Which Tech Skills Help Accountants Land Jobs?

Solution Explorers on November 30th, 2010. Under Uncategorized

Below is a link to an article by Hunter Richards, Accounting Market Analysts with Software Advice in Austin, TX.

http://www.softwareadvice.com/articles/accounting/which-tech-skills-help-accountants-land-jobs/

My feeling is that this excellent post has two very specific audiences. First, job seeks – accounting grads for sure – who are all looking for any way possible to create differentiation. Also, hopefully, employers see this as a way to creatively weed through the volume of resumes by including specifics in job descriptions – i.e. “we are looking for candidates experienced with XYZ business software application.”

I have a related idea…should software companies offer a service to its clients of posting client job openings? Personally, I think so. Do you see this happening? If not, do you think this is a good idea?

I want to personally thank Hunter for his research effort and creative analysis of a timely, relevant topic.

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Software Selection Criteria

Solution Explorers on July 7th, 2010. Under Discovery: Needs Analysis

Threaded throughout various posts within my Blog history are tips on what to look for in software worth investing in. Because criteria are different for every buyer it’s virtually impossible to truly develop a global list. But like many things in life and business there are some things to look for that should be considered regardless of specific business requirements.

Therefore, in this post, I want to share a standard criteria list, a few thoughts, and receive from you criteria that you deem important before making a selection and writing a check.

User-friendliness – often defined by # of clicks, first impressions, user interface (GUI)
Ease-of-Setup (aka, implementation) – reduces consulting costs, quick up-time and ROI
Accessibility – can we get to data easily and when we need it?
Scalable (grow as we grow) – modules, addons, customizability
Affordability – only the buyer can truly define this requirement
User-defined Reporting – ODBC compliant, report writer, compliance
Security and Reliability – protect data, minimize downtime
Support (reliable, experienced) – user forums, knowledgebase, webcasts, upgrades

Buyers need to choose software that suits their specific needs and system requirements. This needs to be done carefully as a wrong choice would result in increased work and possibly a bad investment. Looking over your shoulder or feeling regret post-purchase are feelings no decision maker wants to experience. Often, a software purchase leaves folks feeling – betrayed, misled, manipulated, etc. Establishing clearly defined criteria, as simple as those above or granular to your specific system requirements, takes a lot of time and skill but is absolutely essential for good stewardship with business revenue or donor dollars.

What do you look forward when trying to find software that meets your needs and budget?

How do you prioritize your selection criteria?

What did you learn from your last software selection, purchase?

Image credit: © Iuliia Tsvietkova – Fotolia.com

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ERP Systems: How Hard Can it be to Select One?

Solution Explorers on June 28th, 2010. Under Problems, Solutions, Uncategorized

Hand throwing moneyI recently came across a quick-read article with posts from two CIO’s documenting their advice on companies seeking to select a new ERP software system. Their comments summary is:

- Set proper expectations – be realistic.
- Recruit senior management support, buy-in.
- Carefully select the product vendor, someone you can “partner” with.
- Get organization-wide participation, solicit feedback.

Source: Network World, http://www.networkworld.com/news/2010/051310-erp-systems-how-hard-can.html?page=1

These two CIO’s did a wonderful job of highlighting key aspects of a software search that are all too often underestimated. This reality isn’t because companies enjoy throwing money at problems in “hope” of finding a fix. Although some businesses are guilty in this regard my experience suggests instead that business leaders are not skilled at finding software. After all, how many people can you name that listed this on their resume? Yea, me neither…

The process to find software, the “right” software, is not just some task or to-do, but rather a project with multiple tasks and milestones. This project requires skill and planning. In fact, I’ll add two specific items to the bullet list above – planning and documentation. It’s interesting how so many software vendors want to jump right in to product implementation once they take on a new client. Likewise, many businesses jump right in to calling vendors and scheduling demos after minimal research. What about planning! What about documentation of your research and findings? I contend that if more software buyers would increase just these two actions alone then a significant amount of time and dollars will be saved by both software buyers and sellers. Tip: Before investing in software, invest in preparation.

