Baby Steps to a Secure ECM System

We’ve covered in the past how ECM and BPA (Business Process Automation) are stronger together than the sum of their individual values.  But these systems can still be a significant investment for any firm.  The scale of your firm can dictate the cost and scale of the appropriate ECM and BPA tools you use, but the cost can easily range from 5-7 figures to set up all the necessary software in a quality fashion.

How can one justify an investment like this before, during, and after its implementation?  Getting buy-in from the entire company for a widespread adoption of a comprehensive enterprise system is difficult – so don’t start with that!

One Step at a Time

You know the security and compliance benefits of a strong ECM system, but oftentimes prevention just isn’t motivating enough to spur action, even when it’s vitally necessary.  The social sciences are full of examples where we don’t take sound preventative measures in advance of a disaster, and instead tend to focus only on things we perceive as advancing us – it’s human nature.

We at Beach Street look to the Diffusion of Innovations Curve for the solution (sorry for the pun) to this problem – choose the right system for your whole enterprise, but start by only solving one critical, high-value problem for one eager division of your firm.

The rest will come naturally after that.  Use success in this one division to create momentum and buy-in from within your own firm so you can protect it in the long term while creating value for the business processes.

Gathering Steam

What are the benefits to a modular system like this?

  • Prove it by actually solving something!
  • Faster and more successful initial implementation by focusing the effort on just ONE thing
  • As one department encounters success, it encourages others to enroll in the ECM program
  • Role-based interfaces make it easier to add incremental divisions to the system, making the threshold to entry lower for late comers
  • Common resources of multiple divisions have already been prepared and can mentor new users

Where to Start?

Over our 10 years of experience providing ECM implementation services, we’ve found patterns in how to determine which solutions work best to start the process.

Here’s a general outline of how we picture a modular implementation process working:

Solution Wheel Graphic

While the plan above is an outline we tailored for one of our Public Sector clients, the principles remain sound for any industry:

  • BIGGEST PAIN FIRST – There is typically a single system within the organization that is especially painful and in need of an upgrade (in this case Contracts Lifecycle Management). Our standard solutions cover the ones we’ve seen most often.
  • LEVERAGE – This becomes the vehicle for the initial implementation of an ECM system that the business has desired for some time for security and compliance
  • SECOND/EXTERNAL TIER – Once this is in place, the system is expanded to other core processes facing external parties such as vendors and customers (citizens in a Public Sector example)
  • SMOOTH THE GAPS – With the system having gained large momentum within the company’s high value activities, creating compliance and security for other departmental activities is now a much simpler and lower threshold

In short, the initial success from solving that initial “biggest pain” creates buy in from subsequent business areas.  Each department that experiences the time savings and efficiency gains of a BPA enabled ECM encourages other departments to volunteer for entry into the system.  This in turn replaces the classic user adoption problem with a new problem of meeting internal demand, which is a much better problem to have.

Interested in learning more about how this modular design process can work for your firm?  Leave us a comment or reach out here!

If you can’t measure it, why do it? (BPA + ECM = ROI)

One of the first questions a business asks when examining the possibility of implementing either an ECM system or a BPM engine is “What sort of ROI can I expect from this tool?”

While this is a completely understandable question, we find a slightly different approach is more accurate on two fronts:  First, implementing ECM and BPM together enables a far greater ROI return than either one alone.  Second, these are in and of themselves measurement and control tools, meaning they allow you to answer your own ROI questions.

Contemplating a change in your core business process?  Want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether it’ll pay off or not?  These tools provide the answer as well as the mechanism for change.  Think it was close, but you need to tweak that system a little more?  Run another test trial and find out for sure.  Know for sure whether your experiment saved time, money, or protected you better from risk.

Let’s explain a little deeper.

BPM (or rather BPA, Business Process Automation) and ECM together are more than the sum of their independent benefits

We don’t want to get too crazy on outdated buzzwords, but this is one case where “synergy” is actually an appropriate description.

