other, similar projects?
One thing: you have a major responsibility too. If you are not passionate about what you do, how can you expect an external consultant to be passionate? If you delay the project, how can you expect the consulting firm to hold the consultants until you are ready? If you are not clear about what you need, how can you expect a successful result?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

If We Could Do It Over

Two manufacturing customers were comparing notes as I sat down at the lunch table at Convergence, the Microsoft customer convention. Customer A was considering Microsoft software and Customer B was close to "going live" (i.e. stopping their old system and using the new one exclusively). In the course of the conversation, Customer B made four major points:

  1. If we had to do it over, we would have more training of our development staff at the start of the project.
  2. The project was a lot more complex than the VAR (the consulting firm that sold them the software) realized.
  3. The VAR refused to admit that they had done anything wrong. They just kept charging time and materials regardless of how many resources they threw at the project.
  4. We stopped letting the VAR run the project.
These are good lessons to consider if you're about to launch into a project, particularly when it involves processes that are as complex and company specific as manufacturing.

More Training

Training is tricky. If you do it all at once, there is a tendency to forget the material or get overloaded. If you do it too late, the customer may already be frustrated by working with a system they don't understand. It's a good idea to leave space between sessions to allow the people time to absorb and hopefully apply the lessons, but training needs should be raised at the regular status meetings to be sure nobody is spinning their wheels. You do have regular status meetings, don't you?

Complex Projects

The concept is simple. You design a product, build it and sell it, right? The deeper you get into a project though, the more complex it becomes. Sometimes, even the customer's managers don't appreciate the complexities. It isn't until someone who actually processes the transactions sees the system that some issues emerge. If the discussion gets to finger pointing, you've lost. People will stop talking and start blaming. This problem has to be stopped before it starts. From the beginning, both sides have to take the position that this is a joint discovery process. The key is constantly checking the assumptions and progress. That's another good use of regular status meetings.

Billing and Milestones

Customer B brought up a nice idea: set up the project as being time and materials, but once the milestones are set, get a firm quote for each one. That spreads the risk between both the customer and the consulting firm. I don't have any experience with that scenario. If you do, please leave a comment.

Whose Project Is It?

Project Management theory is clear on this point. The project is always the customer's responsibility. The customer leads the project. It cannot be effectively delegated to an outside vendor or subcontractor. If you don't have a qualified person on staff, engage an independent project manager. The consulting firm can and should have someone to manage THEIR responsibilities, but that person should not be put in charge of the whole project. They have neither the authority to delegate work to the customer's staff, nor do they understand the full scope of the project.

Resolution

To resolve their issues, Customer B took control of the project and went directly to Microsoft and the developers of the add-on package that handled manufacturing. The project ended up exceeding budget, but they are close to going live and are confident that the software will work for them. Their experience will help them in future projects, particularly if they document it as part of a Lessons Learned session.

Can You Teach Innovation?

Can someone learn how to be innovative? Tom Kelley, the General Manager of IDEO, definitely thinks so. He freely admits that he was skeptical when his firm departed from its history of hiring only engineers and started looking for "soft" skills, like anthropology. Yesterday I attended his session, "Ten Faces of Innovation" as part of the Microsoft Convergence accounting customer conference. I too was skeptical. Too often, sessions like this are full of management metaphor, animal allegory and fluff. This one made me think.

Tom used the examples of Sony and Samsung to demonstrate what it looks like when a hungry competitor starts taking a little slice of your pie. But he quickly moved on to his main point: there is no substitute to directly obsesrving how your customers use your product. Focus groups and surveys, he says, are fine for small innovations, but the big innovations require more work.

Applying the Lesson

What I love about a conference is that you can hear a key note speech on a general topic like innovation and then move to a detailed presentation where you can apply what you just learned. This morning I attended a session on getting the most from your distribution software. Part way through the software demonstration, Philippe Jacobsen, a Program Manager with Microsoft in Copenhagen showed some pictures of an actual warehouse. The pictures were not the type of sanitized, you-could-eat-off-the-floor kind of warehouse you usually see in Microsoft promotional material. In fact the place looked a little cluttered (i.e. like a real warehouse). Philippe paused to say that he had visited this company as part of his research. The company had used the Dynamics NAV system for years, but had never implemented the Distribution features, despite having inventory valued at over $10 million. His question was why. The answer was simple: the distribution features were too complex. They just wanted a simple system.

