Business Analysed

Observations from a Business Analyst

Archive for the ‘Local Government’ Category

Local Authorities and Software as a Service

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I recently performed some business analysis for Solihull Council to investigate sharing services with Lichfield District Council. The aim of the project was for Solihull to host the financial systems of Lichfield allowing secure access to Lichfied’s staff to perform business as usual. My role was to challenge the concept and the parties involved to ensure that everyone knew what they will about to undertake and that it was possible depending on the timescales, costs and resources. I am pleased to say that since performing the analysis both councils agreed to enter into a contract.

The project reminded me of a time when I worked for a hosted software provider as the concepts were the same, one company would provide a technical solution for another, to be accessed in a secure manner over a network. The project got me thinking further about the possibility of local authorities starting to enter the Software as a Service (SaaS) market, providing services for other councils.

Many private sector SaaS providers would love to capture the Local Authority market, however it would be one of the most challenging markets to try to enter. Many factors prevent these players reaching the starting blocks including local and central government security concerns, complex business processes, risk adverse councils, funding issues, internal resources and the requirement for reliability. Many of these are genuine and some are resultant of the cautious nature of Local Authorities.

One option for local authorities would be to work together to gain efficiencies from existing systems by utilising their existing capacity to meet the needs of another authority. In the local authority market there are a small number of large suppliers providing a small number of systems to a large number of councils supporting the complex business processes undertaken to meet the needs of the local community and also government. Many of the local authorities have support arrangements in place, either internally or with 3rd party providers, and they all have defined their own processes based on best practice and guidance. This means that they already have the in house skills and expertise to make a shared service solution work.

Business analysis would need to be undertaken to ensure that the councils involved are ready to commit and understand, not only the benefits, but also the responsibility of such an agreement. It is in these situations that a business analyst will be challenged. When performing the work for Solihull and Lichfield I went in to the project with a skeptical, but open mind and I looked for proof and assurance that what was being proposed could be delivered. I challenged the expectations of both parties and made sure that the objectives were understood and agreed. It came as no surprise to me that the expectations of both sides were different and this was one of the key roles of my analysis to define.

I do believe that Local Authorities have the capability to work together and take advantage of enterprise wide systems that have been put in place. As councils are being challenged to deliver more for less this sort of option is becoming more a route to be investigated.

Written by Paul Jennings

April 1, 2009 at 11:58 am

Twitter – how to describe it…

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Sometimes the role of Business Analyst is to explain concepts and ideas to individuals and businesses. In the following paragraphs I share how I explain concepts to people. This can be challenging if the concept is complex or the individual does not understand the topic concerned.

At this time we are still racing through a technology revolution and so it is even more important to ensure that when describing concepts it is done so in a language and way that can be understood by the listener. I always try to understand how much the listener knows and when speaking compare complexities to simple situations that the listener will appreciate and be knowledgeable.

Anyway on to the post….

Following on from my previous post Education the Authorities I was speaking with a friend from the communications team of a local authority about social media and the sort of tools that are appearing in the main-stream. He, by his own admission, accepts that he is not always at the forefront of new technology but is always willing to find out more, so over lunch we discussed the entity and the culture that is Twitter.

I have been using Twitter for a couple of months and I still only consider myself a novice when compared to some who have embraced the technology and are reaping the benefits. So how does one novice describe this sort of technology to an even greener novice. I chose to ignore the technology and focus on the usage and compare it to current forms of communication.

Let’s assume that Twitter is a form of information and, as we know, information has been arriving in many forms for many years including, books, newspapers, websites & blogs. The 2 biggest differences between these forms of information and Twitter is length of information and speed of communication. With regards to the length of the message Twitter is limited by technology but can be used to send links to longer messages, so when explaining this- I avoided the subject! The second main difference is speed of delivery, and this is what I chose to start with when explaining how Twitter works.

Books are always a snapshot of history, no matter how hot of the press they are, it will always be something that has already happened. In addition those who want the message have to get the book and only when they have read the information can they say they have ‘got’ the message.

Newspapers are the same, they too are a snapshot of history, however this time history is more recent and the subject matter varies greatly. Those wanting to get the message still have to get the paper, but now the reader can pick and choose their stories to suit their requirements. This allows a newspaper to target a wider audience than a book as the subject matter is now greater.

Websites are faster way of communicating than newspapers, they can be updated quicker and scanned or searched by the reader for information relevant to them. Many newspapers have websites displaying an on-line version of their paper, but with the addition of later stories. Websites are a broadcast of information, in the same way that a radio broadcasts the news. The reader (or listener) does not get a chance to comment or tailor the news to suite their needs.