While a Content Management system allows for greater control, it doesn’t necessarily make the data or content any more useful.  It is inherently a risk management tool, and a good one at that.  In situations where sensitive documents need to be protected, it is top notch.  However, it is still all about content at rest rather than content in motion.  There is an element of “we’ve put our content in a squarely controlled and protected repository – now what?”

BPM systems are fantastic and in our opinion at their best when specifically used for BPA (Business Process Automation, not the plastics…).  Especially when used for increased system automation, they are inherently oriented toward process efficiency and active returns on the effort of setting it up.  However, the system can still be hampered by an underlying infrastructure that is insufficiently organized.

Together, BPA and ECM create more ROI by leaning on one another.  The ECM creates control, while the BPA system ensures controlled content is being put to good use and protected.  BPA creates business efficiency while relying on the ECM to ensure consistency across the Enterprise platform.  In the end, we’ve consistently seen firms that have already invested the effort in an ECM repository have shown a greater rate of success when they move to BPA than those that have not put forth that effort – a large part of why we’ve partnered with firms like EMC who produce world class tools like Documentum and xCP:  they will integrate smoothly to deliver this combined platform and form the basis for our solutions.

The Four Golden Business Resources

Before we go too much further into this topic, let us talk a little about what businesses rely upon to create defensible and sustainable profitability:

1 – People: Who is in your organization, what are their roles, what do they need to do, and to what do they need access?

2 – Data:  What are the numbers of your business?  Your inputs, your outputs, your variables, vendor and contract ID numbers, etc?

3 – Content: What is the documentation of your business?  Legal terms, invoice and HR documentation, agendas, etc.

4 – Process:  How do those three need to interact in day-to-day business?  What decisions and interpretations need to be made?  By whom?  Who needs to coordinate with who?

Measurement is the Key

Measuring ROI on IT investments, business process changes, and content management decisions is difficult.

As we said above, the repository by itself is passive – a tool geared for risk management, avoiding problems rather than chasing gains.  A BPA system integrates this repository in real time with decision makers in the Front Office, Back Office, and the business profit centers of the Value Office.  Both changes can (with a well executed implementation) yield strong business benefits.

However, the key to greater ROI produced by this new combined BPA-ECM system is the ability to measure.  Google and the rest of the internet marketing world has allowed us to split-test our marketing messages in real time and find the best option – we’re proposing a coordinated BPA-ECM infrastructure as an option to do something similar for your internal business processes.

How much time and labor is actually being spent on a given process?

  • Contract assembly
  • Contract review
  • Customer on-boarding
  • Invoice processing
  • Employee on-boarding
  • That thing that only you know how to do
  • …you get the idea

Once this has been measured, you know what challenges you face – and you can effectively measure and test methods for improving those processes:

  • The new customer on-boarding process increased up-sales of our secondary product by X%
  • By adjusting from X version of this contract clause to Y version, time to vendor acceptance was reduced by Z%
  • If we provide our customers with an A% greater discount for payment within Net 30 terms it is B% more likely to actually impact their turnaround time

The soft benefit of all of this is that it can provide a safer environment to encourage creativity and innovation from the ground up within your organization.  Someone has an idea?  Let them try it!  You’ll be able to quickly and easily determine if it’s working and to what degree.  And remember to think not just in terms of money, but also in terms of time and labor savings.

The possibilities are endless, and those above are generic to problems that every business will have.  What are the topics that are unique to your company that you’ve been struggling to find a way to measure?

Ways to Avoid The Pitfalls of a System Upgrade

Let’s face it, upgrades and migrations are not the most fun process in the world, either for those doing it or the system users who do not have access to the system during the upgrade.  However, it doesn’t have to be quite so painful either.  An upgrade done for the right reasons with a bit of forethought can go a long way to avoiding the usual pitfalls.

It’s all about good communication, prioritization, and balancing your vision.

