Churchill

Yesterday’s blog (Mild Electric Shocks) seems somewhat flippant in retrospect. I’d forgotten that Friday was the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral. Turning on the television just after clicking Publish, I saw the BBC was re-broadcasting the whole black-and-white event.

chruchill

I remember that day, 50 years ago, quite well. I was a 7-year-old boy at an uncomfortable boarding school in the English Midlands. We were given the morning off so that we could cluster around the school’s only (rather small) television to watch the funeral procession and the service at St Paul’s. The Headmaster’s wife, who wore a pronounced moustache, and whom we called Peeps, kept a frightening eye on us to make sure we appreciated the event’s significance.

In my seven-year-old mind Churchill was the ‘pugnacious British bulldog’, teeth clenched on a wet and revolting cigar, growling our enemies into submission. He stood for Victory and for British Supremacy rather than anything more complex. By the time of his death in 1965, of course, British influence was in decline and the country felt anything but supreme. On that wintry day, I suppose, Britain was burying its Imperial past forever. Not that I noticed that at the time. The (deliberately?) out-of-date map of the world that was used for our geography lessons was still preposterously red with British possessions.

The fact that I was aware of Churchill at seven was because my parents were both involved in the War Effort, and reminiscences of the War were a daily diet from infancy. Odd though it may sound, I suspect that the War years were my parents’ happiest. My father served in North Africa, and Italy, fighting a shooting war on the front line, and my mother on the gun parks of Southern England, calibrating guns.

The grainy, grey film that was broadcast again on Friday shows a gritty, grey London, dark from a hundred years of pollution (now so much cleaner). But otherwise, in its essentials, little has changed.

How different the world might have been if Lord Halifax had not stepped back from the Prime Ministership in May 1940 (which he need not have done, whatever he said at the time). It is probable that Halifax would have reached an agreement with Hitler, and Britain would have existed in the shadow of a Nazi Europe until such time as the Soviets swept across the continent (as some historians have suggested the endgame might have been).

But Churchill chose the impossible path, and won.

Things don’t change in their essentials. Coverage of Churchill’s funeral still looks good, even if it needed a little re-mastering. And although technology (business IT to be precise) occupies many of my waking moments, it hasn’t really made any difference to what is most important.

Mild electric shocks

A friend of mine gave me one of those data-gathering bracelets for Christmas. It tells me how far I’ve walked, how long I’ve slept, how fast my heart is beating and whether I’m still alive – usually not far enough, too long, about right and yes, just.

What I wondered, a few days ago, as my mind wandered momentarily during a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde  (four hours of glorious music, but not much happening on the stage) is whether this magic bracelet, or a future model, might detect the mind wandering.

Nodding Off 2

I do know that mind-reading technology hasn’t yet been invented, but there might be accompanying symptoms such as a low rate of breathing, a declining heart rate, a lack of movement, that together suggest I’m not attending as excitedly as I should.

Then it could administer a mild electric shock..

This might also be a useful feature during interminable PowerPoint presentations.

ITQs, ITTs, RFPs – how we love them!

Few things are more lowering to the mood of a software salesman than an ITQ, RFP or ITT. They’re all versions of the same horror. An Invitation to Quote, a Request for Proposal, an Invitation to Tender, they are all long lists of statements you must comment on, or of questions you must answer, about the software features a potential client requires.

Usually there’s a prescribed and very limited way of answering: A (your system wholly complies), B (it partially complies), C (it does not comply). You should avoid C if you can, but you must also be careful to pepper your answers with a few of them otherwise you won’t be taken seriously. And watch out for the trick question to which C is the right answer.

RFP

The problem is not only that these documents take far too long to respond to conscientiously, it’s also often unclear what the requirements mean. To answer usefully you often have to second-guess what the author is thinking, or, if you have time, seek clarification (though usually you’re completing the document at the last possible moment so you probably won’t have time). You also know that you must sometimes craft a truthful but slightly misleading note to justify an A.

The fact is (a fact that these documents ignore), what matters in software implementations is not just that software complies with a requirement, but how it complies.

The horror of the ITQ, RFP or ITT, is compounded when you’ve got to do one just to qualify for future ITQs, RFPs or ITTs. This is often the way with Government contracts, where the Government wants to compile a shortlist of qualified software systems for its institutions. These will then go on to issue their own ITQ, RFP or ITT when they’re ready to make a selection. So then you have to start again.

But even so, we’re vey pleased to announce that expense@work has been selected as an eligible expense management system for the New South Wales Government in Australia. Working over the last few months with our Sydney-based reseller, Professional Advantage, we’ve filled in a lot of forms, responded to a number of requests for further clarification, and finally established our compliance with the procedural and technical requirements of the NSW Government.

So now we just have to wait for some more ITQs, RFPs and ITTs to win some real software implementation projects.

Our credentials in the state sector are good. systems@work software is already used by a growing number of government and public sector institutions:

  • IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) – controlling MPs’ expenses
  • Arts Council of Wales
  • Central Bank of Ireland
  • Design Council
  • Independent Police Complaints Commission
  • Learning and Skills Development Agency
  • National Weights and Measures Laboratory
  • National Foundation for Educational Research
  • OFWAT
  • Police Federation of England and Wales
  • Seafish
  • Security Industry Authority
  • Skillset
  • South West Tourism
  • UK Film Council
  • United Kingdom Accreditation Service
  • Veterinary Medical Directorate

So we wait in hope.

You’re not what you wear – Papal lessons in leadership

I love Pope Francis. I’m not a religious man, I hasten to say, and there are more than one or two things I would disagree with him about, but there’s clearly a lot to learn from him about leadership and much to admire.

