Business Computing – The Cost of Mis-information

Concept photo for tech support hotline.My CRM server told me that there were Windows Updates to be installed. I typed “Windows Update” in the search, clicked the appropriate item, and clicked “Install now.”

The install failed with code 80246013. The “click here for more information” took me nowhere. So I called tech support, also known as Google.

Someone else had the same problem. There were two solutions proposed:

Solution 1 – Generic troubleshooting

The first techie who replied to the question suggested (1) disable antivirus, and (2) do a clean boot and troubleshoot. These are not bad suggestions, particularly when the error code is not documented anywhere. It would have taken perhaps thirty minutes to an hour to do this. We could also have looked at the Windows Event Viewer’s Application Log. We could have rebooted the server, logged in as local admin, and retried the installation.

Rather than spend this time, I went to option 2.

Solution 2 – Restart the Windows Update Service

The next solution connected this error with the Windows Update service. It said, simply, that if the service is not started, you’ll get this error. Press Windows Key + R, type services.msc, and check Background Intelligent Transfer service and Windows Update service. If they are stopped, start them.

Total time: 2 minutes.

Problem: solved.

Bad advice costs money. My $0.02.

 

Selecting ERP Software – Best Practices – Defining Needs

Book Title on the Spine - Erp Solutions. Book Title on the Spine - Erp Solutions. Closeup View. Stack of Books. Erp Solutions - Book Title. Erp Solutions Concept on Book Title. Blurred 3D Rendering.At the end of the day, needs definition or needs analysis should control your selection of ERP software.

In the last post, I discussed why IT requirements should not be at the top of your needs definition. In this post, I’ll start the discussion of how to define needs. Let’s take a look at two typical requirements (needs) as an example. The specific needs aren’t that important, so if these don’t apply in your situation, keep reading; we’ll get to the point pretty quickly. Here are the two typical needs:

  • Recurring payables capability. The system allows us to set up certain bills that we get every month like the mortgage or the pest control service bill and enters them to be paid so we don’t have to key them.
  • Serial numbers for inventory. Some items we sell have serial numbers. It’s important that the system be able to track these serial numbers and who we sold them to.

The first item (payables) is an accounting need. If the system doesn’t have recurring payables, the mortgage and pest control will still get paid. It will just take more work to re-enter the transactions. The second item (serial numbers) is an operational need. If the system can’t track serial numbers, there will be work that needs to be done that can’t be done. In addition, operational needs usually have other operational needs that depend on them.

Operational Needs that Depend on Other Operational Needs

In this example, the reason many companies need to track serial numbers is for warranty work. Without this capability, many hours will be spent trying to trace down the invoice that a particular part came from to determine whether it is under warranty. More hours might be spent tracing the invoice from the vendor for that product. Recalls for ranges of serial numbers or lot numbers can be even more challenging.

In some industries, this need can be very important. For example, in the food industry recalls may be based on serial numbers (or lot numbers). Having this data is necessary to comply with government regulations.

The data may be needed to drive other business needs. For example, to track repairs on equipment or offer customers PM (preventive maintenance) contracts.

As you can see, the need for serial numbers may cascade into other needs. And these needs can be more significant that just a few hours a month of additional effort. There may be business opportunities that are either not possible or not practical without these software features.

Business and Software Expertise are Needed

What’s not as obvious from this is that both business and software expertise are needed to come up with a full needs definition. I’ve had many business people ask for serial number functionality. Only a fraction of that number also asked for warranty, service contract, or recall features. When asked, they quickly said that these were also issues.

Understanding how software uses serial numbers (or lot numbers, national accounts, warranty, etc.) allows an ERP provider to ask you the right questions to configure a system. Not all systems have the features we’ve mentioned in this post. For example, warranty tracking for is common in inventory systems that track serial numbers, but not all systems have it. Service and preventive maintenance is less common. For some systems, it is an add-on product; in others, it is part of the core system.

Make sure your ERP provider is asking good (and thorough) questions about your needs. And don’t leave anything out. The feature you leave out may be obvious to you but not to the ERP provider.

The Culture of Tech Deception: It’s Not Just Theranos

It’s not always as bad as Theranos, but it is bad.

Since last year, articles about technology startup Theranos have popped up all over. At first, the articles were about the blood-testing technology Theranos was developing didn’t always seem to give accurate results. In some cases, the results were dangerously, fatally wrong. And now it seems that perhaps the company, at least the founder, knew this and concealed it.

I wasn’t surprised. I deal with it every day.