Keeping It Simple

Designing simplicity into a system is tough. It requires a lot of observation and analysis about how people use your product. Tom used the example of a defibrillator IDEO designed. Here's the picture. In an emergency situation, do you think it would be easy to use?

Microsoft's approach to making replenishment easy to use is to have the documents and screens follow the "simple" route. If you want to use the advanced features, you can drill down at key points in the process and open a window.

The challenge is and always will be to design general purpose software that fits diverse situations. Warehousing and distribution are areas where there is a wide variety of best (and not so good, but firmly entrenched) practices.

What has been your experience?

Downturn for Accountants?

This evening I had dinner with an analyst from IDC who follows accounting technology, specifically Enterprise Applications. He doesn't see a slowing down for sales in this area, as companies are using technology to save money.

This view was borne out by a representative from WennSoft, a developer of job costing software for Microsoft Dynamics. He hasn't seen any slow down in business over the last few weeks.

My suspicion is that companies are completing their current accounting software projects, some of which can take years, but I'm not convinced that there are a lot of people looking to start new projects at this time.

Networking for Geeks

How do you network if you're in a crowd of strangers and you're not particularly good at it anyway? I'm sure that's a question that the organizers of the Microsoft Convergence conference for their accounting system customers thought long and hard about.

I have to hand it to them for being innovative. Not only did they hold the conference in New Orleans, which is still recovering from the effects of hurricane Katrina, but they also asked attendees to volunteer on a Habitat for Humanity project creating houses for people who couldn't otherwise afford one. What better way to get to know someone than to be swinging a hammer right next to them?

The volunteers wheeled sand into place to improve the drainage, as well as framing a new house in a project dedicated to New Orleans musicians.


Microsoft also throws an awesome party. There were Mardi Gras revelers throwing beads, clowns on stilts, dueling pianos, a rock band and all the cajun food you could possibly want. For the more serious minded, a tour of the aquarium was included. Watching the divers feed broccoli to the sting rays was fascinating as well as being a very good use of broccoli!

A software tool developed for the event allows all attendees to create their own profile and arrange meetings with other attendees. Using it, I discovered that one of our customers also uses Dynamics NAV and is interested in talking to other users of the inventory system. I don't think I would have found out that information any other way.

Reaching out to other Dynamics users has been rewarding for me. Comparing notes with someone who has faced the same issues can save a lot of time, not to mention consulting dollars. Microsoft actively supports the user groups AXUG, GPUG, CRMUG and NAVUG.

Turning the Queen Mary

How do you get the attention of the people who developed your accounting system? How do you let them know the new features you would like to see or what you find really frustrating? If you had five minutes alone with the chief programmer, what would you say?

That isn't as impossible as it might seem. It really isn't like turning the Queen Mary. Would it surprise you to know that the development teams are hungry for input from the people who use their system? I'm at the annual Microsoft customer conference for accounting systems, "Convergence". Yesterday I attended the Dynamics NAV (formerly Navision) user group NAVUG meeting. Bill Clough, the Research Manager for Microsoft Dynamics gave a presentation where he announced that Microsoft is starting a research council. They are looking for interested volunteer users and resellers ("Partners") to participate in surveys, roundtable discussions, focus groups and conferences calls.

For me that's the key, by participating in the developer's events, we customers are raising our hands and saying we want to be involved.

Before coming, I asked our users and IT department for any questions. At Convergence, I dropped into the Navision Experts area. There were about 8 people there ready to answer any question about the product, so I sat down with Tom Loyal and went through my list. At the end of our conversation, he encouraged me to go to the feedback booth where I can record my feedback about Navision and/or Microsoft. He said they take that kind of input very seriously. After all, users are spending a lot of time and money to be here.