Running a business is hard work. Finding software to address your business needs and opportunities can be too, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as we often make it out to be. If you’re business is considering an ERP, or any type software actually, system purchase then be sure to do the fundamental things that you likely already do with other projects within your company – plan and document. Finally, do these two BEFORE reaching out to software vendors directly; in doing so, you’ll save time, money, and be rewarded with an investment that won’t leave you with doubt and regret.

Businesses – what is your process when exploring a new software system?

Vendors – how do you reign in a buyer that’s clearly putting the cart before the horse?

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The Nonprofit Buyer

Solution Explorers on June 14th, 2010. Under Discovery: Needs Analysis, Problems, Uncategorized

Business human resources

One of the greatest challenges encountered by those seeking to find software for their business needs is that those within the organization are not “professional” buyers. Think about it…the typical business replaces its core business systems – accounting, CRM/Fundraising, HR/Payroll, Client Management, etc. – about every 5-7 years. So, the opportunity, or even value in, creating a documented process for buying software isn’t very high; much less making this a skill requirement in someone’s job description.

This industry-wide problem is certainly a key reason for Solution Explorers’ existence. However, there are other software buyer resources available and we all can learn from one another. Two recent resources that I’ve encountered are – Andrew Urban, author of The Nonprofit Buyer and Edwin Henrikson. I’m currently reading Andrew’s book and have found valuable insights that every software buyer, even seller, can benefit from. As Andrew was advertising the book release via the LinkedIN Group – Nonprofit Technology Network – Edwin posted some insightful comments; of which I now want to share with you for consideration. I hope you find these of value as I did.

Comments by: Edwin Henrikson (re-posted with permission)

My key points regarding technology purchases are as follows…

1) Requirements: writing the requirements are the first step. The largest barrier is the staff may or may not know all the “rules” as defined by the funder(s) or their own agency. Many if not most staff operate on what I’ve come to call “tribal knowledge.” Many classic re-engineering issues come into play here, like “paving the deer trail” rather than building a highway.
2) Implementation: The capacity/ability of staff to adjust to the new technology or system is often over-looked. Agency culture with regards to change is an essential element to success. Also, simply having the talent and time to adopt the new system (train, use and improve) is often a huge barrier. With new systems often comes new skill requirements. Salesforce.com has found this issue as a critical barrier to donating systems to nonprofits. Complex Donor management systems and accounting systems also fall victim to this barrier.
3) Scales of Efficiency: many nonprofits can’t afford professional and complex solutions. However, even if the culture and talent of the staff can adopt a new system, simply having enough staff to manage the system well and train others is often a barrier. One way to overcome this barrier is to leverage shared systems or partner with other nonprofits in the area to pool resources.
4) Start Easy: Don’t overlook continuous improvement over the radical forklift replacement approach. Two actions can go a long way to freeing up capacity to then engage in major improvements – start with the basics, and consider process simplifications.
5) Technology is only part of the answer: I often tell my clients that any service is comprised of systems, people and process. All three must work together or the service suffers. I’ve seen many agencies take on changes in systems with no real consideration to how processes must change and how staff (people) will be impacted. This point ties into number 2 above. The agency can then be capacity starved to align the people and processes with the new system.

Note: Comments above were edited above as appropriate for purposes of this blog. Click here to view the full details of the originating LinkedIN post.

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From the Software Buyer’s Mindset

Solution Explorers on May 28th, 2010. Under Problems, Solutions

The road junction and blue sky and green grassEarlier this week I shared Blog post details from Software Advice in Austin, TX regarding the ongoing debate between best-of-breed versus integrated suite solutions. Let me now share some brief thoughts on the question that was posed – “How do you deal with choosing between all-in-one versus best-of-breed?” – for which there is really no concrete answer; i.e. each buyer has to determine this based on their unique needs and circumstances. However, since the article addressed this question thoroughly from the solution perspective, I want to discuss this from the buyer’s mindset.

As the article states, there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution approach, and I can validate this because I’ve worked for companies that marketed each type of offering. Admittedly, I’ve also sold solutions while arguing for and against each position. The “right” decision really is contextual.

