systems@work for Android

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We’ve just launched our systems@work App for Android mobiles, so (with a little configuration and an upgrade to the central server application) our users all over the world can connect to their company’s systems@work database and submit and authorise forms through their Android mobiles.

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It’s hard to find reliable statistics on relative market share for Android and iOS in the business sector (precisely those who might use time@work, expense@work or forms@work), but it’s clear that Android has won at least half the market, and in some areas of the world, much more than half. When, at a recent LLP Group company get-together, I asked my colleagues which of the two they use, a clear majority put their hands up for Android. A couple rather sheepishly owned up to Windows Mobile, but, with apologies to the two of them, for the moment I’ll ignore that opportunity. And the Blackberry one too.

At least Android phones can be cheap. When we reached the final stages of testing the Android version of systems@work a couple of months ago, I went out and bought myself one for just 40 GBP (with about ten minutes of free local phone calls thrown in to sweeten the deal). It took me some time to get used to the different style, but once I got inside our App it seemed like familiar territory and our App worked just as well. I was able to submit the invoice for the Android phone, as a legitimate business expense, using the App itself just twenty minutes after I bought it. (That’s logically equivalent to driving home a car salesman in the car he’s just sold you. Or something like that.)

Developing apps hasn’t been a painless experience. The problem for App developers is that the technical environment for App software is utterly different for iOS and for Android. And when it comes to Android you have the additional worry that you must make sure that what you’ve developed will work on the most ‘vanilla’ version of the operating system, because Android can be ever so slightly different on different devices. Apple’s iOS, on the other hand, is always the same (barring new versions).

So, App development is expensive. It took us more than a year to finish the iPhone version and around six months to complete the Android one. At least the web services that read and update the systems@swork database are the same for both Apps.

Our App is complex, though very simple on the surface. When you connect it to your systems@work database, it takes the forms that are defined there, and which are always very different for every one of our systems@work customers, and renders them in your mobile, together with all the lookup lists, date fields, numeric fields, and so on. that you need to fill in.

You can have as many forms as you like – for time entry, for expense entry (in local or foreign currency), for mileage calculation (with the distance between two place names or postcodes being automatically calculated by Bing if that’s what you need), for absence requests, for just about anything. You can photograph a receipt (or the Tower of Pisa for that matter) and record a voice memo. When you’ve finished entering data (online or offline) you can upload your transactions, photos and voice memos, to the server, sending forms for immediate authorisation or feeding the data into forms and timesheets that you can finish off in the browser.

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I dream that one day there might be a single programming language that will work for both iPhone and Android, even if we’d then have to write a third version of our App. Stepan, our development manager, tells me that there’s talk in the technosphere about a new language or development environment called Swift that might solve just this problem. I look forward to it, but not tomorrow.

For the moment, and for some considerable time to come, we’re happy to have launched systems@work for Android as a separate App. It’s functionally identical to the one that works on an iPhone, so we’ll go on developing both in tandem, at least until we’ve finally caught our breath and have the stamina to begin again with Swift,

Sweetening the Pill

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‘People buy from people,’ we’re told, again and again, if we’re in the business of sales. It’s not about the product: it’s about YOU.

I say this myself to our sales staff in LLP Group and systems@work. We write and sell software, and provide the consulting days that make the software work. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the software product and what it can do is irrelevant, but rather that in making our software work for a customer it’s only partly about the product, and as much about the skills of the people involved in the sale and implementation, including their personal skills of persuasion and determination. Assuming, of course, that during the sales process our sales staff are selling as if they are honest and realistic consultants, which, often, they have been.

People buy from people. And people buy from people they like. And sometimes people like people because they give them things.

Sales has always been a muddy business. The trick of making people like you should be about what you’re bringing to them ‘professionally’ rather than ‘personally’, but sometimes it isn’t. There are the dinners, the gifts, the ‘training’ trips, the nightclubs, the seats at sporting fixtures, all those benefits that oil the wheels of sales. They’re often above board, completely visible, accountable (even tax deductible) and bring no long-term personal benefit to the recipient, but sometimes they’re not.

The rule in my company is that anything we give to a client or a potential client  (and we set a very low maximum) the recipient must be able to declare to his or her boss. We give bottles of wine at Christmas, and we take our visitors out to dinner.

Sales is certainly cleaner than it was, but we’d be lying if we suggested that the reason we are generous to potential clients and existing clients has nothing to do with wanting their business. There are grey areas.

In the world of business-to-business software sales in the private sector it is not complicated. But it all gets much more difficult in areas where ethics and public money are involved, such as in the purchase of pharmaceutical products by publicly funded health services. Pharmaceutical products must be good for the patient, and affordable for the tax payer.

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Over the last few years the practices of pharmaceutical sales teams have come under the spotlight and, as in China recently, pharmaceutical companies have been prosecuted and fined for ‘bribing’ doctors to buy their products.

I don’t know if there has ever been direct under-the-table bribing, such as cash in brown paper bags, but the tentacles of pharmaceutical companies go so deep into the institutions they sell to that it’s difficult to disentangle the ethical from the unethical. They sponsor research, they provide samples, they run training courses, they pay for doctors to go to, and speak at, conferences, they run educational seminars, and often entertain on a lavish scale.  It is no wonder that the objective independence of those who recommend and prescribe particular products is undermined, consciously or otherwise.

So great have been some recent scandals that regulation has now begun to intrude on these practices. One consequence is that pharmaceutical companies must now track and report on all the ‘benefits’ they provide to Health Care Professionals (HCPs). This reporting is enforced both internally but also by statutory bodies. The value of all benefits must be reported by expense type, by organisation and by individual (and by the role they perform in the organisation).

