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Great coverage in ERP today with Mark Sweeny and Tim Warner being interviewed by Paul Esherwood around de Novo and the Experience Economy and the worlds of ServiceNow and Oracle Cloud applications.

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As Featured in ERP Today | Written by Mark Sweeny, CEO at de Novo Solutions

Inflection 2021 – The Missing Piece of the Enterprise Jigsaw

This year will see the continued evolution of SaaS cloud applications and once again we find ourselves at another inflection point. The next step brings into focus the final piece of the jigsaw and delivers on what ERP has been promising for decades – simply to make our lives easier at work.

Digital transformation is already here. There is no need to carry on debating whether people will continue to work from home or return to the office. Everyone is already working everywhere but the emphasis is changing. We have to break out from the functional silos that ERP systems create and look across the wider enterprise. Work is now coming to you rather than you going to work.

Organisations that continue to ignore the evolving needs of their workforce and do not have their people and the employee experience at the centre of their strategy will continue to lose pace with those who are prepared to invest. For some, this has already proven to be fatal. Be warned, no industry is immune to digital disruption.

Stay relevant – take the experience economy seriously

Any company that does not deliver a seamless customer experience will be forever chasing the next sale while their competitors build meaningful and lasting relationships with theirs. Deep customer relationships create customer advocacy and this creates repeat business.

JP Morgan estimate that the experience economy Total Addressable Market (TAM) size is $110bn globally and Gartner research analysts are predicting that by 2024 organisations with an established multi-experience strategy will outperform their competitors in both customer and employee experience satisfaction metrics with:

To be successful organisations must always stay relevant to their market. The Gartner research makes a compelling argument that understanding both your customers’ and employees’ needs, wants, and behaviours on an individual level is more important than ever.

Delivering great products and services still needs human interaction. The consumer grade digital B2C world we all experience in our personal lives has now arrived in the workplace. We demand one click.

By creating real-time subconscious digital experiences that make employees efficient, effective, and most importantly successful, increases employee satisfaction as they feel valued. Employees now get to spend their most precious asset – their time – dealing with customers and/or citizens and not wading through endless back-office organisational bureaucracy.

The time to invest is now

The infamous Richard Branson quote, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients”, is true. So why then do we continuously deny the type of capability we subconsciously use in our social lives to our employees at work?

Even with modern SaaS cloud applications the way we interact with technology still does not reflect the way an organisation actually works and does not reflect the human element that contributes to an organisation’s culture. Very few employees inside an organisation work within a functional silo as the business processes that support service delivery connect front-office to back and span multiple functions and supporting systems outside a core ERP platform.

Inefficiencies in the workplace exist as individuals spend considerable amounts of time undertaking non-productive work in driving processes in functional silos rather than focussing upon those value-add strategic tasks that require human thinking and business relationships. This often creates pure frustration on an employee’s part. Consequently, there is a strong phycological human behavioural and cognitive element to finding the employee experience nirvana.

As we crawl out of economic recession the war on talent still remains.

Employees’ expectations are that they will not only get technology that works but tech that makes them successful in their role. If you want to attract and retain the best talent you need to create an environment that clearly demonstrates you value them.

Any company that does not deliver a seamless customer experience will be forever chasing the next sale

The direction of travel has been set

The experience economy is no passing fad with industry titans like Bill McDermott, CEO at ServiceNow, Marc Benioff, founder and CEO at Salesforce, and Mike Ettling, CEO at Unit4 all setting the direction of travel since late 2019. Just recently Larry Ellison, founder and chief technology officer at Oracle has also entered the fray.

The front office platform vendors are now looking to provide enhanced customer and employee experiences across the enterprise, breaking down the silo functionality of back office systems and bringing the work to the user by using technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, adaptive analytics and interoperability.

Josh Bersin, a renowned HR industry evangelist and analyst was quick to identify this as early as 2019, with his insights on the ‘employee experience platform’ being introduced into the workplace architecture.

Naturally being in an industry that loves its labels and acronyms we refer to it as Enterprise Service Management (ESM). However this is only the beginning as the workplace cloud-based technology agenda is now set for the next decade.

The rise of the employee experience platform

The evolution of the experience economy is so much more than an intelligent employee portal enabling access to a wider range of inter-departmental services. The leading ESM technology vendors like Salesforce and ServiceNow are providing platforms that will in time have the capability to deliver individual personalised experiences automatically in the workplace. This is the nirvana of the experience economy.

However to achieve this you have to combine the experience layer ESM applications with the back office business process ERP. Consequently, a new experience architecture materialises that can provide personalised experiences over standardised processes.

An experience architecture is data driven and takes advantage of a myriad of new technologies. It is this that drives a personalised employee experience bringing the relevant application services to the user at the appropriate time, unifying the underlying ERP platforms, various lines of business, front office systems, and external trusted industry relevant systems but without the user ever having to touch these systems directly.

Imagine being contacted by phone or text message to initiate an action, or to make you aware of a relevant event, and then being able to communicate through voice when required to access the company portal on your remote device; what you are presented with is an individual personalised front end. All automatically generated and configured with no customisation and applicable to you for that moment in time, with the same standardised processes in the background being executed. This is what the future looks like.

Adopting the entrepreneurial mindset

2021 will only see the experience economy gaining momentum. To take advantage, organisations need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, have a positive attitude and a willingness to step up and do something to embrace the direction of travel.

So think big, think different; be prepared to take calculated risks; ignore your critics and remember it’s not just about making money! It’s about contributing by making a positive difference.

My advice for 2021, be different, be you and go be brave, because this train is leaving the station. 

Mark Sweeny, founder, de Novo Solutions

Published on January 11, 2021

Chasing Rainbows – Looking for Experience Economy Nirvana

When you are pioneering out in the new frontier you are constantly looking for the elusive leprechaun’s pot of gold. Personally, this is all part of the challenge and the fun of being an entrepreneur. As Einstein said “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”.

You are searching for something new, constantly asking why? and pushing the boundaries of the art of the possible, often to the soundtrack of the word “no” with many dismissing you for just chasing rainbows.

The pot of gold we are seeking is the digital equivalent of the employee experience nirvana (and I am not talking the band here, but what a great band!). It is fundamentally rethinking how we engage and interact with technology at work to deliver the core business, a paradigm-shift to where we are today.

Being brave and thinking big is all part of the journey, so read on…

Cloud SaaS ERP systems supports our work but does not reflect the way an Organisation delivers its core business 

The first generation of Cloud SaaS applications saw the creation of specific functional modules for human resources, payroll, finance, procurement and supply chain. Many were stand alone, but a few like Oracle Cloud delivered a fully integrated solution on a single data model with a modern look and feel for user experience. But even for an industry which, I conservatively calculate, has invested around $150-200 billion in research and development activities over the past 10 years, the journey is never over and SaaS innovation drives constant evolution as the world continues to change around us.

So did we lead everyone down the garden path regarding Cloud SaaS applications over the past ten years? Absolutely not. The benefits of moving to the Cloud for the back office and adopting standardised business processes are well documented.

We continuously promote the many benefits of Cloud SaaS ERP systems, and it is a personal frustration fo me when I see organisations still delaying in migrating to the Cloud. Opportunity missed? Absolutely, as they are denying themselves to a wealth of innovation. For some, the stubborn refusal not to invest in either their front or back office technology platforms has in my mind been a contributing factor for them having to close their doors forever due to the pandemic and the accelerated shift to digital as they could not modify their business operations fast enough.

Looking back to the beginning of SaaS applications a completely logical place to start was always to re-engineer and redesign the underlying business functions for HCM, Payroll, Finance, Procurement and Supply Chain that are all required to support core business operations.

The correct way to implement Cloud SaaS is for an organisation to adopt, not adapt the SaaS standardised business processes, but with the exception of the professional user whose job requires them to spend most of their time inside one of these modules the majority of employees have little interaction with such systems on a regular basis.

The irony being that a significant part of any SaaS implementation project’s budget is allocated and spent on business transformation activities where we target this same audience. Once the project has finished this becomes a sunk cost as we often see that the change hasn’t stuck and then we ask why?

A new direction? No, it’s just evolution…

Today it is still rare to find an organisation’s front office systems that interact with customers directly or the systems that are used by employees internally to enable core business delivery to the end customer are connected to the back office ERP systems.

The vast majority of front office transactions will initiate a back office ERP transaction. Consequently through the lack of digital integration it exposes a number of inefficiencies in an organisation’s business operation.

Even with current modern Cloud SaaS applications, the work an individual undertakes is still disjointed across a number of distinct front and back office systems. Ironically, this has been compounded further by those who have already moved to SaaS for their back office and subsequently compounded even further if an organisation has decided to use multiple different functional systems from different suppliers for their ERP platform.

The human drives the machine, and this creates inefficiencies in the workplace as individuals spend considerable amounts of time undertaking non-productive work in driving processes rather than focusing upon those value-add strategic tasks that require human thinking and business relationships.