Vaporware: Software That Disappears

The first significant scandal that I remember was dBase IV. Ashton-Tate was the developer of dBase. The company announced a new version to replace its working, but clunky, dBase III as early as 1986. Finally, in 1988 (an eternity in the tech world), dBase IV was announced in February with an anticipated release in July. dBase IV version 1.0 finally arrived in October of 1988. It was buggy and slow. Ashton-Tate finally delivered an upgrade to version 1.1 almost two years later in July of 1990.

It was about that time the term “vaporware” became popular. Vaporware is an announced software product with announced features that does not exist; sometimes it never comes to market. It fades like vapor into the air.

Features that exist, sort of

I continue to hear from customers about things they have read. This software does such and so. This should work like this. Sometimes, it’s “we just signed a contract with x to do our y.” Trouble is, many times I know the software they are talking about. I ask (trying to gather information and tip them off without creating doubt), “Were they using some add-on to do that?” or “May I take a look at the proposal?”

Too often, the reality is that software WILL do what the customer thinks it will. To put it in business terms, the transaction is possible. However, the issue is often that it doesn’t work the way the client was led to believe it worked.

Case Study: Oops, hand over $50K

Several years ago, we met with a client who wanted to buy software for a particular purpose. We made a proposal and included some customization (which was going to be required). The customization was to add a feature that came up in the first 10 minutes of the first conversation about their needs. They purchased the software from a larger provider who quoted a lower price.

Twelve or fifteen months later, I got a call from their IT Director. The conversation started like this, “Bob, you remember the proposal you gave us for our system about a year ago?”

“Yes, I remember,” I replied (biting my tongue because they’d bought from someone else).

“You remember the feature X we discussed?”

“Yes, it was very important to you, I replied.

“Was there some specific secret you knew about how to do that with the software?” he asked.

“Why?” I replied.

“Because our vendor has just now gotten to the point of implementing the software,” he started, “and they want at least $50,000 more to customize it to do that.”

“Oh. Well,” I started, “I knew that the feature was going to have to be customized. I included that in my proposal.”

“I was afraid of that,” he said.

Unfortunately, they were too far into the implementation to change providers at the moment.

Other examples

I wish I could say this was isolated. I’ve run into far too many technology companies pushing products that had severe limitations. Low-end products in the market today are sold to companies that will ultimately find that the architecture (the basic way the software is built) won’t support the volume of transactions they have. I see boxes of software gathering dust in offices; the company purchased them with the belief that they met their needs, and they did not.

As competition increases, I see and hear about more and more proposals that seem dramatically under-stated. A consultant for a now defunct consulting firm told me that it was a regular practice at his firm to submit proposals that underestimated the required hours by 50%. The employees doing the work were then responsible for “selling” the need for the more time to the customer.

Avoiding the issues

Here’s the fact: most vendor salespeople know their product at a features level, not at an implementation level. They know that the payroll system does multi-state payroll. They don’t know how the multi-state features related to worker’s compensation in multiple states, or how multi-state withholding works, or what the system requires if they have employees that work in multiple states during the same pay period. As a result, when a requirements document says, “multi-state payroll,” they say, “We have it.” The fact is that they don’t know enough about payroll or their software to ask the questions they need to ask to give a meaningful answer.

For 30+ years, I’ve believed that before a customer buys software, someone ought to think through HOW they were going to implement the major features. Without this, you may be sold a Theranos: a device that over-promises and doesn’t deliver.

Here’s the key: Ask not “Will the software do this?” for key functions; ask, “Can you show me how the software will do this?”

Selecting ERP Software – Best Practices – Get Rid of IT Preferences

I really wanted to start this post with, “Get rid of IT…for now…” But I thought I might lose readers before I made the point. So here is the (real) point: make sure you start your ERP software search with Operational specifications, not IT specifications UNLESS your IT or accounting specifications are absolutely essential. Now let me explain.

So you want ERP for Linux?

About twice a year, I see a company looking for ERP software for Linux. There are a few, for example here and here. Watch out, though, because the features included in one ERP are not necessarily in all ERP systems. And these packages, being mostly free, don’t have competition to force their hand in adding new features. By specifying Linux, however, the company has Selecting ERP Best Practices - Remove preferences photo: No More. Stop Gesture. Man with raised opening hand making No more gesture.excluded dozens of top-performing packages from companies like Microsoft, Sage, and SAP. In addition (although they may not realize it for a while), they may have specified an operating system or database that has no defined support. If you have a problem with Windows, you call Microsoft. If you have a problem with OS X, you call Apple. Who do you call for the Debian Distribution of Linux? What if Google can’t help?