In the past, I’ve witnessed clients (loyal ones at that) purchase solutions from new vendors when my company could have provided the very thing they sought. Why do they do this? Well, in many cases they simply didn’t consider calling the existing vendor. Weird, I know. Also, this situation may occur when departments fail to communicate – i.e. Development wants fundraising software for their nonprofit but fails to inquire with Accounting about what system they use. This is a mistake. Communication is vital when making decisions and investing critical funds. To be fair, some ‘integrated suite solution’ vendors focus so heavily on the “strong” product that they poorly educate clients on the complimentary applications that are also available; yet another costly mistake.

Conversely, I’ve seen organizations reach out ONLY to the existing vendor, find what they want but fail to compare for various reasons; oftentimes for fear of “offending” the vendor. This is crazy! Just because I own a Chevrolet does this mean that every family member should have one too? No. I’m a believer that software buyer’s should intentionally consider many options during the decision cycle. By doing so buyer’s become well-informed regarding their options and good stewards of their decision process and funding resources.

In summary, buyers should approach this decision with an open mind and position themselves to negotiate a purchase that provides them the right solution for their unique needs. Some other considerations may be – system utilization by end users, existing technology infrastructure, locality of service resources, and many others. Sorry, but there’s no easy way to sugar-coat this, buying software takes time and requires skill. Therefore, document your needs, challenge vendors with probing questions, and negotiating hard for the best price.

Good luck in your search. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other regarding best-of-breed vs. integrated suite solutions then post a comment.

Image credit: © rufar – Fotolia.com

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The road junction and blue sky and green grass

Source: Software Advice Blog, http://www.softwareadvice.com/articles/uncategorized/best-of-breed-or-integrated-suite-10-questions-to-consider-1050610/

The 10 questions suggested by the author are:

  • Are your needs for the new application really that specialized, or can they be met by your ERP vendor’s (potentially) broader offering?
  • Do you really need the systems integrated, or are you OK with two standalone systems?
  • Does your ERP vendor offer (or come close enough to offering) what you need?
  • Do you have the IT resources necessary to perform a complete integration?
  • Are the near-term hurdles of implementing a suite or best-of-breed system justifiable for long-term business improvements, or are they prohibitive?
  • How truly integrated is the integrated suite vendor’s offering?
  • Is the ERP vendor’s solution close to a best-of-breed system?
  • What is the long-term viability of the best-of-breed vendor?
  • Will the ERP vendor give you such a significant price discount that it offsets the sacrifice in functionality?
  • Does the new applications category (i.e. CRM) merit a different deployment model (i.e. SaaS) than your back-office ERP system (i.e. on-premise)?

Question: How do you deal with choosing between all-in-one versus best-of-breed? Answering this without regard specifically to software is perfectly fine.

Image credit: © rufar – Fotolia.com

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"You're hired!" key on keyboardGiven the struggles many businesses are experiencing during this economic downturn it is becoming increasingly important to hire smart. What does this mean? Well, from a technology standpoint, it means having relevant, timely information and the ability to analyze it so that proven hiring practices can be replicated consistently. There are no guarantees in hiring, but like in any environment businesses need to use systems and processes that give them the greatest probability of success.

As such, I want to reference a Blog post I came across some time ago that caught my attention. In this post TEC (Technology Evaluation Center) shares some information on Human Resources and Business Intelligence. Also, as a former Sage Abra Employer Solutions business partner, this is an area of interest to me and a product line that Solution Explorers has researched in preparation of helping businesses select the right software for their unique business needs.

Below is a Web link to TEC’s Blog post:

http://blog.technologyevaluation.com/blog/2009/12/17/workforce-analytics-%e2%80%93-a-blend-of-business-intelligence-and-human-resources/#comment-8385

Here are a few immediate thoughts…

1) Do buyers of this technology really know what they want by way of metrics?

2) Can vendors move away from dog-n-pony demos of this technology (BI mostly) and present real-scenario applications of the tool that resonate with the buyer?

3) Will buyers include in the initial purchase follow up services to configure metrics after some time of actual application use?

Historically, many (not all) software purchasers buy at the lowest cost and sacrifice follow up services. Then future approvals for more $ become difficult and therefore result in underutilization. All this to say that technology is great, and maturing, but have we buyers and sellers matured in our buying and selling practices/habits?