There are two perspectives on this – tactically within a given project, and strategically within the enterprise.

#1 – Keep the End in Mind

For starters, if you want an upgrade or a migration to be a success both for your infrastructure team and the system users, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page about why it’s being done.

While the costs both in time and money may vary, they’re rarely insignificant.  If you don’t communicate the benefits well, there is often dissatisfaction from one corner of the enterprise to another.  Typically, there are two drivers for upgrade – the costs of not upgrading or the benefits of a new and improved system.

New and Improved!

Let’s start with a new and improved system.  This sort of positive, benefit talk is certainly the most exciting to try pitching to your business users.  Is there a new product being released by one of your vendors that you’re already working with that could solve a strategic problem that you haven’t been able to address?  Is there a new version of a platform you’re already using that could dramatically improve the performance of your system or reduce the issues and/or downtime of the system?  (Think frequent tasks like price quotes, contract template generation, scanning capture, etc.)

These sorts of upgrades or system expansions are in some ways easier to sell.  Everyone likes to hear that something will be even better than it was and that they’ll get even more from it than they would before.  Generally, the pitfall here is making sure that you manage expectations (yes it answers your must-haves, we’re still working on these nice-to-have features, etc), and making sure your ROI is very clearly calculated, whether in time or money.

The Sky Is Falling!

The harder sell is the preventative kind.  Sometimes, upgrades and migrations are necessary… but not because they actually do anything MORE than they did before.  It’s because of what would or could go wrong if you DON’T do it.

We hear you – this is not a fun topic.  No one wants to be all doom and gloom or to talk about the investment that’s necessary to keep things operating smoothly.  The unfortunate truth is of course that the majority of most firms’ IT budgets are actually in this department.  The software business is constantly evolving just like any other industry, and no business can afford to continue manufacturing and supporting an infinite number of products – not the auto industry, the toy industry, and neither computer hardware nor software.

The things necessary to communicate to users are the costs of doing nothing.  Is the software reaching end-of-life (EOL)?  Are you aware of the additional maintenance cost for software that is beyond EOL?  Is the underlying environment also becoming out of support (OS, database, java app server, app serve, etc)?  Is there a known security issue that was recently discovered and corrected and how does this impact your existing system?  Do you have integrations between systems and do you know the version dependencies between the two?  The dependency information is much harder to gather and maintain if the two systems are made by two different vendors.

The real conversation here is all about bringing your users up to speed with reality, however unpleasant, and managing their expectations.  Speaking of expectations…

#2 – Keep the Big Picture in Mind

No matter how well you run a project, you can never achieve true success with an upgrade if it doesn’t fit within the priorities of your larger business plan.  This means having a longer term vision in mind, and this is where we make your entire enterprise system more bulletproof.

What Types of Systems?

Generally, while systems that are truly 100% “out of the box” are preferable, many on the enterprise level require some adjustment to fully fit a firm’s needs.  Configurability here is the name of the game – the more true customization and custom coding it requires, the more support services you’ll have to pay for, the more expensive the cost to upgrade later (since the customizations may need to be re-worked to function in the upgraded platform), and the more likely that an upgrade to the system will simply become incompatible at some point with the customizations that were originally made.

A configurable platform, on the other hand, is already set up with a very large set of potential alternative features.  It’s simply a matter of deciding which features will be enabled for one implementation or another, how they will be laid out, and how they will interact.  An upgraded platform here will take all of these features along with it, making it a much more cost effective prospect over the long haul.

Gazing Into the Future

No one will have quite the same long term priorities as you do.  A good vendor however, should respect and keep an open ear to your long term priorities.  They may need to be generated internally, but ultimately anyone you hire to work with you has the goal of serving those the best they are able.  Communicate your long term priorities to them well, and create a collaborative plan for mutual growth.