Other IT Non-requirement Requirements

More commonly, I get requests for ERP that runs on Oracle or MySQL. There are some. But either of these specifications rules out some packages. MAC O/S is another requirement. What if the ERP runs in a web browser and thus works on MAC but requires a Windows server?

The question that should be asked of each of these requirements is this: let’s suppose that there is a package that would help us run our business perfectly but it doesn’t meet this requirement, would we give up this requirement? If the answer is “Yes,” don’t include it in the initial specification. Here’s the reason: as an ERP consultant, if you say you have a requirement for Linux, I’m only going to evaluate Linux. The only reason I’d return to look at non-Linux software is if you reject all the available Linux solutions. By that time, you’ll be exhausted with the process, and will tend to “settle.”

Best Practice: Evaluate IT Requirements Late in the Process

All of this is to say that often IT requirements are really IT preferences. If you drill into the requirements you’ll often hear, “Well, we prefer Linux because Jim is really a Linux guru.” Or more likely, “We’d prefer Linux because it is free.” These preferences can be considered later in the process after all possible solutions have been identified. Stating preferences early narrows down the field, and many companies are too fatigued with the process to revisit the preferences later.

More about this in later posts.

Business Tech Watch – Thoughts on Facebook Advertising

The WSJ this morning reported that Proctor & Gamble is rethinking its Facebook advertising. The article sighted lack of effectiveness as the reason.

Electronic Advertising Provides Precise Information

The more you look at the possibilities for electronic advertising and marketing, the more attractive it seems in theory. For businesses it’s the equivalent of being able to test magazine advertising in real-time. Push an ad out and immediately know how many people could have been exposed to it. How many people clicked. What path they followed when they reached your web site, etc.New Facebook like button 6 Empathetic Emoji Reactions printed on white paper. Facebook is a well-known social networking service.

Audience targeting is very precise. Age, gender, interests, geographic area, etc. can be controlled very precisely. You can display your advertisement only to men between the ages of 25 and 45 who live in Jackson, MS or Memphis, TN. And you can control your spending down to a limit of only a few dollars per day.

With a tad more effort, it’s possible to track what was clicked on the web site, and how far down the page the user scrolled. In short, all the things that we have guessed at for many years can be measured down to the mouse click.

Down Side of Advertising

First, getting the best results requires knowledge and effort. That’s another way to say that if you do it yourself (and there are plenty of resources out there to help you), you’ll spend time. Otherwise, you need to pay someone to do it. The other down side is that without this type of ability, you’ll spend a lot of money potentially without any result.

Second, as the P&G announcement actually reveals, some advertising venues are not right for all products. P&G would do well to check their customer base and particularly the purchase cycle for their products. I glance at Facebook. No matter how low my inventory is, I’m not likely to think as I scan the dog pictures, personal stories, etc., “I think I’ll run out and buy some Charmin…or Gain…or Febreeze.” And it doesn’t matter how bad the laundry, dog, or sofa smell as I’m thinking it. It’s the same reason that I don’t intend to buy the Dash button for any of these type products. For cat litter (I don’t have a cat) or baby food, I see the value. If they ever come out with a way to offer a button you can press to refill your wine cellar or beer fridge, I bet they’ll sell a million of them. If you have a Dash button and use it, I’d love to hear about it.

Conclusion: Get Educated

If you don’t know anything about Facebook, Amazon, or Google advertising, you should. This doesn’t mean that your brand or company should spend money on it. These advertising venues are much like billboards: other options for your toolkit.

Selecting ERP Software – Best Practices

I’ve been in the software industry since 1984. I’ve seen many changes. Lately, some of the changes I’ve seen really concern me. Concern me in the sense that I’ve seen more and more businesses with fragmented systems and low productivity. Yet they don’t seem to know what to do about it. In many cases, the system IS the problem, but the business doesn’t realize it.

How can a system problem be invisible?

3D illustration of computer keyboard with the print "Software Malfunction" concept on two adjacent red buttons.It may seem a bit difficult for some to believe that a system problem can both produce productivity issues and be invisible. In this case, I’m going to short circuit my normal writing style and jump straight to the point. The key problem in many of these businesses is that they have the wrong system in the first place. Once the system is in place, the business begins the process of trying to optimize a system that wasn’t an optimal system from the beginning. In short, they picked the wrong system. There are some clear signs.