Finally, aside from software technology, this economic downturn has returned to us something we often lose by relying too much on technology and that is hiring via direct referrals from trusted sources. Today, new hires are winning from referrals and not resumes. Of course, technology tools like HR/BI, LinkedIN, other social networks, etc. are being used for referrals through viewing people’s connections. In the end, hiring smart, much like finding the right software for a client, means using a conglomerate of old school and new technology tools to navigate through a pool of candidates, filter irrelevant options, and selecting the candidate that matches pre-defined criteria. It’s hard work, and requires skill.

Thanks for your support and participation. I’m very excited about developing a mutually-rewarding online dialogue as we explore ways to “transform the software technology buying and selling experience.”

Image credit: Fotolia – treenabeena

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Brushes and paint-rollerI follow the TEC Blog regularly and appreciate their insights into the ERP software technology market. Their site in and of itself is quite amazing; clearly a lot of thought and work went into this service model. Recently, they submitted a post that I felt compelled to respond to regarding accounting software selection product ratings. Below is a link to the post and copy of my comments. What are your thoughts?

http://blog.technologyevaluation.com/blog/2010/03/05/accounting-software-selection-challenge-3-microsoft-vs-infor-difficulty-basic/#comment-8963

Q: Why [does] modifying your priorities change the overall accounting product ratings?

My response….

Well, one obvious answer is product differentiation. Infor and MS Dynamics are viable market solutions, as are many others such as the deep Sage product line. However, each vendor has conducted extensive market research and intentionally (key word) developed different product and/or modular features and functionality emphasis. You’ve heard it before…”if you don’t differentiate then you’ll only compete on price.”

Also, and don’t take this personal, but online product search engines are imperfect. For instance, I recently helped a business find project management software. The software that actually met the client’s needs best did NOT appear in initial searches, respected industry Top 10 lists, etc. The human part of research has exponential value; especially for businesses that want a system that exactly meets their needs – not just a short list of participating vendors.

Finally, regarding your statement, “…many software selection mishaps are directly attributable to improper assessment of business priorities.” That’s ok, but even more so “many software selection mishaps are directly attributable to”…de-emphasizing pre-search Needs Analysis (internal) and documenting System Requirements BEFORE product research and/or reaching out directly to potential solution vendors. Too many companies (buyers) open themselves up before they are really ready to buy, and that’s a costly mistake.

Note: TEC’s emphasis on “prioritizing” system requirements is spot on! It’s bad enough that most software buyers de-emphasize documenting their business needs before reaching out to potential vendors, but it’s worse to also fail to place priorities on system requirements. Doing these two tasks alone, albeit steps that require time and skill, would produce a transformation in software buying and selling; which happens to be the vision for Solution Explorers.

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I recently did some collaborative work with Robert Guild, certified QuickBooks Advisor with Austin, TX-based QBCoach. In his preparation to speak with financial leaders and advisors he asked to interview me about the overall concept of Solution Explorers. The result was an effective, fun 9.5 minute interview video in which we covered the following:

YouTube interview video: About Solution Explorers

It’s interesting…helping others identify the right software solution for their organization seems like such a simple concept. However, I’m often asked “what exactly do you do?” Amazingly, aside from very high $ consultants representing large CPA and/or IT Consulting firms this service model doesn’t appear to be a broadly available service.

Hopefully, the option of outsourcing this time-consuming, skilled project activity will grow so that small and medium sized businesses will be able to focus more on their strengths while increasing the probability of investing revenue or funds in a business solution that effectively meets their current and long-term business software needs. After all, Solution Explorers aims to “transform the software buying and selling experience.” With increased resources and willingness to outsource specialty tasks I am convinced that both buyers and sellers of software technology systems will begin to experience more rewarding ways to interact.

Your thoughts, and even questions, regarding this business concept are certainly welcome.

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When looking for/at business software solutions (exploring), what does the word “Customization” mean to you?

Partially unpacked box with some product (packed in red paper)..

This word alone means different things to different software buyers. Some think high dollar costs to produce “custom” functionality developed by software programmers. Others are satisfied by user-defined fields that can be used in the systems reporting tool.  Either way, the key here is to select a system that provides flexible options inherently or via established addons. One way to test for this is to be willing to challenge software vendors before and during presentations and not allow “dog-n-pony” shows that only highlight what vendors want to show you.