There are, of course, many other topics to cover here – should you hire someone else to implement an upgrade or do it yourself?  When you’re upgrading, should you keep the solution on premise or move it to the cloud?  When do you upgrade and when do you migrate (and what’s the difference)?  These are all topics for future discussion.

Have any best practices for upgrades or any horror stories?  Leave them in the comments – discussions like these help everyone to grow and improve their processes, which is really why we’re here!

Beach Street in the News: LA County Implements Award-Winning Contracts Management System

Today’s post is brief, but mostly because we have a number of other folks doing the talking for us – we’re just happy to share the news!

Los Angeles County has been one of our favorite customers over the years due to their commitment to doing creative and valuable work and their continually positive teamwork attitude.  We’re excited to share some of the work we’ve done with them in our press release via PRNewswire, and to have it covered by Government Technology.

For more details, you can also see an interview of Beach Street’s John Burns discussing our project with LA County, and our partner EMC also hosted him for a guest post on their Spark Blog.

Why Agile Isn’t Quite Right Either, and How to Move Forward

In my previous post, I talked a bit about the Waterfall Model and it’s ups and downs, and generally made the case that while it once had a place in application development, the modern rapid application development environment has left it with more drawbacks than benefits.

The New… and the Middle Balance

So whatever the new model is, that has to be better, right?

Sort of.

Agile design is the normal response we see among developers who understand the shortcomings of the standard waterfall model.  While fantastic in many ways, there are drawbacks here too.

The organic nature of an agile design can lead to constructive and meaningful design direction and discussion between the business users and the development team, but it can also lead to a never-ending loop of adjustment and change without ever leading to a project release.

While a modular assembly approach is valuable, not everything can be fully modularized.  Content artifacts, individual use cases, and work flow actions are meaningless outside of the context of the larger process.  Left to run wild in a true modular design model, the interfacing between these modules within the application becomes a monstrous task.

The number one fear we hear from clients is that iterative (or agile) design lacks structure, a big reason why we developed the Streetwise Implementation Model, which could be called a form of spiral design.  It utilizes elements of both waterfall and agile models.  Here are some of the highlights:

Engagement with End Users – In case you couldn’t tell from earlier in this post, this is paramount to us.  Key representatives from end user populations MUST be present at these meetings and their needs MUST be heard.  With an iterative prototype design approach, they’ll get to feel like a part of creating something they can see and interact with.  If you’re using a standard solution template to start from wherever possible, they’ll get even more out of the conversation even from Day 1.

Prioritize – What are the big core elements of the required system and what are the bells and whistles that make it better once the core elements are in place?  Keep the main thing the main thing.  Of course, this cannot be done without making it a real conversation with the end users.  What are the handful of features that if missing, would make them think the system would be a waste of time?  Build them into the first prototype and let the rest wait until round two.

Does seeing the finished product of round one strike a chord of creativity to come up with something new?  Is an enhancement they were excited about no longer necessary now that they see the core features live?  Worry about adjustments to the primary features and secondary enhancements once the first round is live, this way the big stuff gets its due first.

Schedule & Milestones – Make sure that the iterative design process retains a structure and a set of milestones around system demonstrations to key end users.  How many iterations will there be?  How much time between them?  What are the core features expected from the first prototype?  These are the questions that need to be answered upon starting the project.  While a sketch of the later iterations is valuable, it should be understood that it is just that – a sketch or a draft.  During each iteration meeting, the conversation between the end users and the developers will adjust the expectations of that later stage, all while keeping in mind the number of iterations allowable to the project.

With a balanced approach incorporating end user engagement and clear prioritization, as well as a controlled timeline structure, the conversation between end users and development can become a powerful tool for change and for business growth.  Documentation along the way can become an interesting problem to solve with an iterative approach, which we’ll talk about soon.

Do you want to hear more about our Streetwise Methodology?  Have a story about a case where using waterfall caused problems?  Even if you disagree with our approach entirely, we’re always looking to grow and explore new approaches – drop us a line in the comments!