Blogs takes newspapers and websites to new level. Information posted on a blog can be fresher than a newspaper but the significant difference is the way that readers can now interact with blogs. Readers still have to find the information and choose the blog to subscribe to which meets their requirements. A blog invites reaction from the reader, asking them to contribute to the conversation, challenging or supporting the author. The reader now has a way to interact and develop the information, tailoring it even more to their needs.

Taking communication to a new level is the Twitter culture – here authors take part in an on-line conversation. The information does flow, however it is guided by all the participants and not just an author. Users choose who to follow and who to interact with and listen in to the conversations going on and contribute when appropriate.

When trying to describe this further I asked my friend to imagine that Twitter was an extension of an open plan office where you choose who you want in your office. Try to imagine sitting in your Twitter office, puzzling over something or wanting help or a second opinion, now call out to your friends and colleagues asking them the question. Alternatively listen to the banter that is going on around you, and join in to the chat, answering someone’s query or supporting them.

One thing to remember about an open office, and Twitter, is that when you go out of the office you cannot hear the chatter. Twitter goes on 24 hours a day – there is always someone in the office, however you may not be. Just as in a ‘real’ office if you step out and a colleague requests assistance, you are not there to help – however someone else might. Twitter is the same, it is not necessary to ‘in’ on every conversation.

Twitter is a networking tool.

Twitter is a communication tool.

Twitter is an open plan office, where a lot of people work, all doing different things but sharing a common social ideal of helping others and spreading information.

Written by Paul Jennings

April 1, 2009 at 11:57 am

Educating the Authorities

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There has been a lot of talk recently regarding ways for Local Authorities to embrace ‘social media’, ‘web2.0’ and other key words such as ‘engage’ and how they can deliver better services by using technology. Although some people are passionate about embracing new ways of working there are still plenty out there that are not yet ‘with the programme’.

I was recently brought into a discussion about web forums and how they might be used in a local authority to try to engage the staff to feedback ideas to improve the council. What I learned from these discussions was not so much that there was negativity towards working differently, but it was more the fact that some people did not even know that an alternative solution existed, let alone what to do with it.

In my experience those at the coal face are usually quite good at creating the business case for a new tool or a process if they understand what it is all about. The biggest challenge is getting that message understood by those that can and will make a difference by using the tools. I talked recently about the role of the Business Analyst and how it was important that they were a translator between ICT and the business area. It is this skill that is essential when trying to promote new technology, translating the tools into words that the end users will understand. There is a key question that needs to be answered ‘What’s in it for me?’ if that cannot be answered then the changes will stay on the shelf.

Tip 1 – When trying to get business buy-in ensure that you can relate the tool to the individual that you’re talk to.

Secondly, and this is always the biggest problem to overcome, is culture. Moving towards a 21st Century way of working means changing the culture of an organisation to understand what is happening ‘out there’ in the world.

We are living in a very exciting time. The world of social media, micro-blogging and user engagement is expanding at a rapid rate. This means that our next generation of workers will be web aware and will be expecting to deliver their tasks using the tools that they use on a daily basis. Think if you were changing jobs and you got offered 2 positions, exactly the same money, benefits etc.. however one company expected you to work with a typewriter and post letters while the other gave you a laptop with email. Who would you work for..?

Currently organisations, and local authorities in particular, are in a battle of culture. Councils are never going to be seen as leading edge adopters of technology (some would say that they could be compared to scavengers coming along after the battle has been fought and and grabbing what they can) and as such councils are never going to attract the risk takers that can deliver the wins expected by the private sector. The downside of this is that they have become risk averse and failing to keep up with the expectations of the public. The culture needs to change, and to do that education is required.

In discussions I often break an organisation into 3 key elements:

  • People
  • Processes
  • Technology

Each element is just as important as the others and no one element can save an organisation, they have to work together and constantly evolve. It is often the case that organisations throw money at technology expecting it to deliver but without the people understanding why they are using the technology or how they will use the technology it is a waste of money.

Changing the culture means changing the people – this could be both figuratively or literally. Are you willing and capable to change the culture..?

Tip 2 – Be expected to change people to change the culture.

I mentioned above that to advance we have to understand what we are delivering but also be willing to change the culture to ensure that it evolves with us rather than against us. The big question for us now is – where do we start?

A number of sites have been publishing top tips recently  about where to find information a couple are below…

Another exciting recent development has been the advertising of the post of a Director of Digital Engagement for the Cabinet Office. This post will be there help change the culture and educate local authorities to how it is possible to embrace the future and build the business case.

Till next time.