The systems we use do not reflect the way an organisation executes its core business and also do not reflect critical “human” elements that contribute to an organisations culture.

Finding Nirvana – The Algorithm of Business & the Human Pulse of the Organisation

So what are we looking for? Fundamentally, we all want to be successful at work, regardless of whether we work in the private, public or the 3rd sector. To do that, we have to be constantly connected with what is going on around us both inside and outside the organisation as this influences and impacts the way we execute and deliver our core business.

Consequently, it is necessary that we have relevant accurate information immediately in order to take action in a timely fashion. Being able to execute a service on the go that has an interactive experience completed anywhere between 30 and 60 seconds before we have moved on is imperative.

Why? because we have developed, thanks to the internet, an insatiable human behaviour for immediacy, before we are distracted and our attention has moved on. Our time is our most valuable asset and to be effective we want to maximise it. People compete for our time and our attention.

You have to look no further than basic business strategy and algorithm of business of “Better, Cheaper, Faster” that is underpinning the evolution of SaaS.

Imagine a scenario where you as an individual didn’t have to change; a place where the technology you access adapts to you as an individual and reflects your behaviours. True individual personalisation not just based upon one’s persona or role within an organisation but something that is dynamically tailored to you individually relevant at a point in time enabling you to operate at peak performance subconsciously in regard to effectiveness and efficiency at work.

Technology should be an extension of oneself. I am already at the point in my thinking where there is a digital chatbot of me, reflecting my personality – now that would be interesting. Think Tron! (for those that don’t know who Tron was, find the time to sit down and watch the wonderful Disney movies Tron (1982) and more recently and applicably Tron Legacy (2010)).

A step to far? Not really, the concept of a digital avatar of oneself as a robot running around an organisation’s digital systems on one’s behalf is quite feasible and not that far away.

Technology driven experiences are a multi-dimensional entity that changes constantly over time and any digital nirvana will have the following characteristics:

There is a strong phycological human behavioural and cognitive element to finding the employee experience nirvana. It is this that needs to be understood on an individual basis as part of the design.

Technology that contributes to an Organisations Culture

Great technology should contribute positively to an organisation. It should be something that customers and employees can embrace, the interaction creating a positive experience with the organisation.

Enterprise Service Management (ESM) – the starting point but not the final destination

The platform vendors are now looking and already beginning to provide enhanced customer and employee experiences across the enterprise, breaking down the silo functionality of back office systems and bringing the work to the user by using technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, adaptive analytics and leveraging interoperability. 

Labelled as Enterprise Service Management (ESM) this is really only the beginning of the journey, as the workplace Cloud based technology agenda is now set for the next decade. ESM in my opinion is just the first stepping-stone on the journey and not the final destination. 

ESM Cloud solutions like ServiceNow and Salesforce are leading the technology charge into the new frontier connecting customers and employees creating connected experiences.

You only have to look at the R&D investment highlighted on earning calls and in the wider media as well as the acquisitions being made to accelerate platform functionality to acknowledge that the direction of travel has already been set.

The experience economy nirvana is achieved by creating value by delivering personalised experiences over standardised business processes across an enterprise. To do that Enterprise Service Management Cloud solutions provide the platform to facilitate the necessary integration into the leading ERP Cloud platforms.

The technical architecture equation is simple… Experience Economy Nirvana = ESM + ERP

It’s all about Leverage – Recognise, React and Realise

As evidenced Cloud SaaS applications are evolving and we are clearly moving out of functional silo’s and across the enterprise by the addition of an experience layer within an organisations technical architecture. The direction of travel has already been set however the gap now exists in regard to delivery and implementation capability to make these solutions work. Customers who are becoming the early adopters are going to find that delivery of such experiences are not going to come pre-packaged and just jump out of the box, rather they are toolsets that need to be assembled and installed across the enterprise. In time this will change as the platform vendors and the Independent Software Vendor (ISV) community create industry wide experiences. However, once an organisation has invested in this hybrid Cloud infrastructure connecting front office to back, they will be on the road to the experience economy nirvana. The trick being to become an intelligent customer and leverage the platform vendors and ISV R&D investment and not build everything yourself.

As this journey continues there will be numerous twists and turns in the road ahead with many new chapters still to be written…in many ways we have only just begun.

Published on November 16, 2020

If you are going to do something, then do it with Style…

This blog is definitely one from left field and is possibly my only forage into music journalism with a subject matter that is also political in nature. Advanced warning, this one’s for those that remember the 1980’s, whose misspent teenage years were spent listening to great music on vinyl and cassettes; the era of VHS video players; going to nightclubs midweek as you could get in with free vouchers, memories of the girls with big hair and smoking 10 B&H; weekend jobs at McDonalds; lunchtime drinking at work; and an era where Ford XR2’s and VW Golfs ruled. A decade that saw Sir Bob Geldof telling us all to get a “f**king grip’’ while he woke up the world to see 8 million people affected by famine with over 1 million dying in Ethiopia.

Geldof did it by getting all our attention through music. The ultimate text-book example of political activism, which saw the creation of Band Aid and the charity single “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and then followed up by putting on the greatest pop concert ever in Live Aid on 13th July 1985, literally screaming at all of us from royalty, politicians and to the person in the street to give money to save lives. It also saw the greatest live performance of any band of any era in Queen, and frankly 17 minutes that became the stuff of legends and made music history.

What’s this all got to do with business? Well it is all about influence, and especially the power of subconscious influence through music, and as de Novo Solutions is all about the experience economy, there is simply no better experience than great music!

So read on and let’s see where this takes us…

Music & Me

For me music has always been in my life. I was a drummer, learning my trade in the Boys Brigade, playing for the school band and then went on to play in several really good pub bands, the last one called “One Night”, which actually lasted about 4 years from memory and had a following of around 200 people at the end.

My musical influences started early, shaped heavily by my Grandparents, as they introduced me to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, Nat King Cole, Burt Bacharach, and numerous Hollywood musicals which formed the bedrock of my musical education. Naturally the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Elvis all followed.

My tastes developed further covering everything from Motown, Queen, Elton John, through to the Carpenters (yes really), Bee Gees and ABBA during the 70’s, as I would camp down by the radio every Sunday afternoon before dinner to listen to the Top 40.

Discovering Paul Weller and The Jam

A great song for me is one that has a memorable melody, a killer middle eight, and lyrics that are relevant to how you are feeling at the time.  Hence genres like punk at the end of the 70’s just confused me as it was just noise, (similar to what my own teenage sons listen to now), but out of this came a band that was rebellious and a sound that was both musical and felt like it was talking to me directly. 

Enter Paul Weller and the Jam. Singles like “Going Underground” was inspired and “That’s Entertainment” reflected the sounds of real life. Weller’s lyrics related to a society that I recognised and he became the voice of a generation, a label I know he distains and still distances himself from, but the man had a talent of interpreting what was going on around us through his music. Above everything else he was authentic and just “real”. Weller has never been one for b*llsh*t and he always calls it how he sees it. 

So why is Weller so Important to Me?

Weller’s music has always in some form been in my musical life. I don’t like everything he has produced, far from it, but I have the ultimate respect that he has always been willing to try new things and move in new directions. I can’t imagine how many times he must have been told that he would fail and should not try something. 

His musical career spans five decades, and he has produced a massive body of work over two bands and a solo career that continues to this day alongside numerous side projects with other artists. 

To be honest, his straight up attitude and approach has always had a profound effect on me. He is one that never looks to recreate the past, regardless of how successful he has been, and he is always looking forward, always willing to experiment and try new things, especially as the world changes around him. 

Weller has always been ahead of the musical curve, sometimes too far ahead for his own sake but when I need inspiration it is this man and his music I turn to.

The End of the Jam 

For those who were not around let me enlighten you with a little musical history.

The Jam were absolutely massive, and they defined youth culture in Britain for a moment in time at the end of the 70’s and start of the 80’s. For me they were three working class lads from Woking, Surrey, who had an opinion, were politically outspoken and wanted to be heard as they had something to say. Weller was the genius through his song writing ability and was the leader, associated with “Mods”, or modernists, a subculture that started in London from the late 1950’s, he himself being heavily influenced by the Small Faces. Through their music they created a youth platform for political conversation. 

1980’s Britain

80’s Britain was a hot bed of Conservatism politics and Thatcherism that spanned and defined the entire decade, which saw everything from the Falklands War, The Cold War, Apartheid, The Miner’s Strike, MTV, Live Aid, Yuppies, Stock Market Crash ‘87, the Storms of ‘88, all against a political backdrop of foreign policies of Gorbachev, Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall – and that’s just what I can remember. Wow – a decade in a paragraph.

The beauty about democracy is you don’t have to agree with everything, and everyone has a voice that can be heard, but there is no better way of making a statement through music. This is nothing new, Edwin Stars “War”, John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, and of course Marvin Gaye’s master-piece of “What’s Going On” are all classic songs with strong political statements using music to get their point across. Weller was no different, “Eton Rifles” (how apt for 2020) reflects the oppression of ruling classes, recounting the difficulties faced by the un-employed and lower paid working class in protesting against an elitist system.    

