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There’s no such thing as a free lunch – 6 ways that free cloud apps aren’t free

We’ve all heard the expression that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ but it’s true that a significant amount of people think that the cool app that they have just started using in the cloud is somehow magically paid for by the fairies! This post is designed to help you spot some of the ways that cloud software companies will use to part you from your money.

The cloud has brought a huge amount of really useful tools within reach of even the smallest companies. I confess to having love for Mailchimp, TeamworksPm and GoogleDocs. I’m getting into a load of others too and I’m using them all on their free plans – but  ‘FREE’ doesn’t always mean free.

So how do companies charge for their services? Here are some of the business models;

1 – Subscriptions – This is possibly the most up front method that a company will use. You pay a set amount from day 1 of using the product. That’s it. Nice and easy to understand but often companies won’t give you a free period to see if you like it. Consequently if you sign up, enter all your data, train your staff then find out you don’t like it then you’re stuck. Bigger developers will use this and probably ally it with sales people.

2 – Advertising – This is the easiest to spot and is the method used by companies like Facebook. Seen all those annoying ads next to your profile? Well they are paying for your software. Marketers pay to advertise next to people who share similar interests and values to the product or service they are trying to sell. This is sometimes combined with the subscription model so it’s free with ads or if you pay a subscription the ads disappear.

3 – Reduced functionality – Want our app for free? Yes of course but if you want to do all of the cool stuff that it is capable of then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Prezi and Batchbook and TeamworkPM will give you the ‘lite’ version to get you using their product but when you want to do something a little more advanced then you’ll have to buy a subscription. This is a great way to get into an app but beware – some may not let you export your data if you decide to move away later.

4 – Restricted activity – This is the easiest to disguise. The app works absolutely fine in all respects but only up to a certain level of activity.  Want more users? Want to upload more times in a month? Want to send out more invoices? Then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Box and Dropbox use this model.

5 – Time limited – Everything but for a trial period only. The trial period is designed to let you have a look, play, get some stuff going and form a habit. Once it gets switched off then you can’t access your stuff and you miss it. Videoscribe use this but to be honest 7 days trial is too short in my opinion.

6 –  Composite methods – Some or all of the above. You’ll find that the more you pay the more users you can add, the more functionality is available and the more like a custom made application it becomes.

The cloud has led to a massive increase in the amount of apps available. The quality is variable to be honest but the one common theme is that they haven’t all been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts!* If you are unsure then carry out a Google search, do lots of research and work out how you’ll use the service or alternatively see the advertisement below.

Let’s be fair, some of these companies have spent millions bringing to market a superb application that will make your life a lot better so they deserve to be paid for their effort and they are honest and upfront about the whole thing. (look for a page on their site called ‘Pricing’ or ‘Plans’). Some though aren’t totally transparent and users only find out what they have to pay for when it’s too late.

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This is what I do for companies. If you are thinking about buying software then call me first. I give an independent and impartial view as to whether it’s a good move for you or not and it’s a lot cheaper than making the wrong decision.

 

*  Yes Linux,open office etc. HAVE been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts but in general the majority of the stuff you come across in internetland will be trying to work out how to get into your wallet.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

To compromise or not? that is the question

Seemingly simple decisions can get stuck in the mud and seem to be intractable when you are working on a project. The inspiration for this entry comes from a talk given by Sophie Personne at a networking event I attended recently. Sophie runs an excellent local business called Sophisticated Singles and spoke eloquently about the power of compromise.

Sadly compromise is something that is often lacking in project meetings with political game playing, resistance to change and downright obstinance all playing a part, so how can you push decisions through when things get tough? Here are a few tips to help you on the way.

Tip 1 – Speak to people privately. Sometimes taking 5 minutes out of a meeting environment can help people understand the other’s point of view. Simply taking time to listen can often show up misunderstandings that actually would be masked in a meeting room.