Paul

Written by Paul Jennings

February 18, 2009 at 11:00 am

The Social Local Authority

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I was recently made aware of Bracknell Forest Council Web Development Blog by a tweet from someone who is working towards encouraging councils to become more social. This got me thinking about the work Bracknell Forest are doing and also the work of organisations such as MySociety and FillThatHole as a way of empowering the citizen to interact more with their local authority.  

Such sites and projects raise questions about the response the local authority will give to the information that is delivered from a variety of sources.

Firstly, what happens if the local authority chooses to ignore the information submitted? In which case the site is outdated unless a third party takes the time to update and respond where possible. There’s a number of ways that council can choose to respond to submitted information which could include RSS feeds giving updated status, or automatic emails reporting changes to the status of the call, or more complex solutions such as full interfaces allowing integration between trusted sites and the local authority. All these ways of interfacing and responding will have to be processed by the 3rd party site – but getting a response in the first place is the biggest battle.

Secondly, why are such sites successful in the first place? I believe the answer is simple – sites such as FixMyStreet offer an interface for members of the public to report problems to their local authority in a way that they want. I am sure that citizens are not deliberately shunning the council in favour of a different site it is just that the council does not have the same interfaces as the public expect.  The solution for local authorities is just as simple – adapt! – change the website to meet the requirements of the pubic and learn from those sites that have gone before and developed public solutions.

There is a mindset that Local Authorities are a service delivery just as any other company such as telecoms, high street shops, utilities etc.. whereby the customer can sit back and expect everything to be delivered without having to lift a finger and having the right to complain should something not be done right.

In a way this is true – however citizens, and businesses, need to update their opinion of the council and realise that they are not customers but actually shareholders and need to take an active part in the running of the organsiation. As with any company the better the relationship with its shareholders and customers the better the service will become. The organisation relies on feedback to improve the services delivered, without that feedback the organisation needs to beome a mind-reader.  There is a limited number of ways that

Citizens need to become more involved and be prepared to take responsibility for their actions – no longer is it ‘The Council’ it should now be ‘Our council’ and the work done by Bracknell Forest and other authorities are helping breaking down the barriers.

Written by Paul Jennings

December 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Shared Service Sorcery

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The concept of Shared Services has been on the Local Government agenda for some time as a way to combine resources and save money. Over the years some of the big consultancies have been touting for business, tempting local authorities into bed, some classic examples include Birmingham City Council’s deal with Capita and IBM’s deal with Somerset. Other local authorities are looking to move to the next level and including a strategic partner to deliver multiple services for the group.

When embarking on the path of Shared Services it is essential that the whole organisation understands what they want to get out of it and what they are willing to put in to the deal. I fear that when Shared Services appears on the agenda no-one asks what do we want and instead focus on how much can we save.

ICT is a key enabler of successfully delivering Shared Services and one of the reasons it is so important to understand the requirements and expectations up front. When explaining shared services I treat it as a journey that takes an organisation from in-house solution through to a fully managed solution. The first question I always pose is – where is the line..? The line defines what one organisation gives up and the other takes up.

Having worked recently with 2 authorities looking to join up their financial services I was interested to learn that different departments had different opinions as to where the line was going to be. Some thought that it was a fully managed service while another department felt that it would be a hosted service. In the end the project was split into 2 phases, with phase 1 looking to implement a hosted solution where one authority would be responsible for the hardware while the other would be carrying on as normal but with a new infrastructure. In phase 2 work would be undertaken to pass some of the operational tasks from one authority to the other.

In summary: Get the line in the right place, avoid the confusion up front.

The second question that I raise is what does the organisation want to get out of the agreement. Is it money, does the authority want to make a profit..? Is it efficiency, by working together does the authority want to deliver a better service for users..? Is it experience, does the authority want to learn more about shared working with an aim to increase usage in the future..?

Profit is always a bit of red herring and no authority should go into a shared services agreement expecting to make money. It is the nature of business to only create an infrastructure that is required for the current service with limited room for expansion. Taking on the work of another authority could mean doubling the infrastructure to support and so will require investment to meet the needs of the agreement. The cost of this investment will affect the price that needs to be charged but this will need to be balanced with the need to be competitive and so the profit margin suddenly stops looking so good.

In summary: If you’re looking to offer shared services, be wary as all that glitters is not gold.

The third question that I ask is what impact will this have. In a shared services agreement, no matter how far down the road, there is a giver and a taker. It is essential that any changes to processes are fully understood before entering the agreement as substantial changes will affect efficiencies and therefore the ‘bottom line’ of the agreement.

Finally – shared services are a good way of delivering better services to customers by utilising the skills in place, however be wary and ask the right questions before taking the plunge.

Till next time.