Then in 1982 Weller did the unthinkable and broke up the Jam at the height of their power. His rationale was simple, he had taken the Jam as far as he could musically. What had once been a release mechanism for his music, had now become a straight-jacket of constraint. 

To give you some idea how big this was, some 40 years later there still exists a hardcore set of Jam fans that still have not forgiven him! – talk about being stuck in time and holding a grudge. 

Introducing The Style Council

Weller immediately set about his next musical journey, and it could not have been anymore different from the Jam. Weller formed a new musical partnership with keyboard player Mick Talbot and was soon joined by a 17 year old jazz drummer – Steve White, whilst he poached D.C. Lee from George Michael & Andrew Ridgley’s Wham to join him on his musical adventure – The Style Council. That alone deserves merit as the coolest name ever for a band. 

What followed was musical creativity and innovation at its very best. Whilst the sound waves of early 80’s Britain were full of pure pop, courtesy of Culture Club, Wham, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Weller et al in the Style Council were exploring Jazz, Latin, Soul and being strongly influenced by European culture. 

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In-fact it could easily be argued that the Council had moved to Paris, France, given the influence Europe had on their music. Equally Weller had lost none of his ability to send a political message – 1984’s Café Bleu had “Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse”, which actually is a Jazz instrumental, where the 1985 album “Our Favourite Shop”, had tracks like “The Internationalists”, “The Lodgers”, and “Walls Come Tumbling Down” – with its famous opening line of “We don’t have to take this crap”. The Council were anything but your average pop group, and the majority of their songs had some kind of political message.

Success followed with the Council being the second band on at Live Aid in ’85, as they played to a global audience of 1.9 billion at the time.

By ’87, the UK was truly in the grip of the MTV generation and the likes of Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson blasting the airwaves, alongside American rock newcomers Bon Jovi.

The Council flipped to soul music, with their infamous Orange album sleeve – “A Cost of Loving”, which imitated (but failed) the same marketing technique as The Beatles famous White Album. The Album flopped, and whilst a couple of singles were knocked out with success, the writing was on the wall.

End of the Council

The final harar, was “Confessions of a Pop Group”. Critically slated at the time, it is an absolutely fantastic album and a hot bed of musical innovation, as Weller drove the Council in the direction of classical music. It is without doubt my favourite album and contains some of Weller’s and the bands best work – check out “Changing of the Guard”. With the group knowing that the end was nigh, they remained true to their values and branched off again covering various musical genres.

Folklore talks about the final disastrous “Council Meeting” gig at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1989, which supposedly saw fans ripping up their programmes and walking out as they didn’t understand what the band was about anymore. 

Looking back, Weller was again just taking the Council in a new direction, this time it was “Chicago House” music, but it was a step too far and the record company refused to release the final album, fittingly called “Modernism – A New Decade”. The adventure ended, as the Council had lost its fan base and had become irrelevant.

The Wilderness Years & Come Back

Subsequently, Weller stepped back from the limelight, burnt out and without a record deal having fallen out with Polydor his long term record company. He was now married to D.C. Lee, a family man with two children and his priorities had naturally changed.

He turned up two years later in 1991 with the Paul Weller Movement. I remember seeing him just before Christmas that year, on a shitty, rainy night in Kilburn, North London. The crowd was around 1,000 people at the point with a significant number just wanting to hear Jam songs! However, there was one new song that caught my attention and again Weller sending a message to everyone with “Into Tomorrow”.

Don’t under-estimate how hard it must have been for Weller to come back at this time. The Style Council were playing sold out arenas all around the world and he had gone from hero to zero again and was playing what can be best described as a very large pub. Courage, grit and a lot of tenacity were the tools deployed here to drag himself back to the top.

In June 1992, I was one of just around 500 people at the Grand in Clapham, South London, again supporting the man as he was putting back his career. The band had been slimmed down from the “Movement” and they were now tight and sounding really good. More importantly Weller had his mojo back – I was witnessing a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

What was to follow, was the start of another creative renaissance, and the so called “Mod Father” became the unwritten driving force behind 90’s Britpop. Everyone remembers Oasis and Blur, but it was Weller that was innovating and developing a body of work, that is frankly unsurpassable.

Weller launched the self-titled album “Paul Weller”, overshadowed by the two albums that followed to much critical acclaim in “Wild Wood” and “Stanley Road”. The touring band stabilised, and the gigs became stuff of legends and many happy memories for those that attended. Check out the Wild Wood Tour 1994 – Glastonbury 1994 with Weller, White, Charles, Tuner, and Cradock – the finest lineup in my opinion he ever assembled.

Or find the Jools Holland Later Show from 1996 and watch Whirlpools End on Youtube (Whirlpools End). Weller and the backing Band, including trusted stickman and ex-Councillor Steve White again on drums is absolutely infectious and they are playing like people possessed. Simply Brilliant.

To this day Weller constantly reinvents himself on every album, and like a fine wine his music just keeps getting better over time. At 62 he is still constantly educating himself and exploring new genres, he is a genuine creative force, that just never seems to tire.

So what can you learn from this musical adventure?

Beside the 80’s being the coolest decade ever and definitely the best for music (so if you missed it, then take some time to check it out), Weller and his musical forays with the Style Council and beyond teach us many things including, but not limited to:

Or if you feel like kicking a door down try “Walls Come Tumbling Down”, as it sticks two fingers up to the elitist political ruling class when you want your 3 mins 23 seconds of being an absolute rebel.

Go on, we all need to do it, even if it’s just in the car!

Published on October 30, 2020

“We’re Putting the Band Back Together”​ – Finding the Way Back

The 30th October will always be a special date for me. It was on this day in 2006 that I was privileged to oversee the go-live of the HM Prison Service Shared Services operation in Newport, South Wales (known today as Shared Services Connected Ltd – SSCL) providing HR & Payroll services for 45,000 employees over then 120 geographic locations and ultimately being part of a truly wonderful team that created 500+ jobs.

By serendipity, ten years later in 2016, it was also the same date that saw Certus deliver the very first Oracle ERP & HCM Cloud implementation at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), ironically the ONS campus being just around the corner from the SSCL. So, I find it quite apt to publish this blog today 30th October 2020 regarding the next venture – de Novo Solutions.

Just because you have been successful previously does not give you the automatic right or a free pass straight back to the top of the mountain. Running any kind of business is full of inherent risk and it still surprises me as to how so many people do not grasp this, let alone understand it. However, those in the entrepreneurial community live with this day-in and day-out, as any financial risk materialising is often immediately inherently real. For those who are prepared to embark on such a journey, to give themselves and others a better quality of life and just make the world a better place by creating a progressive economy they will always have my undying respect.

Coming back from a standing start was never going to be straight forward, and “getting the band back together” is not as easy as it may seem or perceived to be, but that is what we are doing. So, let me give you some insight into how we have gone about this.

It just starts with a conversation…

It always starts with a conversation. Back in October 2011 Tim Warner and myself were in a Client’s office late at night in London, ironically just 200 yards from Accenture’s HQ. Who would have guessed that in May 2018 that they would be our eventual acquirers? we certainty didn’t.

Roll forward October 2020 and this time it was a phone call to Switzerland, with the opening line “You done with retirement now?”. The discussion that followed talked about what we had achieved, the opportunities missed, what we had learned and what we definitely would not do again.

For those who follow my blogs, it should not be too difficult to work out that I have been researching the experience economy for some time so I had a firm idea of what we were going to do but not necessarily as to how we were going to do it and if anyone would really be interested. However, I enjoyed myself for an hour, the first time in many months and my wife commented I was smiling when I came off the phone and that I appeared to have my mojo back.

It was fun exploring with absolutely no constraints the art of the possible. I was also excited in that we could not only build something again, but to do something nobody had done before to my knowledge in positively disrupting the same market twice.

Getting the Band Back Together

One of the many rules of creating a successful business, is to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Our famous “black book” of the UK Tech ecosystem is full of talented people and naturally this is always our first point of call.

I often joke with my peers in Oracle and across the wider community, reminding everyone that we created the football pitch for Oracle Cloud professional and managed services in the UK&I that everyone today is now playing on and now we are coming to take our players and ball back, as we need it for the new pitch. (by the way were also going to need the goal posts as well for those that are reading!)

Seriously though, the trick is to create a collective that is exponentially greater than the sum of its individual parts. The basic characteristic that underpins everything is trust. Hence, why I always stress that we never ever promise anything we cannot deliver, and we clearly outline the risks to everyone involved we talk to so they can make an informed decision regarding if they want to play?

Coming on an adventure with us is anything but risk free, there are no guarantees, but we do promise working with a group of liked minded individuals that are building a great British company, will push the envelope from a technical perspective once again and will have a good laugh along the way.

We don’t have the monopoly on talent, but we do have an eye for spotting potential and bringing people together and developing individuals and teams.