Tip 2 – Find out the real reason. Often people will dig their heels in on an issue for an unrelated reason. I remember one project where an accountant absolutely refused to budge on an issue. It turned out that this was as a result of management not spelling out where he fitted into the organisation post project. Once he’d been given clear sight of his future position he became a positive and valuable team player.

Tip 3 – Understand the impact of everyone’s suggested course of action. If a course of action has no impact on the project, won’t cost anything but makes people feel more included then why wouldn’t you adopt it? Sometimes sitting down with each side and spelling out what the consequences will be can often produce a compromise position easily.

Tip 4 – Use peer power. If people can see how their actions are affecting others then often they will at least compromise or sometimes back down entirely. In a group setting spell out what effect the impasse is having on the rest of the team.

Tip 5 – Get the project sponsor involved. Sometimes whatever you do people refuse to back down. Get the sponsor in to sit people down and clear the blocker. This needs to be used sparingly because the power of the sponsor and the shock of them getting involved tends to wane when they turn up every day to mediate on minor disagreements!

Tip 6 – Get an outsider in. Often people that work together every day will react differently (and be much more grown up) when an outside agency becomes involved. Get an independent (ahem!) professional in to do a project review and see how that moves things along.

If you need help with your project then get in touch for an initial chat and we’ll see if we can get your team to compromise!

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Windows 8 – my favourite workarounds

Right let’s be honest Windows 8 isn’t the best. (I’m trying to be diplomatic)

When it first appeared I absolutely hated it. This was a fine example of a company taking it’s user’s thoughts on board and launching them straight into the bin. I’ve started to get used to it and some of the features I love (but only some). I find it difficult to understand why a company will take probably the best known user interface and stamp on it with a big fat muddy boot (rant over).

To be fair W8 works fine when you have a touch screen but if you are a desk based person then it’s rubbish.

On the plus side there are a series of workarounds that can make your life less traumatic.

First off if you’ve got Windows 8 then download the update Windows 8.1. This is a sign that Microsoft knows it’s made a boo boo. For those of you that hate the fact that MS got rid of the Start button then you’ll find it returns when you download it. You can find out more about W8.1 here http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/meet

Tip 1 – remember the scroll wheel. When you are on the ‘Charms’ ( I know, I know) screen then the scroll wheel is really useful for moving from one end of the icons to the other

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

This is the hideously named ‘Charms’ screen

Tip 2 – reorganise your charms. Move the ones you want the most to be front and centre of your home screen. Simply click your mouse on them, hold and drag the icon to where you want it to be.

Tip 3 – to find the program you want then just start typing on the charms screen and W8 will bring up a list that matches like this (click on the image to see a bigger version)

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Search from the start menu

Tip 4 – Learn some handy shortcut keys. Here’s some of the ones I use most:

  • What to shut down? Pressing the windows key and ‘I’ at the same time brings up the stupid settings thingmy (press Esc to make it go away
  • Opened a program you didn’t want? Press the Alt key and F4 to shut it down. ( this closes the program so save your work if you need to keep something)
  • Want to move between programs? Hold down the Alt key then press tab, each time you press tab you’ll move to another open program, let it go and the one you chose will magically appear
  • Zoom in or zoom out. Hold down Ctrl and turn the mouse wheel
  • Want your desktop? Press the windows key and ‘D’ at the same time. If you’re already on the desktop then it’ll show you the start/charms screen.
  • Visit this place for more keyboard shortcuts http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/keyboard-shortcuts

Tip 5 – right click on the start button – you did download W8.1 right? Well when you do you’ll get a funky new device from MS called a start button (what a great idea).  Right click on it and you’ll get a list of the most commonly used features like signing off and shutting down. Smashing.

windows button

ooh look! What a great idea from Microsoft

Tip 6 – and this is the best one. Use it. Seriously Microsoft is trying to force its way into the mobile/tablet arena and they won’t drop W8 so we’re stuck with it for a while. The best bet is to start using it, exploring the functions and getting to know the cheeky little fella. Just be comforted by the fact that everyone else hates it too.

windows

The Windows key – bet you wondered what it was right?

tab

The tab and Alt keys – now you know why they are there!