Written by Paul Jennings

October 29, 2008 at 2:55 pm

When playtime stops and work begins

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My previous post (ICT – Getting Accountant Buy-in) made me think more than I had originally anticipated, and I have concluded that, in a way, I put the cart before the horse. My error was to jump straight in and try to help get the message across as to how to convince management (and accountants) that your project is a great idea, I did not, or have not, discussed what are the best tools for the job – hence this post.

I saw an interesting post this morning by Robert Scoble discussing how there has been a shift away from traditional personal blogs to a more business centred view of blogs. My personal opinion is that this is good thing and it shows that the commercial world is following developments made by the web for social benefit. Scoble would prefer that the blog remained personal.

Web 2.0 – the biggest buzz word to hit the internet since .com. The technology that has been developed and the interaction that has grown has been amazing, now everyone twitters, facebooks, blogs, IMs, emails, VOIPs, RSSs the list goes on but the question remains how do we apply this to everyday business, or, when does playtime stop and work begin.

Without the embrace of the commercial sector social media will remain on the sidelines, only being accessed by a select few while topics of conversation will remain unfocused and irrelevant to many employees. By embracing social media the commercial sector will help to develop the potential and attract new investment, just look at email and websites. What we have to do is think how a commercial organisation can benefit from using social media as part of its daily toolbox.

Work life balance is now more important to many employees than ever before. At the same time being an employer of choice is high in the priorities of many organisations. Somewhere a compromise needs to be achieved. Social media tools can help deliver that compromise.

The most favoured example of work-life balance is home-working; the ability for an employee to get up at 8.30am and start work from their home office. The tools required to achieve this are now becoming common place:

* Laptops – allows employees the ability to take their desk with them
* Virtual Private Networks (VPN) – allows secure access to office servers
* Voice over IP (VOIP) – allows employees the ability to connect to the office telephone system remotely

So the technology is available – but what about the problems..?

It is often said that the biggest thing missing when working at home is the banter – my question is why..? Tools such as twitter and instant messaging can help. Secure and shared between employees, IM can deliver the banter during the normal working day.

I have also heard people say that it is easier to pop down the corridor and see someone. What happens if the person you are going to visit working from home..? Also, if seeing someone is so important, what about video messaging..?

Other examples of where social media can benefit an organisation, but is not being fully utilised, is with regards to collaborative working. Why do we need to send around emails cc’ing the world and his dog – a blog would help deliver this. Imagine a development project where you need to be kept informed, but not required to respond – it is easier to RSS a blog than have to skim through a cc’ed email to find what you are looking for.

Another collaborative tool is the Wiki – the ability for a group of people to join in with the creation of a document without having to email around a paper constantly out of date.

Think of Facebook, imagine that a group of colleagues working together had the ability to keep each other informed (with or without pokes!) with live updates, information and reports from meetings, visits etc.. It is another example of how with simple thinking a play toy can be changed to be a useful business asset.

There are many tools available but it is essential that they are not dismissed out of hand as toys. They need to be considered and investigated as possible tools to help productivity in the work place.

Till next time.

Written by Paul Jennings

October 11, 2008 at 8:27 am

Community Content Creation

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Two stories took my eye today that got me thinking and I wanted to share them with you. The first, an article about the online fan base for Terry Wogan and can be seen here…

BBC – Radio Labs – Fan cultures in radio (3) – TOGs or “This Ordinary Group”

The article focuses on how the community feel closer to the celebrity by being part of the website rather than just being a listening body receiving information from the radio. In addition the article asked the users what could be done to improve the site – the response was very encouraging and just goes to show how those that use the information can better tell the creators what is best than the creators second guessing the content.

This got me thinking – if we can do it online, why can’t we do it in real life. How do we as citizens engage with each other and our providers. This leads me on to the other item that caught my eye today.

An author of a blog I follow posted an entry live from a conference this afternoon about a speaker, Dominic Campbell, from an organisation called FutureGov he spoke about how Local Government were missing the point when consulting with their citizens. He gave examples of Brent Council and highlighted this video to help engage the citizens.

Local authorities need to engage and trust their community to help develop both the services that it delivers and also the information provided on their websites. Local authorities have to move away from the ‘We are almighty, we know what you want’ position to a ‘Help us to help you’ approach.

Web 2.0 can help with this, build an online community reflecting the real life world.

Till next time.

Written by Paul Jennings

October 8, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Welcome to Business Analysed

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The observations of an ICT Business Analyst specialising in the utilisation of software within Local Government.

I hope that this blog will grow over time, linking to other sites that I find interesting.

Written by Paul Jennings

October 8, 2008 at 4:07 pm

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