Every major software vendor has some kind of customer event if they are still in business. If you would like a say in the future of your software, get involved!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

AccountingWeb is now on Twitter

Which new technology should you invest your time in? Which of these self-titled experts and gurus should you follow? My simple approach to these questions has been to try before I buy. Even with free internet tools, it takes a lot of time to get set up and going.

Blogging

My first blog was an experiment for a volunteer group. It did not touch my work or my career, so I was free to experiment. The result was that within a month I felt confident enough to create this blog. With every experiment, the key is to have some way to measure success. In my case, it was Google Analytics. I watched the number of unique visits to my experimental blog go up and up, while the number of visits to my "serious" blog stayed at a disappointing 8 per day (which I figured was just the internet search bots).

Being able to compare the two blogs gave me some hints. The experimental blog showed me that I can write well enough to attract readers. I read the advice blogs from others who had gone before, and I thought that I was covering all the bases. Still, the lack of readers forced me to question my assumptions. After several months I came to the conclusion that my approach was fundamentally wrong. I thought that if I could just build it, they (i.e. readers) would come. The reality is that just having good content is not enough. You really have to promote it.

I searched the web for the words "blog" and "accounting". That's how I found AccountingWeb.com. When I approached them about adding my blog to their web site, they were very enthusiastic. Since then they have been supportive, suggesting topics, promoting my blog and checking in with me if I haven't posted for a while. Rob Nance and his team are good to work with.

Twitter

Meanwhile, a friend told me about Twitter.com. Like blogging, I first set up a personal account and tried it out. I followed a few people and saw how viral it can be. You see someone make an interesting response to a third person, so you follow the link to that third person and perhaps decide to follow them directly. As your network grows, others see you following them. so they in turn follow you.

When I saw articles coming to Twitter via Tweetfeed.com, I realized that I could alert people to my blog entries. Once that was working, I started talking to AccountingWeb about using Twitter for their news items and blog entries. The result is history: you can find AccountingWeb at http://twitter.com/AccountingWeb.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

R U My Mentor?

Wouldn't it be nice to find someone who has seen it all before and is willing to share their experience with you and show you the ropes? Or maybe it would be nice to find someone young and eager to apply their book learning to the real world. Either way, we're talking about the mentor / protege relationship (although in some circles it's called the mentor / mentee relationship). Every professional body on the planet should have a formal mentorship program like the Project Management Institute Southern Ontario chapter.

My Door Is Always Open

How many times have you heard that from someone senior in your company? Even with all the best intentions in the world, the reality is that neither you or your potential mentor probably have that much unstructured time that you can have general discussions about your career. Left to chance meetings, it won't happen.

Just waiting to be noticed, recognized and promoted is a low probability tactic as well. You may well be the only person in your organization who appreciates your potential!

Making the First Move

What if you were a Controller and really admired how the VP of Marketing ran her department. What if you walked into her office when she wasn't busy and said, "You run an excellent department. Your people cover for each other without complaining. They also enjoy working here and with each other. I would like my department to run that way. I'm taking a course in leadership and working on a plan for my department, but I would appreciate practical input from someone who understands what it's like working here. Would you have one hour a week to check in with me about how we're doing?" Who could say no to that?

Here are some things to consider:

  • Ask for a specific amount of time from your mentor (e.g. an hour a week). They are busy, but can probably find an hour a week.
  • Ask for help with something specific and something the mentor does easily. It shouldn't look like you're asking for a lot of their time or effort.
  • Limit the length of the relationship. If the project you want help with is successful, you can always go back and ask about something else afterwards.
  • The mentee sets the agenda. Always go to your mentor with a specific question or discussion point in mind. You don't want to waste the mentor's time.
  • The PMI mentoring program has participants complete a mentoring agreement that specifies what the mentee wants to accomplish as well as when and where the two will meet.
  • Don't be shy - if you don't ask for help, you won't receive it. You might be afraid that asking for help will be viewed as a sign of weakness, but usually the reverse is true. You are respected for realizing your limitations and working to overcome them.
What do mentors get out of the relationship? My experience has been that people are usually delighted to help someone who is sincerely looking to learn from them. It is truly a mutually beneficial relationship.