Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Lifelong Learning

When you see a new version of your accounting software, does it feel like Christmas or April Fool's Day? Is your mood one of happy expectation or is your cynical side just waiting for disappointment?

Here's what I saw in a recent demonstration of a new software version to existing, knowledgeable users: negativity. The conversation was dominated with worries about retraining existing users on the new interface. I'm not saying that the people were wrong to focus on this point. It is a valid planning concern. I'm saying the people were wrong to let that issue dominate. Note it and move on! Accounting packages are complex. Learn as much from the demo as you can.

The guy beside me was more philosophical. "Yes, the new interface is different, but we have the option of implementing the new version with the old interface and converting the users gradually."

To me, lifelong learning does not consist of just taking the odd course or keeping up with your professional development units. It's more a matter of approaching every new experience as an opportunity to learn. You need to treat your knowledge like a plant that will whither unless it is tended to and nourished.

In addtion, knowledge is getting increasingly transient. What was cutting edge two years ago became generally accepted last year and is getting close to obsolete now. In my youth, I was quite the DOS jockey. Now, people don't even know what it stands for (Disk Operating System). As an aside, one of my pivotal career choices was what to specialize in after getting my Chartered Accountant designation. I was torn between tax and computers. I ended up rejecting tax because of how quickly the rules change and become obsolete. Looking back on it, I was lucky: I made the right decision for me, but for the wrong reason.

Here's a little practical advice: there will always be a gap between what the users want and what the software delivers. Don't stress about it. Write it down and strategize. Maybe the expectations can be dampened or delayed a little. Maybe some small changes can be made to the software. Maybe there are some imaginative work arounds for the problem. And maybe the issue will not seem so critical after the users have worked with the system for several months. In all of the system conversions I have done, there was something that the users liked better in their old system than in the new. After all there had to be some reason why they stuck with the old one for so long!

Photo credit: mushon

What Would You Do?

Here's the situation: you're a large software company and you own several competing software packages. You want to keep your customers. In fact you want to build a relationship with them so they keep updating their software instead of holding on to one version until it's obsolete and then going with the newest product from a competitor.

Here are some of the problems.

  1. The products have been built on different platforms. None of them uses your latest technology.
  2. Accounting systems are incredibly complex, responding as they do to different business practices and regulatory environments. (To understand the complexity, just imagine building a system that handles both US sales tax and Canadian goods and services tax.)
  3. Your first thought was to merge the packages, but your developers told you to forget it. It would take centuries of programming to capture all of the features of the packages.
  4. Oh, by the way, each package has a loyal customer base that would view being forced to "upgrade" to a different package with deep suspicion.

What would you do?

Me, I would look for any common weaknesses in the packages. For example, if my customers were routinely turning to third party software, such as Crystal Reports, I would look to see what that problem was. Maybe I could replace the reporting in all of the packages with something new, e.g. SQL Reporting Services and save a lot of resources.

If I had a proven user interface that my customers were used to, such as Outlook, then I would move all of the packages to that same look and feel. This would start the process of bringing the different user groups together.

Without having any inside knowledge, this is what I think Microsoft is doing. I was just treated to a demonstration of Dynamics NAV 2009 (formerly Navision). Speaking as a jaded, skeptical accounting system user, I am happy with the directions I see. As outlined above, I like the overall approach. As is typical with Microsoft, there are teasers in the software, e.g. role based security that attempts to simplify setup by grouping tasks that are typically found in the same job description. I see the beginnings of a workflow system here. (Workflow means that the system passes transactions between users as each finishes their task, for example, when you complete a journal entry, it is automatically passed to your supervisor for approval and posting.)

I like the way that Microsoft is working with user displayable fields. The reality is that fields that are critical to my business may be unimportant to you. The best way to deal with this is to make all of the fields available, and allow the users to decide which ones they want to see. This has always been a strength of Navision. I like how the new version enhances the presentation by allowing the user to pick a few key fields that are shown in what used to be the tab. For example, you no longer have to go to the Foreign tab to see the currency field if that's the only one you need. The best part of this approach, for me, is that it makes maximum use of the screen. It will be easier to make the data entry windows work with older monitors.

Have you see NAV2009? What did you think?