Warning: If you skip the Needs Analysis step then you willingly put vendor(s) in the driver’s seat of your search and ultimately your investment!

Below is a list of key components in your search process to consider regarding customization.

Ease of Use

What exactly does this mean? Sorry, but it means what YOU mean it to be; Lame, I know. Virtually EVERY software vendor claims this for their product, and likewise virtually EVERY software buyer demands it. But no one really knows what it means! ??????? I’ve witnessed a few things though over the years that helps win engagements in this particular search area.

1)      Customized Procedure Guides – this generally involves taking screenshots after your database structure has been established and writing step-by-step procedures of your entry process. There is huge value in when your organization experiences turnover, but this must be maintained.

2)      Pre-recorded tutorials – often accessible via a secure website or hopefully through the Help menu/icon option. This is less customized to you, but still a nice “ease of use” feature.

3)      Editing field names, tab names and/or position, or choosing how many characters can be entered into a particular field (i.e. Customer number or name). Some systems even allow end users to add Help text as an append to standard system help documentation. Cool!

4)      User-specific settings, creating “Favorites” lists, Quick Links to other apps, and much more.

Support

Product support services are critical to protecting your investment as well as long-term satisfaction. The options available to clients though vary by product vendor. In some cases, options are offered which allow for more customization in your purchase. For instance:

  • Phone support – would you like to speak with U.S.-based techs or is India ok?
  • Phone support – annual agreement, pay-per-call, pre-purchased batch of hours, etc.?
  • Chat Now option – just click here and a representative will chat online with you.
  • Online Knowledgebase – allows users to search by keyword, incident number, and in some cases even view your call history.
  • Consulting services – some vendors only offer in-house services while others have “authorized partners” (aka VARs, Resellers) that are more local to your location.
  • Training – classroom, online class, one-on-one private session, pre-recorded tutorials, etc.
  • User Groups and/or Customer Forums – these can be very valuable as they allow you to speak with actual product end users like yourself. Often, participation in these is free too.

Customizability

Here we go again, what exactly does this mean? In many cases the following options may exist:

  • API – Application Programming Interface – when available, a really nice tool that allows for interaction (aka integration, interface) between software programs. Stated plainly, “I want my systems to talk to each other!” – share data, reduce duplicate data entry, etc.
  • Professional Development services – where you tell the vendor what you want and for a price they’ll develop the application according to agreed upon specifications.
  • Source Code – there are some companies that actually license their program source code which allow you to develop, internally or externally, additional product capabilities. This need typically only applies to buyers with unique application needs, the kind that will be virtually impossible to find “out of the box.” Give this some thought before going this route because it likely requires a much great investment and could limit support services and/or effectiveness.

Note: Customizability and Configurability are NOT one in the same. The latter usually involves using out of the box administrative settings that tell the software to perform and/or make available certain existing product functionality. Buyers often pay consultants for “setup” or “implementation” services that focus on configuring the application settings to your end user processes and preferences.

Appropriateness

Put your product search effort into context. For instance, I once helped an organization that was initially looking at $10,000 nonprofit fundraising software before we met. Those vendors were diligently competing and trying to “close the deal.” Unfortunately, this client was very small – under 5 employees, less than 1,000 donor records, and an operating budget of less than $200,000. What were those vendors thinking!! $$$ perhaps? Meeting quota?? Smokin’ something illegal? This real life example emphasizes why I stress so often the value in the Needs Analysis software search step. Happy ending…I was able to help this client perform an effective assessment of their issues and system requirements, search for “appropriate” solutions, and make a purchase – in this case GiftWorks. Their investment was under $1,000 and that included an Events module to track their annual Golf Tournament. We were also able to negotiate a two-year support services agreement at reduced pricing. Again, “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.”

OK, this Solution Exploration topic is truly an endless subject. So, we’ll move on to Collaboration: Vendor Outreach and Presentations next. In the meantime, what’s your software exploration story? Did you follow logical steps like these, or “wing it” as you talked with vendors? Every company strives to be good stewards of their resources, and this is just one area of business that cutting corners becomes costly and produces poor outcomes. Let me know what you think.

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