 

This post isn’t designed to make you a W8 wizard. All I want to do is take some of the pain away. There’s some great communities on the web that will be able to tell you much more than I.

To get you started there’s another really useful article on customising the whole Windows 8 experience here http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/how-customize-windows-81-start-screen-and-keyboard-shortcut-tricks

Good luck!

12 principles of estimation best practice

Estimating is a key skill in ERP implementation projects. It’s vital to get a clear sight of how much your project is going to cost and how long it will take but what are the best practices for this vital skill?

Magne Jorgensen produced the top 12 estimating best practices and I’ve taken these and added in some of my real world experience and suggestions as to how you can manage the process.

(1) evaluate estimation accuracy, but avoid high evaluation pressure – Studies have shown that giving people a bonus or basing their appraisals on a good estimation track record actually decreases their ability and accuracy. Treat the estimation process as a collaborative effort and you’ll get better accuracy and a happier, more committed team.

(2) avoid conflicting estimation goals – It seems an obvious one but telling your analyst that you need a supremely accurate cost and then telling them that it mustn’t come in over X will make their work less reliable. Go for accuracy and not political expediency.

Thomsett (1996) gives an excellent example in his ‘software estimation game’

Boss: Hi, Mary. How long do you think it will take
to add some customer enquiry screens to the Aardvark
System?
Mary: Gee . . . I guess about six weeks or so.
Boss: WHAAT?!!!! That long?!!! You’re joking, right?
Mary: Oh! Sorry. It could be done perhaps in four
weeks . . .

We’ve all been there right?

(3) ask the estimators to justify and criticize their estimates – Very often a firm will have a culture of perfection and not being able to admit mistakes. In a project environment this is often disastrous. The truth is that any cost prediction will have shortcomings. Ask your estimator what these are and then take a view as to whether you mitigate or look for more information.

(4) avoid irrelevant and unreliable estimation information – Sometimes people include information in their estimate that is unreliable purely because they have nothing better to go on. The truth is you are better off understanding that there is no data rather than basing a decision on something that could be misleading.

(5) use documented data from previous development tasks – If you’ve done work in the area before, or even if you had a project in the company that wasn’t the same you can still use the lessons learned documentation to inform your estimates for the new project. You did do a lessons learned document didn’t you?

(6) find estimation experts with relevant domain background and good estimation records – Music to my ears. Get in an expert even if it is only to help with estimation. Studies show that experience of the software you are putting in is great but across a number of different platforms is even better.

(7) Estimate top-down and bottom-up, independently of each other – Don’t let the golden idea of how long a project should take affect the bottom up process of analysing out how long each task will take. Do both completely separately and you’ll get a much clearer view of the likely cost/time implications.

(8) use estimation checklists – if your software provider or partner has a checklist then so much the better but if not then sit down at the start of the analysis phase and think about all the bases you want to cover. You can add things in along the way if you forget something but make sure by the time you get to the point of choosing your software that you have covered everything in your original list.

(9) combine estimates from different experts and estimation strategies – Two heads are better than one or put another way you want the most expertise from as many different areas and with as many different points of view as you can. Get them all together then aggregate to give you an overall view.

(10) assess the uncertainty of the estimate – The only thing you can be certain about is that there is a certain level of uncertainty (with thanks to Rowan Atkinson). Estimates are only a guide but what you can do is put numbers around key points of your forecast to give you an idea as to how risky the project is.

(11) provide feedback on estimation accuracy and development task relations – this goes to points 5 and 6. If you want to identify who in your organisation is a particularly good analyst of projects then you also need to be developing them. Feedback is a vital component in this. Similarly feedback into a lessons learned document the results of your estimate versus the actual costs. You are keeping a lessons learned document right?