Just a Game of Chess

I have used the analogy so many times, business is just a game of chess. To be successful you need to see the whole board…There is a lot to do in getting started, so here is just a starter for ten. In doing so you begin to see some, not all, of the pieces on the chess board.

1.     No Idea is a Bad Idea –  “Be Poets, and let your imagination run riot!” – Nothing is off the table, The beauty about being an entrepreneur and working with a small team is total unconstrained thinking! Nobody can constrain your ideas except oneself, nobody to shout you down, and most importantly no b•••sh•• corporate bureaucracy to navigate.

2.     Stealth Mode – Despite our enthusiasm we have taken our time. We are not in the business of just re-entering a market, albeit one we created, that is now both competitive and is commoditised where the race to the bottom of the rate card has become the only game in town. We have absolutely no interest in this.

The market is constantly watching what we are doing so we are in stealth mode where we can keep the market waiting and guessing until we are ready, but this also gives ourselves time to research and develop the proposition and to test it with all our stakeholders. We need time to see the whole board.

The cheapest and most effective form of marketing sometimes is just being quiet.

3.     Business Strategy – No war and peace required here, but by getting the business idea down onto paper allows clarity of thought and understanding for everyone involved.

Included is the hypothesis is the exit strategy and timeline. By undertaking this activity up front, we achieve consensus and agreement as to what the end game looks like, and how we are to get there. Albeit the route we decide upon we know from experience will have many-twists and turns.

Our approach is simple, we are repeating the same strategy we did a decade earlier because we know it works. We focus upon creating not only a new service proposition but a new niche market and in doing so we become the number one service provider by default. This underpins all of our thinking from the outset. 

No idea is ever entirely unique, so you need to know and understand who your competitors are, and also have an idea as to how they will react. The beauty about the Management Consultancy and Systems Integrator landscape is the large players are extremely predictable. They won’t see this themselves, they never do, but you can use this kind of market intelligence and insight to shape the market. The SME market is far less predictable so you have to do your research. Somebody will always come at you from left field.

Differentiation is the name of the game and resonates with a saying we use internally ‘Be Different, Be You!’

4.     Test, Test and Re-Test the Business Proposition with the Market – Any hypothesis of what the business proposition is has to be tested with as many people as possible including but not limited to former employees, business partners, industry experts, former customers and even previous prospects who didn’t buy from us. This allows any business proposition to naturally evolve, but also allows the 30 second elevator pitch to develop naturally.

5.     Know the Numbers – This was something in the early Certus days I will be honest we never had a proper grip of. This time it is very different as we have a sophisticated financial model (Yes – it is an Excel Spreadsheet, but in the right hands!), so we can determine our cash runway, our commercial proposition, and understand how we are going to fund the venture. 

Cash is always King. Don’t get distracted by future valuations based upon EBITDA multiples – this is absolute nonsense. No cash, you have no business, and you have no value. It really is that simple.

I can’t stress this enough you have to know the numbers from the outset. Make it an obsession.

6.     Bootstrap Financing – If you raise equity money (which is not a bad thing) you are always going to be giving something away. Our approach is always to self-fund and use debt financing through Directors Loans to get going. Depending then on how the business plan develops we can decide funding options to support expansion at the appropriate point in time.  Admittedly were not scratching around in the dirt this time.

7.     Legal Structure – Important; get the share structure agreed upfront. The reason is simple – All the Founders understand the agreement, know the rules of the game and have the agreement on legal paper. Consequently, everyone then feels their interest is protected, and we can all focus on building a great Company. The right expectations are set from the outset and consequently there are no arguments or fall outs. Failure to do this, creates ambiguity and allows bad feeling to foster. This breaks trust and can contaminate the culture from the outset.

8.     Develop the Employee Value Proposition – Again undertaken upfront. We know a lot of people, and because of what we do, our success, and most importantly how we go about it, we are quite lucky a lot of people want to work with us. 

I am always reminded by the words of a Senior Partner of one of the Big 4 when he said about what was then Certus ‘It’s like an exclusive private members club, many want to join, but only a few are let in’. And before anyone starts over thinking this in terms of diversity or inclusion, we recruit purely on talent, attitude and mindset of the individual regardless of their background. We always like to say to someone ‘you are really good, but we are going to make you even better’.

Financial remuneration is always going to be a key factor. There has to be limits to what the business can afford, and timing is always an issue. You can’t go writing blank cheques.

9.     Team – Identify the designated executive team, knowing what you need and why you need them. Subsequently you can determine the onboarding strategy and onboarding waves. 

Think of it like fantasy football, in that you cannot afford all the best players, as you don’t have unlimited funds. So, you need to buy carefully. Remember in starting out you have to have people that buy into the vision.   

10.   Start Selling! – Conversations through testing elements of the new business proposition creates opportunities. So, start selling from day one. Always good to get a run on the board however small as early as possible.

The famous Peter Drucker quote ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is right, but you still need a strategy. You can’t wildly go wandering off using ‘hope’ as your strategy, burning money left, right and centre. Equally you don’t have an action item that just says ‘Create Culture’. We don’t make businesses overly complicated and the values of the business are our values from which we create our culture:    

Insight delivered. As President Bartlett, from the West Wing, would say “What’s Next?” – well we need to get on building a great British Company in de Novo. See you soon…

Mark Sweeny, Founder de Novo Solutions

Experience tells you that in the enterprise SaaS cloud market you are always selling regardless of position and role you play within a company. You always sell yourself first, “Like me, like what I am saying, like what I can do”, in this game, using a poker analogy, this is merely table stakes.

This ecosystem thrives on business relationships, and regardless of remote communications technology that we now all rely upon, people want to physically see the whites of your eyes before they sign on the dotted line for a multimillion-pound contract. However, no-one signs such contracts just because they like someone.

Raising the game

The ‘raise’ in the SaaS game is value and the bigger the pot gets the value realisation expectation increases exponentially.

But what is value? What is this word that we are transfixed on? Translating this into financial means and then stoking expectation further by providing numerous ‘intangibles’ that we cannot even attach a monetary number to. The combination enhances our hand before we lay down a disappointing deck of cards at the outcome.

How do we translate aspirational words in a business case into a real tangible asset that we can touch, feel, see, and ultimately measure –  seeking a financial return on our investment?  

Hierarchy of value in SaaS

Value has a hierarchy. Think about the triangle in ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ but this time the triangle is inverted to reflect that as you work your way up the triangle greater value is released. 

At the apex at the bottom of the triangle the value you release is only going to be the perceived cost savings that include, but not limited to, the likes of decommissioning your on-premise datacentre. Whereas, at the top of the triangle (the widest base in our inverted scenario) you will get the financial gains from the kind of innovation that arise from end-to-end process digitalisation connecting front to back-office that allows you to create new experiences that lead to market disruption. Again, welcome to the experience economy.

The value chain is circular, between organisation, systems integrator, SAAS platform vendor and end customer.

The SaaS value chain

Implementing SaaS is only the start of a customer’s cloud journey. I have often highlighted the pitfalls of buying an implementation on the cheap and just ‘switching the lights on’. Executed correctly from the outset SaaS should release incremental value from the point of go-live continuously over the life of the contract and beyond. This takes continuous investment allowing the organisation to evolve their business operations through SaaS innovation providing new services and experiences to their end customers at front of house.    

The value chain is circular, between organisation, systems integrator, SaaS platform vendor and end customer. Think of the first three parties operating as a Formula 1 team with the organisation’s customer as the paying fan.

The platform vendor provides the car’s engine – the source of innovation; the systems integrator is the pit crew monitoring the car’s performance, maintaining it and ensuring maximum performance, and the organisation is the driver setting the direction of travel and controlling the speed as it transforms.

Unlocking hidden value

Realising value is always a challenge, unlocking hidden value can be as elusive as finding the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The three stones to overturn are:

• Not transforming. Clients lose out primarily as they don’t really transform and are not willing to adopt new ways of working. Translation – they are prepared to sit down at the table but then don’t play the hand they are dealt preferring to preserve the status quo of the old world. It proposes the question of why sit down in the first place?

If one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is those who resisted the digital journey and were not prepared to adapt to a new market environment are the ones whose organisations are most at risk. 

In the world of enterprise systems, the real magic is when you combine HR and finance data together, not only to create new experiences but by driving real operational insight. That’s why the integrated suite play is just so powerful and always presents the biggest opportunity for an organisation to evolve. Work is not undertaken in functional silos.

• Missed opportunities. By taking advantage of new user experiences as the platform vendor releases new innovation. I would estimate today over 75 percent of customers overlook what their platform vendor is providing over the life of the contract.

This is the biggest missed opportunity and where the experience economy comes in – connecting the front office to back office creating new experiences as you break down the silos. It’s all there for the taking, with the irony being that this channel of innovation is already included in your SaaS subscription fees.

• Opportunity cost – the innovation gap This is the most powerful of the three elements, especially for those that dither and delay and is equally applicable for the ‘let’s just switch the lights on’ brigade, as they never get up the value hierarchy.