Pope in Yellow 2

Take the cheap yellow cape he wore in the Philippines at an open-air Mass. Just what everyone else was wearing. Just what you and i would wear if we were caught unexpectedly in a typhoon. Utilitarian, ill-cut, but functional. Forget Burberry.

Pope Francis doesn’t set himself apart. And that, surely, is something that all leaders must learn. Set aside, instead, the crimson Prada slippers, the motorcades, the five-star hotels, and be the same as everyone else. Don’t kid yourself that your position demands that a special dignity be preserved. You are what you are, not what you wear.

I was equally touched to see that when Pope Francis left the Philippines for Europe, he carried his own tatty briefcase. What was in it, I wonder? Toothbrush, pyjamas, a spare pair of socks, laptop, business cards, an old sandwich, ticket, passport, cash? On second thoughts, perhaps a Bible rather than a laptop.

Pope bag

Too scared to visit the doctor

For many months, a year or so ago, I was scared to visit the doctor. Not because I feared an alarming diagnosis. I could never be afraid of my delightful and kindly general practitioner. Rather, I was afraid because my company, LLP, was fortunate enough, about four years ago, to win a contract to implement a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system for the company that owns the clinic. And now they were using it. So I was petrified of the administrators, not the medical staff.

Doctor

Medicine is a big and complex business and it has to be run commercially. Appointments must be managed efficiently and bills must be produced promptly and accurately. This is what they wanted help with. So we sold them software and consulting to handle the scheduling of appointments and the generation of invoices, holding all the variations in price that depend on complex combinations of factors.

The implementation of our software took several months, and was not unlike the progress of an illness – good days, bad days, some pain from time to time, anxiety, progress, and then, eventually, the launch. So when the system went live, visiting the doctor became my chance to find out, incognito, what the end-users (amongst them the clinic’s receptionists) thought about it.

The difficulty was that I could see them struggling. They didn’t look happy with it at all.

As we all know, there’s a predictable double fall and rise of mood from the moment of software sale to the moment a system works well.

When a system is sold, expectations are at their highest. After a few weeks of system implementation and the realisation that packaged software systems can’t do everything, the mood plummets. But then, with workarounds and modifications, and as ‘go-live’ approaches, the mood lifts once more.

But then, when the system is live and things immediately go slightly wrong (as, sadly, they often do, however much training and testing you do) the mood declines again. Finally, step by step, bug by bug, day by day, as problems are solved and users get used to the new software, the mood improves again.

So, for a while I could see them struggling, and if I felt brave enough I would ask them about the system. They were kind. There was some problem with printing, they said, (system crashes in fact, when they clicked the Print button) and  there were other things they didn’t love. But they soldiered on, even if without joy.

But now I’m not afraid. I went for some physiotherapy just yesterday and for the first time I heard those very consoling words, ‘It’s really great, so much better than the system we had before.’

You don’t often get the chance to hear an honest opinion from the end-users of a system if you’re the supplier, and in my profession we often feel reluctant to hear it. But in the end, it’s important to know, and this story had a happy ending. The system was responsive to treatment, and now it’s been pronounced fit.

We’re all Queens now

It’s said that the Queen almost never carries cash. Not, I think, because she’s sick of the sight of her own head, but because she doesn’t often need it. Except when she places a few coins on the collection plate at Sunday morning service, there are others who make her payments for her.

Queen

But we’re all Queens now, in the sense that we don’t need to carry cash either. We don’t travel with our own Treasurers, but if we’re travelling with plastic cards, we rarely need cash in our pockets. Technology has made us near equals.

I spent this weekend in London and I can’t think of an occasion when I needed cash. Train tickets, London Underground, Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer, the Curzon Cinema (Testament of Youth – very good), Leon, Starbucks, Waterstones for books, the Tate Britain – none required cash.

The marvellous thing about it is that you feel you’re not spending real money at all. I fear, though, that the reckoning, as always, will come. And don’t be tempted to think that you are the equal of Her Majesty when it comes to spending power.

If you need to track your expenses, consider using our Apps, expense4you (for business) and expense4you (for personal expenses). Download them from the Apple App Store.

Who loves to queue?

It’s often said that the British like to queue, but I don’t think that’s true. What the British like is to queue well, in an orderly manner, where precedence is properly established by our time of arrival, and where discipline is maintained even when the bus arrives. For the British the concern is more with quality than quantity. We really don’t like to queue (it’s humiliating), but if we have to queue, we like to do it well

.Bus queue

There are other nations, though, whose people seem to revel in queuing, so much so that they like to do it more than once. I was reminded of this when I was in Rome last week.

In Italy you often get the chance to queue at least twice. At bars and cafes you queue at the cash desk to ask for what you want and to pay, and then you queue again at the bar to ask for what you want and to get it. I’m a system designer. This is bad system design. Who would design a system where you have to enter the same data twice? It widens the scope for error, especially if you don’t speak the language.

But the Italians aren’t nearly the worst. When I lived in Hungary in the late 1980s the Soviet-prescribed model was that you queued three times in shops. First, you queued to ask for what you wanted (often, of course, they didn’t have what you wanted), then you queued at the cash desk to pay for what you’d chosen, and after that you got a receipt and joined a third queue to get what you asked for, all wrapped up in brown paper and ready to go. It kept the working population busy, I suppose, and you could idle away a Saturday morning queuing fifteen times to buy five things.

But the worst queuing I’ve done on a regular basis, in terms both of quality (poor) and quantity (huge), was at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow in the late 1980s. The queue at passport control was a disordered scrum where you could spend ninety minutes elbowing your way to the front, kicking at the shins of those who try to get in front of you.

Departure from Moscow meant five queues: a queue to have your luggage checked, a queue to check in, a queue at passport control, a queue at security and then a queue to board the plane.

And then there was the time I queued eight times in Bucahrest to buy a small ball of string. No, that’s enough about queuing.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to queuing, the British are best.