Signs that you have the wrong system

Here are just a few of the signs I see almost every week from one or another business:

  • Excel as a tool for core business functions that in the ERP systems include. Examples included schedules for technicians kept in Excel, documents to control ordering and billing, and reminders for various things. One business keeps an Excel spreadsheet of every work order assigned by technician, and monitors the spreadsheet to make sure paperwork is turned in. Another lists parts ordered for jobs and uses the spreadsheet to make sure they are charged to the right customer. Both of these businesses have a sinking feeling that they’re missing something, but they can’t put their finger on it.
  • Key features that just aren’t in the system. These are things like maintenance tracking in an equipment rental business. In order to remove equipment from service when it is costing too much to support, this is a must.
  • Accounting transactions can be processed, but key operational needs are missing. A system that does a great job of billing, but doesn’t track customer warranty information is the wrong system for a business that needs to track warranties.
  • You did software searches in the past, and selected new software. The software purchase gets killed because it’s too expensive or not in the budget.
  • Paper systems as a basis for key processes.

Signs that you’re not using what you have

There is another common malady in businesses today: not using the systems they have. In many cases, this is a lack of training. But training is almost never as expensive as the productivity hit from doing things manually. Here are some examples of what I’ve seen recently:

  • Excel used to create financial statements even though the system seems to have a financial statement feature. Usually this indicates that the controller, CFO, or accountant is more comfortable in Excel than the financial software.
  • ACCESS used to create reports or extract data.
  • Excel as a tool for bank reconciliation even though the system has bank reconciliation. There can actually be good reasons for this, but I think they account for about 1 in 3 cases. In most cases, the software would be the more efficient choice.
  • The software hasn’t been updated in 5 or more years. The reality is that if you’re holding on to software that is 5 years old (and that’s an eternity in the current environment), you’re not getting all the benefits from it.

What should you do if you see yourself?

If you see your business in any of these bullet points, you should evaluate where you are in terms of your ERP software. We will cover some of the best practices beginning with the next post.

Microsoft Technologies (The Company)…NOT!

I received a kind courtesy call from Cristalin at Microsoft Technologies (so she said). I was brushing my teeth at the time, so I was somewhat disadvantaged.

Malware on My Computer

“Yes,” I said around my toothbrush.

Computer hacker silhouette of hooded man with binary data and network security terms“I’m calling from Mick-roo-sooft Took-nologees,” she said in her best Indian-cum-American accent. I have seen documentaries on India-based call centers where they train employees to have American or European accents; this caller needed more training, but she was trying.

“We detected some failed updates on your security protective software, did you know that was failing?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t,” said I, “but I have something I need to do. Could I have your number and name so I could call you back?”

No Help Here

“Sure,” she said, and provided a 513 area code number. I promptly looked it up and found that it was in New York State somewhere. I called it back.

“This number is disconnected or is no longer in service,” said a nasal recorded voice. Surprise!

The reality is that I’ve gotten several calls with the same nonsense caller id (Anonymous and 6 digit telephone numbers) over the last few weeks. It appears to be an auto dialer, because some of them hang up after 10 seconds of silence.

Protect Yourself from this Scam

This isn’t legit. Microsoft isn’t monitoring your security updates. If you get a virus or malware, you and Malwarebytes (a malware detection and removal program, which you can get by clicking the name) will know. Meanwhile, if you get a call from Cristalin or her co-worker Kevalin, just say no.

Never Get Satisfied With ERP Software!

There is always more work to do on an ERP system! Let’s face it, systems can be hard to implement. Companies that set up new systems sometimes heave huge sighs and rest in the fact that they’ve made it to the end. There is always something new to do in an ERP system. It is often that “something more” that gives the big returns on new software.

Easy Tweaks in ERP

ERP - Enterprise Resource Planning word cloud with magnifying glass business conceptThere’s always something to refine or clean up in the ERP system. Old items in inventory that need to be deleted or marked inactive. Customers that aren’t in business anymore. Vendors that haven’t supplied anything in 5 years. These kinds of cleanup have occurred to most people; “do it tomorrow” is the biggest block to getting this done. Like cleaning out the garage, it is easy to put off but very satisfying once done.

Bigger Value Tweaks

Some companies just never got around to using some ERP features that save time. Using with the bank to download transactions and automate bank reconciliations is an example. Many companies list “automate purchasing” as a key goal during system selection. In the end, they may not get minimum and reorder quantities set well enough to use automated ordering.

Adding Features

If you’ve ever thought, “I wish the system could …” then there is likely either a feature already there to handle the function, or it can be added. ERP consultants and experts keep up-to-date not only on new features of ERP systems, but also on the growing market for add-on or third-party applications which add even more features. EDI, shipping, logistics, warehouse management, etc., can dramatically improve the efficiency of your system.

Don’t be satisfied with what you have now! Explore opportunities to add features and improve productivity.

How much does an ERP Expert need to know about business?