The opportunity cost hardly ever makes it to the original business case. However, here in itself is that elusive ‘leprechaun’s pot of gold’. The longer an organisation does not take advantage of technology innovation, the gap of where they are today to where they should be in the future increases exponentially over time. Consequently, the cost to move increases on all fronts, not just in the technology implementation, but also the greater the size of the transformation required to access and release financial value from the innovation delivered as business models and markets are disrupted.

For many, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and adaptive intelligence – which create efficient and effective business processes through pro-active decision making –  is completely out of reach. Conversely, for the organisation that is adopting SaaS, continually investing and transforming the innovation gap is minimal and competitive advantage increases. 

This is the biggest missed opportunity and where the experience economy comes in…. It’s all there for the taking, with the irony being that this channel of innovation is already included in your SAAS subscription fees.

Wider social implications

Unlocking hidden value also has wider social implications. SaaS enables digital transformation and digital transformation creates time.

Our time is the most valuable asset we all have. Consequently, being more effective and efficient at work with the right discipline should translate into ourselves having more quality social time with friends and family.

Raise the bar again – new commercial models required

New thinking however needs also to be reflected in new commercial models. Customers are always looking for more and innovation is not just restricted to technology advancement. Commercial contracts linked directly to the value released, or the value available to be released should be the order of the day. One buyer of such services commented.

Vincent Godfrey, Strategic commissioner of Kent County Council, said: “Customers are buying an improvement relationship with SaaS, where the vendor works with them as a partner to progressively unlock value and is incentivised by the commercial terms accordingly. This is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach, and harder to achieve than the previous norm but is the real differentiator and what gets the most from SaaS compared to on-premise”.

The value lifecycle The lesson is clear. Don’t just switch on the lights and see SaaS as another technology project. If you do, you are better off placing a bet on the 13:05 at Chepstow, you will get better odds regarding your return on your investment. ERP SaaS technology is proven, its low risk, the challenge however is are you prepared to go ‘all in’ and transform releasing value on a continuous journey? The winning hand in this game are those that do.

Published on October 1, 2020

In many ways this is by far the easiest of all blogs to write as I have been here so many times before.

As Tony Stark from the film ‘Avengers Endgame’ says “Part of the journey is the end”, the final part of my own Certus journey has now come to its natural end with Accenture. But as one door closes, another opens (even if you have to kick it in!).

So, what’s next? I’m not the kind of person to sit on a yacht in the Mediterranean and watch the world go-by (and before anyone asks, no I don’t own one!), and I am far too young to retire as I miss the cut and thrust of the tech ecosystem and I know I still have much to contribute to rebuilding the UK economy.

In the meantime, our once pioneering territory of Oracle Cloud has matured into the most complete back office SaaS integrated solution available, wider technology innovation has progressed, and the market itself is changing with the experience economy coming to the forefront. Whilst all this has been happening the global economy has been devastated and we are in a global recession due to the pandemic. Opportunity a plenty exists but not for the faint hearted, Certus itself was founded just before the last recession of 2008, so in some ways this is history repeating itself.

My sabbatical is over and my desire to go again burns deeply. Regardless of outcome it is time to step up to the plate once again.

Mixed Emotions – The Mindset of the Entrepreneur

It’s Complex!

Mum, Dad and my, ever understanding, wife Natalie all ask, “Why go again?”, “What else is there to prove?”. Even my former CEO peers in the Oracle Partner ecosystem have said “Why do another start up?”

The point here is that I have nothing left to prove to anyone, but only ever to myself. I can’t solve the Covid pandemic. I will leave that to those who are vastly more skilled and knowledgeable in the science that will ultimately deliver us, but by going again I can get to play my part and contribute to rebuilding the British economy.

However, there is a cost. By going again those closest to me also have to go on the journey as well. Being an entrepreneur, you become quite selfish, as your commitment has to be 110% to succeed, which is never ever guaranteed, and to do that personal sacrifices have to be made that affect those you most love around you.

I can already feel the butterflies in my stomach as the spectre of failure raises its head one more time and my personal anxiety levels are already building. It puts me on the edge again, walking the tightrope of success and failure, for me mentally is the place to be and it makes me feel alive. The corporate landscape by default gives employees a safety net, in the world of an entrepreneur, there is no safety net and you have to embrace failure everyday knowing it has very real consequences.

Building and growing a business, any business, is in my opinion the ultimate challenge an individual can undertake in the work environment. You cannot afford to have a bad day, you cannot afford not to turn up, and you have to bring your “A” game every day to be successful. More importantly you have to set high expectations with those people that surround you ensuring everyone can also be the very best they can be. This takes serious personal investment and expends your most important of all assets – your time.

The odds from the outset are immediately stacked against you. Pre-Covid, only one in ten businesses made it through the first year, and of that then only 50% of those businesses were still operating five years later. I could not even begin to guess what the odds are now, but they won’t have got any better that’s for sure.

Business is a game of strategy and tactics (and cash!). You have to anticipate customer needs; define new markets; win new customers over; recruit and retain the very best talent; outthink and out manoeuvre the competition (always fun); deliver on your promises; create customer advocacy and now new dynamics are in play from diversity through too contributing to the wider social good. Most importantly you need to create cash, as without liquidity you can’t do any of the above.

No one element can be ignored, to do so can be fatal. And once you have a business running like a well-tuned formula one engine, you have to reinvent yourself constantly to remain relevant to the customer base as technology innovation has moved on again and market demand and consumption changes.

It’s the ultimate game of chess, and to win, you constantly have to think five moves ahead.

Wise Words – Never Forgotten

In the early years of Certus I was lucky to be invited to a very small private audience with the late Mark Hurd, Co-CEO of Oracle Corporation. Mark had just got off a plane from California and was being propped up by heavy dosages of caffeine. I was in the front row, when someone from behind me asked him what was ‘top of mind’ every morning? Alert and as sharp as ever, he for some reason looked directly into my eyes and said one word ‘survival’.

What followed was a masterclass, as over the next hour he shared his worries about ensuring how he had to keep the second largest software company in the world remaining relevant everyday not only to grow, but to survive. There was me, leading a small company of then 20 people with absolutely no money and here was Larry Elison’s right hand man sharing his insight into exactly the same problem I was facing. How do you survive? The answer is you always focus on the fundamentals of a business operation.

A lesson truly learned and something that is firmly on my mind as I get ready to embark on the rollercoaster of new adventure.

Many things will now be tried and evolved before any final offering is ready. There will be plenty of failure along the way. This is all part of the journey. There is no immediate magic bullet, and just recreating Certus as it was is not on the agenda as the world has moved on.

Back at the Bottom of The Mountain Looking Upwards

Despite the past success, which was by no means was overnight, one does not get a free pass back to the top of the mountain.

However, having been able to get to the very top previously the experience does give you an edge, but what is important is to remember it is not the same mountain you are climbing again. Consequently, there will be many new challenges and obstacles to overcome before the flag can be planted at the summit.

But the view from the top? trust me when I say it is worth it and I want to get back there.

Finding My Feet Again – Renewal  

“Every day is a school day” and one never stops learning. For me over the past year I needed to introduce myself to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Many have sort out my advice, which is humbling, but equally I have learned (and continue to do so) much from them.

This is the kind of hard-nosed experience and learning that can only be accessed in the street and not in any classroom. Real innovation created around the kitchen table and in the garage rather than in an MBA class (and yes, I do have one!) or a posh state of the art corporate innovation lab.

You learn so much from those with hunger in their eyes and you can feel their passion and desire for success. I love learning about their businesses and seeing what they are doing. The UK Tech sector is very much alive, in-fact it bloody inspires me talking and more importantly listening to these people.

Engaging with the next generation of entrepreneurs is very much about expanding my mind and getting myself match fit mentally again. Time to Reset.

The Phoenix Rises – Getting the Band Back Together

“The Phoenix has to burn, before it rises” – well it has been well and truly burnt and now a new Company arises from the ashes.

Many of the old faces that created the Certus family I hope will be tempted back for another adventure at some point as we roll the dice one more time and journey off into the next pioneering sunset, looking to push the barriers of technology innovation further, with customer advocacy through delivery excellence of customer value always our goal in the world of business operations and experiences. And just as important re-establishing our reputation as being highly pragmatic and just easy to work with.

We all know the risks involved. Success is never guaranteed and the spectre of failure will always be present. Most importantly it is going to take time, so patience will be a vital ingredient.

Equally, the team (once I have assembled it and this takes time) will be talent spotting the next generation, so very much looking to work with some new faces and seeing what they can bring to the party as well.

In creating a new business, in whatever form it takes, it becomes our vehicle to now give back to the wider community. Just like we were mentored and advised it is so important to contribute by passing on our experience to the generation that follows and celebrate in their success as well.

No more blog disclaimers to keep the Corporate lawyers at bay. If you say it, write it, then you mean it, so stand by it. (Politicians please take note!). So, in words I am going to steal from Robert Downey Jnr “Sometimes you may need to disappear for a little if you want to be successful!”