(12) provide estimation training opportunities – as above really. Good experienced estimators have been shown to be much more useful than a statistical model but they have to come from somewhere so start getting people involved in projects. if you are paying an outside consultant to come in and do this for you then make sure you allocate an internal person to shadow them, learn and develop the skills for in-house use.

Using these best practices when producing your project estimates will help give you the confidence that you are on the right lines and produce a better outcome.

If you’d like some external help with producing a cost estimate for your project then please do contact us -we’d be happy to help

References:
Jorgensen. M., 2004. A review of studies on expert estimation of software development effort. Journal of Systems and Software, 70(1–2), pp. 37-60.
Thomsett, R., 1996. Double Dummy Spit and other estimating games.American Programmer 9 (6), 16–22.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

The top 5 signs that your project might be going wrong

As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.

One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.

There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.

There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late,  over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.

5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.

4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.

3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.

2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.

1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!

Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

10 things to do before you even choose your software

If you want a successful project then there’s a series of things you need to do before you even get to choose a piece of software

You also need to make sure you do all the steps – missing one out is just like making a cake without one of the ingredients

  1. Analyse the problem – what specific issues are you trying to solve?
  2. Analyse your company strategy – there’s no point in spending a huge amount of money on a shiny ERP system if you intend to sell your company to a trade competitor. They will probably have their own system in place.
  3. Decide whether a new system would work well in light of 1 & 2 – If the problem you are trying to solve is that you can’t recruit the best staff then putting in new software won’t help. It’s an extreme example but it makes the point.
  4. Scope your project – it may seem an early point but decide what you want to achieve and of course what you don’t. If It’s not important to have your people connecting using tablets then don’t bother looking for a system that will do this
  5. Form your steering committee – get the right people in and explain how important this is
  6. Decide what’s vital and what’s nice to have – get your steering committee to decide what are the absolute must haves for any system you consider. If it doesn’t have it then it doesn’t get looked at
  7. Send out your RFQs – Request for Quote (or RFI – Request For Information) cast your net wide and ask the vendors if they can meet your minimum requirements
  8. cull your list – be ruthless, in a couple of months time you’ll be sick of the sight of software
  9. Do your beauty parade – get your short list to present their software to your team and show how they would meet your requirements
  10. Do vendor background research – get independent verification of claims, find out how previous projects went and check that they are financially sound.

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Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

The value of realism

This post is inspired by an article I found on ERP focus by Shane Starr.

Shane explains why ERP will never be the cure for all ills it is often painted to be and this is an important point. Too many companies go into a very expensive and long term project thinking that it will sort out issues they are having all over the organisation – from getting the accounts out on time to painting the garage roof.

The fact of the matter is that any implementation is only as good as the scoping process. If you choose the wrong system then it’ll never be the right system, whatever you do.

Similarly an ERP system won’t fix broken processes or poor organisational behaviour and if you have an inefficient process under your old software then a new system won’t be any better if you just transfer the old way of doing things.

A good analogy is a company having problems with their call centre not answering phone calls quick enough. Putting in a new phone system won’t stop Johnny from nipping out the back for a cigarette or someone answering the call in a surly manner because they had a bad nights sleep.

Of course this is not the image that the phone system company will portray. They’ll explain how quick the system is and how much information can be gleaned from it. It’s the company executives that conflate the problem (slow response times) with the solution (a really quick phone system) without examining the root cause.

Exactly the same thing happens in ERP projects. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on software that will never cure the problems that execs are seeing but will just mean that you can see them a bit better!

What can you do about it?

For a start have a good long look at the problems you are having and decide whether they are truly down to the system, organisation behaviour or your processes.

If you do identify problems with the system then look a bit deeper – are they inherent in the product you have or can you tweek the software to do what you want.

If all else fails and you do decide to take the plunge and buy new then make sure you get someone independent on your side to help you through the choice process. Please don’t take all of your information about what a system will do for you from the vendors. After all they are salesmen and although not all salesmen are sharks it has to be said that they still have a vested interest in making sure you buy their product over those offered by the competition.