A computer expert when I started business was someone who could make a mail merge work in Consulting concept with knowledge experience professional expert words on chalkboardWordPerfect. If you could install WordPerfect, you were looked upon with the awe given the true Guru. And if you could write a macro in Lotus 1-2-3 that actually worked, you must have god-like powers. I’m exaggerating. A little.

Today, everyone uses Excel. Most people have created PowerPoint presentations. Some have even created ACCESS programs. Computer literacy has risen–at least among people under 60 (maybe it’s 70 today, but who knows). Facebook carries enough of our news that Republican congressmen get their noses out of joint about whether the company is filtering conservative news.

ERP Software and Business

Today’s businesses operate more and more with automated systems. ERP software (accounting) software has become big business. Even with the consolidation of companies (and the exodus of companies) in the market after the Great Recession, there is still an abundance of folk that would classify themselves as ERP experts.

So what qualifies one as an ERP expert? Certainly, an expert knows the software. Inventory, sales orders, logistics, shipping, warehousing, etc. are the mainstay of the ERP application, and an expert ought to know something about these. But should an ERP expert know the answer to the following questions:

  • How can I use the cash flow projections in my software to improve cash management?
  • What’s the difference in the manufacturing system between indirect overhead and labor burden?
  • How do I analyze cost and quantity variance with the system? (Or for that matter, what is cost and quantity variance?)
  • I’d like to cut the space my product is occupying in my warehouse (to decrease the square footage of warehouse space used). How can I do that with the ERP system?

Increasingly, I run into two different types of ERP “experts:” (a) the computer literate internal expert that knows a lot about the business and business process, and (b) the external expert that knows great details about the internal operation of the software (and often its programming), but knows very little about the operation of a business. Let me give you a real example.

An Expert Example (ERP)

I was asked to attend a meeting with two “experts” that had been working with a rather large business. One of them was developing an eCommerce site based on an open-source content management system (CMS); the other was implementing a warehouse management system (WMS).

The WMS implementor began the conversation with the statement that his system didn’t handle “backorders.” By that he meant that if there were an order for 100 of a product, and all the product could not be shipped, the WMS would not “remember” that there was still product due on that order. Likewise, if an order was entered for 5 different products, and the warehouse shipped 2 of the 5, the WMS would not remember that there were more products to ship. The same situation applied to receiving products. An order once received and closed by the WMS was “finished” as far as the WMS was concerned.

The eCommerce vendor wasn’t concerned with this. He was concerned with modifying the eCommerce system to work with wholesale orders. For him, this meant that the typical “search” and “add to cart” was to be replaced by an “order entry” system. Rather than buying products like one might on Amazon, the system would present a spreadsheet where a buyer could enter the list of products and quantities.

The Business Problem

The business problem with the WMS was that distribution and wholesale companies frequently make partial shipments. Vendors (particularly overseas) sometimes ship partial purchase orders to fill containers. In order for the system to work, there would need to be an intermediate function (most WMS systems have this, his didn’t) that allowed the warehouse manager to review open orders and purchase orders and “release” product that was to be shipped or received to the warehouse. In addition, the ERP system would need to deal with returns, credit memos, etc., and pass these to the WMS (since the eCommerce system didn’t do this).

In the case of the eCommerce system, the vendor missed what is generally a huge problem with B2B (business to business) eCommerce using a traditional system. Let’s take Amazon as an example. If I place an order for 20 razors on Amazon, finalize the order, and pay for it, that constitutes a transaction in Amazon’s mind. If I decide ten minutes or 10 days later that I really meant to order 25 or 15, my options are: (a) place another order for the extra product, (b) return product that’s already shipped, or (c) cancel the original order and place another. There’s no function at Amazon that allows me to change the quantity of a product that I ordered after the order has been placed. For that matter, to change the shipping destination of an order on Amazon requires cancelling the order.

Oops Happens

What happens all too often is that the “expert” realizes the problem only after the system has gone live and the client calls to ask, “How do I change this order?” The answer: “We’ll make a change to the system!” Unsaid: “And send you a bill for something we should have realized in the beginning!”

The answer? A true “expert” has both deep knowledge of the software (to determine what features are present) and deep knowledge of business (to understand best practices). Without both of these, “experts” are just wannabes. My $0.02.

Dynamics NAV 2016 Creating a PO for Special Order Automatically

Without workflow, Dynamics NAV takes several steps to create Purchase Orders for special order items. This video demonstrates a workflow that automatically creates the purchase order once the Sales Order has been approved.

Setup in this company requires that all sales orders over $500 be approved by the user DGG. This video also demonstrates the Web user interface by having the approval user create the approval in a web browser.