See you all soon…exciting isn’t it?

Published on July 29, 2020

Can the Future of Remote Performance Management be found in American Sports? A decade on it’s a Second Coming…

Studying high performing individuals has always fascinated me. I have often looked to the sporting world to understand the makeup of a Champion, especially the mindset that enables delivery excellence and success.

The very phrase human capital implies and screams financial value. My argument being that if we value people as much as we all say we do why doesn’t it find its way onto the balance sheet? (I’ll leave that thought to the Accountants out there). But what really is it? how do you identify it? and how do you measure it? The fundamental problem is that performance scoring an individual always involves a high degree of subjectivity. This often leads to the well known phrase of “it’s not what you know, but who you know”.

With Civil Service reform back on HM Government agenda my interest has stirred once more. After all, are we not living in a world where data science rules? so surely we should be able to measure human performance consistently, fairly and accurately allowing for rational informed decision making.

This blog tells the story of an idea conceived over a decade ago that was ahead of its time with the lofty aim of introducing a consistent level playing field across the multitude of HM Government performance management systems, minimising subjectivity, removing subconscious bias whilst objectively demonstrating an individual’s employee value to the organisation.

Back to the 1980’s – Fire Up the Quatro..

When I started my career in Information Technology or Data Processing as it was known in the 1980’s, the key performance metric for career progression was how much you could drink at lunch time and after work with the boss. It was the era of pub culture and if you didn’t drink you weren’t part of the gang. Most importantly if you were not seen to be with the right crowd you just weren’t visible and therefore remembered, with this having a direct correlation to one’s progress up the corporate ladder. This was quite normal.

Such behaviours create and fuels subconscious bias, and this excludes factors such as race, religion and sexuality, which depending upon one’s background and culture are always present to some degree. The workplace was very different back in the 1980’s. Watch “Ashes to Ashes” and you will get a realistic picture of what it was really like.

We have all witnessed individuals who deliver very little value but demonstrate incredible dexterity in understanding politics and leveraging power accelerating their career up the corporate hierarchy. That in itself is a remarkable skill and I have to admit something I have grown to appreciate over time. Just how valuable it is to the organisation itself I still question though?

Equally, how many times have we seen the individual who works all hours, achieves incredible feats of delivery, but is by-passed and over-looked for promotion?

It can be argued the smart ones gamify the corporate system, but for those that don’t want to play and who look to the performance management system to argue their case can only come to the conclusion that it is fundamentally flawed when it falls short.

In the post Covid-19 era, where remote digital working has had to become more widely accepted the perceived disparity for those that are often out of sight and out of mind is only going to increase.

Flaws of Performance Management Systems

The internet is awash with articles citing the flaws of performance management systems with the list below being by no means exhaustive:

What are we trying to achieve through performance management? In its simplest form we are trying to identify, justify and reward those individuals who add value to an Organisation. Equally, we are also trying to identify and justify those individuals who are not contributing and where corrective action is required. However, as people are involved we immediately introduce by default various degrees of subjectivity and bias. Consequently we have a lack of consistency and the playing field becomes uneven.

But what if you could minimise or even eliminate bias? thereby providing a level playing field for all, creating transparency for the employees, and rich operational insight for the Organisation. Sounds like utopia? Possibly, but in an era where data drives everything we are only a stone’s throw away from actually achieving this.

In-fact, some of us were here over a decade ago…  

American Professional Sport and Data Science 

The underlying thinking for such a solution is not new, in-fact its origins can be found in American professional sport whose use of statistics and measures has been around for what seems the dawn of time.

Over a decade ago I was introduced to a book called “Competing on Analytics – The New Science of Winning” by Thomas H Davenport and Jeanne G Harris, published through Harvard School Press (2007). On first glance you might think this is a technical book, but buried on page 78 there are a couple of paragraphs on how Bill Belichick, Coach of the New England Patriots, outlined his approach to performance measurement and its influence on team recruitment policy. It also touches upon Michael Lewis book “Moneyball”, and how something similar is applied to Baseball. Whilst Moneyball, thanks to the film and Brad Pitt, is well known, Belichick’s approach is not so.

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The New England Patriots were a failing American football team in the 90’s. They were in a very dark place when Belichick was named Head Coach in 2000. He had done his time, with 25 years in various coaching positions in the NFL, including 4 years as the Cleveland Browns as Head coach 1991-1995.

Back in 2000, Belichick’s application of data science created not only a team, but a dynasty that turned a failed franchise into several winning teams that spanned multiple eras, winning six Superbowl’s out of nine appearances over a 20-year period! (I guess it also helped that he had Tom Brady as the Quarterback, but let’s not stray off-piste here)

Belichick’s view was the perfect team was one that could deliver high performance consistently week-in week-out. To achieve this, constant performance measurement of the individuals that comprised the team would be required, but it needed to be a combination of both quantitative (objective) and qualitative data (subjective). It was only when both these elements were combined a common scoring system was created that allowed objective ranking and insight.

Innovation through the measurement of human performance

Belichick’s insight as a Coach was that it wasn’t just how good an individual could throw, catch, block, or move; this was quantitative data that could easily be measured but of equal importance it was how an individual got on with their team-mates; how a player interacted socially; what they were prepared to do for the team; level of egotism; and their intelligence. This second dataset, or intangibles as Belichick refers to them, was devised by a number of coaches subjectively inputting their individual perspective on watching the interaction of an individual with others and attention to detail in terms of research of a players background. In doing so numerous opinions were collated and bias marginalised. No stone was left untouched. Ultimately a player gets one score that represents his value to the team.

The Patriots armed with this new outlook began looking for new talent pools outside the annual college draft recruitment – the accepted route into the NFL. The Patriots would look at smaller less well known colleges; Freeagents – players who for various reasons were out of contract; had been over looked or considered to be past their sell-buy date; and finally the minor leagues like Canadian Football League (CFL), where teams might just possess an individual with the capabilities they were looking for. The added bonus being, that players identified from these new talent pools didn’t cost as much as the primary college draft route. (that’s the “Moneyball” dynamic).

Under Belichick the Patriots installed their “Draft Decision Support System” and applied it to everyone across every talent pool, through the draft and at the Patriots Summer Camp, where additional individuals are invited to participate to try and make the squad for the new season. Rigorous and constant application of the new system combining the new performance datasets determined who stayed and who was cut based upon their individual score and their value to the team.

Eureka! – The birth of EmpIndex 

So why couldn’t we apply Belichick’s Draft Decision Support System and evolve it one stage further and create a performance index, just like the Stock Exchange FTSE? In doing so we could objectively measure an employee’s value and link it directly to an Organisation’s objectives, comparing individuals uniformly across the organisation by role.

Consequently, you could minimise subjectivity by creating an index that comprised of both elements – quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective data. If everyone is scored with the same criteria by job role, assuming this is a true reflection of the work they do, you create a natural index. Whilst you couldn’t refresh this on a daily basis, depending upon the criteria, you could measure on a monthly or quarterly basis, which for this area is virtually real time.

Fundamental Concept – An Individual can Create Value, but can also Destroy Value

A key principle of design is that as much as an individual can add value to an Organisation, they can also be destroyers of value. Negativity, poor attitude, poor performance, creates a negative score. This is absolutely critical in determining the overall score of an individual.

Each factor, regardless whether it is measured by quantitive or qualitative data, has to have an underlying scoring system where it was possible to receive a negative score as an outcome. Technically, behind every factor was a different graph, that allowed a score to be generated between +100 and -100. When all the factors are combined and weighted the final score is produced.

Subsequently, you could create not only a score for an individual, but for a team, a department, and ultimately for the Organisation as a whole. More importantly you could then track this.

2009 – UK Public Sector – An Idea was way ahead of its time 

Back in 2009/10 a group of us looked to push the idea of EmpIndex inside HM Central Government and we met with numerous MP’s who were working with Frances Maud at the time around Civil Service reform.

This was an era just before Enterprise Cloud SaaS applications and even thinking like the 9 box-grid didn’t really exist. The most novel thinking was from the 1990’s the 360-degree review, which at this point been around for years but was still not widely adopted.

2009 – Market Testing – SHRM & CIPD Perspective

We presented at the CIPD (Chartered Institute Personnel Development) Conference in Manchester and also locally at several branch events. Despite the idea being both revolutionary and innovative, British Companies, the UK Public Sector and some CIPD members were extremely negative, always highlighting the potential flaws of such a system include, but not limited to:

The points raised were valid, and no-one said we had all the answers as we were pioneering and constantly finding our way.

Our best piece of negative feedback was from a Finance Director of a large Public Sector body who emailed saying, “We cannot measure our people like this, we would have them walking out”. It is at this point you know you have a really good disruptive idea, but the market, especially Public Sector wasn’t ready for it.

However our biggest breakthrough and interest was from a couple of American multi-national companies and SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), the American equivalent to the CIPD. The Americans culturally simply “just got it” and more importantly saw value in it. SHRM even asked us to participate in developing their standards, but due to our bandwidth we were constrained. A real opportunity lost that I have always personally regretted.  

2020 – Elevating Performance Management in Post Covid19 Environment 

Now a decade later innovation in performance management systems I would argue is needed more than ever. Not a day goes past where we discussing in the news corporate racism; BAME agenda and lack of opportunities for advancement; unconscious bias; pay gap agenda; whilst we are all having to accept, adopt and adapt to new ways of working enforced upon us by the pandemic. In doing so we need performance management systems that allow us to: 

Today in 2020 we are living in an environment where data is driving our everyday decision making. So why not use this for the good and level the playing field for all? Getting individual performance feedback closer to real-time and then leveraging this to keep checking the pulse of the Organisation can surely only be a positive.

A hard lesson in Entrepreneurship – How did it end?

At the time my other Company – Certus Solutions was just about to take off and I didn’t have the funds to push EmpIndex forward. It is a classic example of having a great idea but ahead of its time. Software development is a very capital intensive business. I made the call and wrote off my investment, and a great idea was put on the shelf for another day.

The lesson here is sometimes you can be just too far ahead of the curve. They say “the bankruptcy courts are full of good ideas”. Market timing is everything, and always very difficult to call. But if you don’t test ideas out you never get there, hence why it is important to talk to as many people as possible, even your potential competition, to gauge your chances of success.

An Open Invitation to Pioneer…

EmpIndex was ahead of its time and the market wasn’t ready for this type of solution. However both technology and the market has now moved on at dramatic pace. The need to address the inequalities that we all know that exist and raise corporate capability through diversity and inclusion but based upon performance and the value an individual brings surely must be the new order. We are constantly talking about these topics, but I see very few pragmatic solutions being offered.

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Has the time finally now arrived? Is the market now ready for something revolutionary, innovative and disruptive as EmpIndex? Could it be deployed and work effectively inside an Organisation, especially one that works remotely? Is it time to brush off the old prototype from a decade ago? Would the UK Public Sector be ready for something like this now, especially with No10’s increasing appetite for data science?

Just imagine if you could apply artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to the data, we would take innovation in this area to a whole new level. What insights and discoveries would we make? This technology wasn’t accessible to ourselves in 2009.

Please let me know what you think as I am genuinely interested to hear and to talk to those who are interested as I have a mountain of research on this subject. The real question for me is am I going to let this stay on the shelf gathering dust? As for No10 you know where I am.  

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on July 22, 2020

SaaS – The True Cost of the Race to the Bottom of the Rate Card

Recently a recurring theme appears to be emerging regarding Cloud Customers (regardless of platform selected) in not being able to realise the value promised from their Software as a Service (“SaaS”) ERP implementations. Whilst I might attentively raise an enquiring eyebrow, experience tells me that I probably already know the root cause of their problem – they bought an implementation on the cheap, struggled to embrace the change despite being told it was going to be transformational and they never had a plan beyond go-live. So how did the Organisation get here? Well unfortunately it often, but not always, starts with the buying process.

Immediately I now find myself in dangerous territory walking along the tightrope that bridges the Buyer-Supplier divide. But with all my musings hopefully they are educational as it gives the reader a real glimpse of what really happens and where these types of implementations can fail right from the very outset. For some it’s going to be controversial, but I promise to save some of my more outrageous experiences for my book (and yes to those that follow me it is still coming!). Smile.

Seriously though, what I am not trying to do is level any criticism but rather educate through insight by providing a heavy dose of reality of what goes on when a procurement for a Systems Integrator commences and the implications of a price driven competition.

However, if price is always going to be the overriding factor in an Organisation’s purchasing decision making, then no matter what I say here is not going to make any difference. So, before you stop reading, remember in this game you always get what you pay for.

The Concept of Value?

It’s a term banded around like sweets in a sweetshop. In-fact we all subconsciously use it in our day-to-day decision making. The dictionary definition of value is simply “the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”.

I am often asked as to how we valued Certus Solutions before we sold it. Now valuing a company as a mathematical exercise can be determined by a number of methods including Discounted Cash Flows; P/E Ratio’s; EBITDA; Revenue Multipliers; Book Value (Asset); and Liquidation Value. Each will come up with a different number. All of this is working to quantify objectively something that can be pretty intangible, especially in Professional Service Companies whose only real asset is goodwill. I can tell you it is the most subjective of all exercises and I have personally spent many hours trying to explain this to people often without success.

However, the one single factor that is the most important which is not found on the balance sheet, the P&L or in a valuation method is simply how much a willing Acquirer is prepared to pay? and how much is the Owner prepared to sell it for?

It’s the same for buying a SaaS ERP and selecting an implementation partner. What is the Buyer prepared to pay against what they value? and what can a Supplier provide at a profitable price point that realises that value for the Buyer?

Where both sides reach an accord is the sweet spot of any deal, as both recognise the value generated as being beneficial to one another. To do so means eliminating subjectivity and trying to objectively crystalize value as a commercial transaction ensuring expectations on both sides of the equation are met.

Buy-Side – The Competition

A professional Buyer quite rightly wants to know they are purchasing the right product or service at the right price and that its going to deliver the benefits that they have identified. Consequently, they will want to test the market against their requirements.

Best practice is always for Buyers to engage the market informally and early to gain understanding of the “players” out there. Consequently, the Buyer can shape the “ask” accordingly, and also sensible conversations lead to Suppliers becoming interested in the opportunity.

A competitive procurement process is full of ironies. After a Supplier has attended a procurement briefing which are usually held as a showcase for the Buyer to tempt and explain to the market as to why they should be participating, the well-crafted Invitation To Tender (ITT) or Request For Proposal (RFP) follows.

This is a document that has usually taken many months of significant effort to create, with the Buyer explaining in great detail what they are wanting to achieve in terms of outcomes, and with realms of questions they require the Supplier to justify why it should be them.

But then, regardless of what has been said, the scoring and weighting criteria for price is stacked on the high side. In a single stoke of a pen, the Buyer has completely contradicted themselves.

The Supplier also knows the first thing a Buyer does on receipt of a response is to turn to the commercial section to see what it is going to cost? and subsequently skip over the 30+ pages of a Supplier’s equally time consuming well-crafted answers proving they have the capability for delivery and what additional value they can bring to the party.

The rule of thumb is if its 40% or more weighted on price, the procurement, regardless of its size, total value, and what the Buyer says is important, is immediately labelled by the Supplier as a “race to the bottom of the rate card” and the qualification dance begins.

Price is always going to be a factor and rightly so. However, to achieve value for money, it should be a factor alongside a number of other factors that collectively are all positively correlated to the value generated required.

In my time I have seen some of the most complicated mathematical statistical equations for scoring a procurement which for the majority of us (myself included) need an Advanced Mathematics degree from Oxford or Cambridge to understand. However, this all counts for absolutely nothing if the “Supplier Fit” – the culture, their beliefs and values are not aligned with the Buyers Organisation. Because, when things get tough, and they will as they always do in an ERP implementation, it is the behaviours of both sides that will get you through.

However, when the Buyer encourages the race to the bottom of the rate-card and gets two horses running they often leverage this by playing one off against the other driving the price lower in search of the better deal. At some point it becomes completely uneconomical for the Supplier to deliver the project. That sets both sides up for a future commercial conflict with the project never meeting the Buyer’s expectations in terms of benefits sort.

Supply Side – The Qualification Dance

Every sales opportunity, big or small, always gets qualified. Competitions cost serious money and require significant effort to take part in. Nobody ever plays to lose, as you get nothing in this game for coming second. However, the Buyer sometimes is completely oblivious of the costs involved in playing the game, despite the usual legal wording in the document that the they will not be liable for any costs incurred from the Supplier taking part.

What does qualification mean? Simply should the Supplier invest their time and money into even responding in the belief that they will be successful. If the Supplier believes that they cannot win or the procurement isn’t in the right shape; then it’s a no bid. In doing so the Supplier has just saved significant amounts of effort, cash and often goodwill amongst its staff for another day.

Selling on price is easy, it belongs to the “stack’em and pack’em” brigade. It’s a valid business model, and there are many Companies that work in the Systems Integration space that are extremely successful at doing this. So, if a procurement is weighted 40% or more on price, your definitely in the game if this is your business model.

Do I personally believe this is the right approach to maximise value from a SaaS implementation? Absolutely not! To do this properly you have to constantly generate value over the life of the contract. To achieve that you must have a long-term relationship with the Client and this requires constant two-way investment from both sides.

Selling on value is an art. It’s not easy. Your proposition has to be specifically crafted to hit all the Buyers values; and then some! To do that, you need to understand the Organisation and business your selling into, joining the dots as to how your proposition will enable them to overcome some of the market challenges they are facing. This takes research and serious amounts of effort on part of the Supplier before you go anywhere near a keyboard to write the proposal, often then weaving this into the specific questions the Buyer is asking.

So how does this play out? if the price weighting is 30% or less; and the procurement structured in such a way you are given the option to differentiate yourself from the competition, then it is worth looking at if you sell this way. The Buyer is saying “What can you bring to the party, because we are genuinely interested?” and indicating that price is not the only factor, and you have the opportunity to innovate, and therefore differentiate yourself.

The other key supply side qualification criteria is always around the competition and the relationships they have or you yourself have with the Client. What are they looking for? has the procurement been influenced or shaped by someone else in advance. I have talked about this before in more detail in my blog.

If you are not working the inside channels of a client in advance I will absolutely guarantee that someone else already has or is. It creates subconscious influence and potential bias in people. That’s why Suppliers do it.

Wider Market Impact – Price of Commoditisation

Anyone can sell on price alone and equally anyone can buy on price. That is not salesmanship or balancing the equation best practice procurement in a non-commoditised market.

Dropping the price can be dangerous for a Company’s business operations. Deals become economically unviable and cannot be delivered. This has implications as it drains a company’s most critical asset – cash. Large Companies can ride a bad deal out, for SME’s it can be fatal. Buyers putting Suppliers out of business, regardless who signed the contract, never helps the Buyer in the long run. You can’t recover costs from a Company that has gone out of business.

Even worse it can affect the wider market. A market driven purely by price, becomes commoditised. Two things then happen. Firstly, Suppliers stop competing, especially if known suppliers are constantly undercutting everyone else on price. Choice becomes limited, quality of service is impacted, Customer satisfaction and advocacy drops.

Secondly, with Suppliers unable to make a profit, and therefore not having the case to constantly invest in its delivery capability they start exiting the market. The market in-effect becomes constrained, as potential suppliers leave looking elsewhere for commercial profitable opportunities.

Regardless of what Vendors sometimes say SaaS ERP systems don’t implement themselves. Cloud is transformational, it’s going to change how you operate. If you don’t possess the internal capability to manage such a transformation you are going to need external expertise. Remember, Cloud SaaS technology is not really a leading technology today, the technical risk is minimal, as thousands of successful implementations have been undertaken around the world. Projects fail not because of the technology; projects fail because the Client can’t manage programme complexity; the business change required isn’t delivered; or the Systems Integrator personnel don’t know the SaaS product.

True Cost of Price Driven Implementations

Price driven implementations are the equivalent of assembling a building and just switching the lights on. However, when you enter and look around nobody has fitted the building out, so its use is extremely limited. Characteristics of price driven SaaS implementations usually involve:

Consequently, low price overall has a negative correlation linked to the value realised.

Don’t Just Switch the Lights On – Maximising the value from SaaS

SaaS applications provide you with truly a wonderful opportunity to modernise the back office in many ways. So how do you maximise the value from the implementation?

Buy Cheap you Buy Twice

An old adage, but true. You buy cheap you will ultimately end up buying twice. I have lost count of how many rescue ERP implementation projects I have undertook over my career. Always extremely stressful for everyone involved, very expensive and most of all so annoyingly easily avoided.  

For those recovery projects that do make it live, you still have an unhappy Customer as their expectations haven’t been met and they are still upset over the cost. Recovery projects at a minimum get you live and that requires you to revive the Client from their initial cardiac arrest. Even then the building fit out is still required and that requires more investment. 

In the early days of Cloud, every software vendor was sighting just how easy and quick it was to implement their solutions. The truth is that Cloud SaaS technology in a business context was by far too transformational. Consequently, many implementations could not be delivered for the price contracted for, and Suppliers (as I well know) are only going to invest in buying market share for so long. On the Buyer side frustration builds, and the only way to defuse this is through constant education, enhancement and enablement to drive value. 

The market moves in cycles, and we are now definitely seeing those Clients that have bought their implementations cheaply are not reaping the benefits that the Cloud SaaS applications can generate. It’s all about expectation setting from the outset and this requires realignment.

Why is this happening now? primarily we are in the first major 3 or 5 year renewal cycle for those having bought previously and they are now questioning what they have done. SaaS provides innovation, the functionality is there, but you have to invest to release it. Continuous improvement is the order of the day, but if you are not prepared to do this, then don’t complain you cannot get the value from Cloud, because you absolutely can.

The very best commercial deals are always the ones where collaboration between Buyer and Supplier both parties create value for one another. Those that understand this are the real winners. For this to work properly both sides have to take time to really get to know one another; then work at having an effective working relationship (it doesn’t always come naturally); and most importantly are prepared to share the risk and the rewards of any engagement. 

Alternatively, if you side with the opposite logic regardless which side of the fence you are on, that the best deal is where you win and the other side doesn’t, then you will see an appropriate set of behaviours that are frankly counter intuitive to generating not only long term lasting value but you will be lucky to get anything substantive in the near term.

Time to turn the lights on? Anyone know where the light switch is?

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today. 

Roll back to New Year’s Eve 2019 and the technology industry was looking forward optimistically to a new decade of advancement and achievement. Investment funds in cloud B2B applications was increasing to record levels across Europe, the UK tech scene was flourishing, and the ERP cloud market was starting to evolve into the era of the ‘experience economy’. Everything felt good and the world was full of opportunity. However, by the end of April 2020 we found ourselves in what could be described as a global economic apocalypse due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We will beat this terrible disease that has caused such devastation to our lives and our economy. Its impact for some will affect the rest of their lives as we mourn loved ones lost, and economically, I predict we are looking at least five to seven years for full recovery. 

Regardless of how dire the situation has become we have to look forward positively and rebuild. With any crisis opportunities emerge that can make a positive impact. We just have to be brave enough to take them.

The crisis has inadvertently accelerated the need and use of digital technology. Those enterprises that have deferred their digital transformation have found themselves having to accelerate their plans and immediately adapt to support new ways of working. 

For some organisations it has been too little too late and unfortunately what we are seeing is pure Darwinism; ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent – it is the one that is the most adaptable to change’. Organisations that continue to produce over-engineered business cases, lengthy procurements, and inaction around decision making I will just be diplomatic and say nothing, but hopefully you get my point.

We are at ground zero and the only way is up in rebuilding our economy. At the 9/11 memorial in the wonderful city of New York there is a message carved into the wall that has always struck a chord and the words are just as meaningful today as we face this global crisis. It simply says; “We came in as individuals. And we’ll walk out together.”. In any progressive society we all have a role to play.

SMEs are now more important than ever

The technology industry thrives on start-ups and small companies as this is where you find the risk takers pioneering innovation and new ideas. These are the people that create businesses from nothing, where the kitchen table and the garage are the innovation labs of the future. Often short of cash, such individuals pursue their ideas by being highly creative searching to deliver solutions that just make the world a better place. They create wealth in various forms, usually through employment of others and where the smart ones focus heavily on developing talent contributing to the industry and the wider economy. 

Consequently, more than ever we need to support this market segment as this will become a key element of the engine room for rebuilding our economy. 

Continued government support will be key

Kick starting the economy is down to the government. In such unprecedented times, whilst criticism will always be present, I personally feel Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, could not have done anything more than the multiple initiatives he has taken. The stimulus package has been constant – Deferred VAT, Business Tax Relief, CBILS, Furlough Scheme, Future Fund and the Bounce Back Loan.

Unfortunately, it always takes time from announcement to action, and time is an extremely precious resource that many in the SME world do not have – some businesses will unfortunately still go under. However, for those that have been able to access the measures, we need to ensure that government leaves these funding options in place for a significant amount of time. This is going to be critical as suddenly withdrawing the support will create just as many problems.

Opportunities a-plenty

Technology advancement in regard to digital solutions comes in many forms and what has happened will make a profound difference on how we think and undertake work. From the obvious advances in video-communication technology and collaborative software platforms, through to the back office including:

Tim Warner, former chairman of Certus Solutions, said: “Cloud technologies have already enabled us to adapt to seismic unexpected change, the challenge now is to continue the journey to innovate and make the world a better place”.  

The market should be more receptive now than ever to new digitalised solutions.

We need one another – life is about human contact

Despite championing technology advancement, if there is one thing humans value above all else it is social contact. 

Our time on this planet is limited. Some of us might live to 100, others will live shorter lives. But in the time we do have, wouldn’t you want to spend it with your loved ones and friends? Innovation should drive our physical social contact upwards and allow us to get on celebrating and enjoying life.

Technology therefore should achieve two things at a minimum; firstly, make the work we do more fulfilling by eliminating the mundane and providing us with learning experiences; and secondly, create more time! 

People contribute in many ways – entrepreneurs have their role

We all contribute in different ways, and whilst the NHS and those on the front line are leading the efforts to tackle the crisis, I know that entrepreneurs will also play their part as they continue to innovate, generate tax revenues and further wealth creation opportunities for all. One thing is for certain, there is a lot of hard work ahead If we want a better future, but for now #staysafe everyone.   

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer, companies I invest in or am associated with. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This article is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.