This is where expense@work comes in. I’ve recently been engaged in trying to sell our expense management software to a pharmaceutical company that’s under pressure to provide exactly this kind of HCP reporting. It’s easy for us, and I can easily configure the system to track expenses not just by the elements that are needed for accounting purposes (expense type, description, gross value, VAT value and net value, in transaction and local currency) but also by organisation and particular health care professional (if appropriate) and by pharmaceutical product area and product.

I can picture the sales representatives assiduously entering these data into our system and I don’t suppose they would like doing it, but transparency in the slightly murky area of pharmaceutical sales is long overdue.

Pharmaceutical companies are essential. Where would be without them? And it is legitimate that they should actively advertise and promote their products. This means relationships with HCPs at all levels. The provision of education and training is part of the process too. But even if there’s complete transparency, it’s still important to be nice. People will always buy from people.

 

Bond, where is that Timesheet?!

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I saw Spectre last night. It was utterly awesome, as I’d expected. Indeed, the Bond series goes from strength to strength. Perhaps it lacked the emotional range of Skyfall, and in particular, those moments of poignancy with which the film ended, but Spectre, just like its predecessors, is brim full of realistic and tasty ingredients – suspense, violence, innate evil, fast cars, gadgets, elegance, intimacy, torture and a soupcon of British humour. Director Sam Mendes lovingly recreates the old clichés and conventions, but despite all that I kept sensing that something hugely important was missing. I don’t mean Judi Dench. I miss her as M, of course, and I cried when M died, but Ralph Fiennes is a more than adequate replacement. And Ben Whishaw is superb as Q, this time a little more involved in the action. No, what I missed was timesheets and expenses.

I was so excited by the product placements in Skyfall that I actually wrote to the producer, Barbara Broccoli, to suggest that timesheets and expense forms might add some corporate plausibility to the image of MI6. After all, MPs at the House of Commons use our software, so why shouldn’t secret agents and their masters? Licensed to kill they may be, but surely they must account fully for each working day, and record their quite extravagant expenses properly if they’re expecting to be reimbursed.

I wrote to suggest three placement points and some clever and snappy dialogue to make them seem natural.

==

Memo to Barbara Broccoli, Producer, James Bond films:

Re:         Placement opportunities for systems@work in the next Bond film

Dear Barbara,

I have long admired the Bond franchise’s approach to product placement. Apart from lending credibility to the script at vital moments, they add further to the excitement (the audience wondering when, where, and how, the familiar products will make their ritualistic appearances). I understand that you make generous payments to the likes of Aston Martin, Sony and Omega to use and show their products. I can better that. I am prepared to let you show our systems and use our logos free of charge.

I see three opportunities for placement points in the forthcoming production where we can do something plausible and useful with timesheets and expenses:

  1. Near the beginning, when Q is doing his usual stuff with gadgets,
  2. Later, at an elegant location, when Bond is buying a Martini at a hotel bar, and
  3. Most appropriately, during the debriefing session at the end – M, Q, the Home Secretary, Moneypenny and Bond, all joshing on the subject of timesheets and expenses.

Moreover, I’ve taken the trouble to offer you, at no extra cost, some snappy dialogue designed to promote the benefits of timesheets and expenses without disturbing the excitement and momentum of the film.

==

Gadget Scene

(Q and Bond)

Bond     What’s my mobile in this one, Q? Any chance I’ll get an iPhone?

Q:          It’s still a Sony, I’m afraid, 007. Apple is too damn expensive.

Bond:    Apps?

Q:          Explodes. Shoots. Plays background music. Bowls a good leg break. Everything you need, 007.

Bond:    Very useful, Q, but what about expenses?

(Q angles the phone towards the camera so that we can see the screen.)

Q:         Yes, 007, we thought of that. No excuses for late submission this time. The systems@work App lets you do your expenses both offline and online. Snap your receipts with the inbuilt camera and forget about the paperwork. Upload them at your leisure, if you get any, but only (chuckles) if they’re MI6-compliant. No pigeon houses or moat cleaning at MI6, 007.

General amazement ensues. Film continues.

Scene in Hotel Bar, Ritz or Mandarin preferred.

(Bond and slightly surly bartender.)

(After the usual dialogue that ends with ‘Shaken not stirred’, or, more recently, ‘I really don’t give a damn!’)

Bond:                 Bartender, you forgot to give me a receipt.

(Bartender resentfully prints a receipt and hands it to Bond, with noticeable curl of lip. He watches with surprise and then admiration as Bond uses his mobile device to photograph the receipt. We catch another glimpse of the time@work App and logo.)

Bartender:         Wow, that’s utterly awesome.

Bond:                  Yes, it’s available from Version 4.9 of systems@work’s timesheet and expense software. I can upload the image and get paid before the film’s even over.

(Action resumes after brief pause for appreciation.)

 

Debriefing scene

(M, Q, Bond, Home Secretary, Moneypenny)

Home Secretary:             Well done, 007. Good show.

M:                                      Don’t let it go to your head, 007. You’ve forgotten something of very great importance to us.

Moneypenny:                  Is it my box of Milk Tray?

M:                                      Don’t be silly, Moneypenny. You’ve got the genre wrong again.

(And then, mimicking Edith Evans’ tone as she addresses Miss Prism in the 1952 film version of Oscar Wilde’s  The Importance of Being Earnest. )

M:                                      007, where is that timesheet? Where is that expense form?

Q:                                       I warned you, 007. No excuses this time. I even installed the systems@work App on your mobile. You can use it anywhere, offline or online. Let me show you.

(Q accidentally shows us the logo and splash screen again.)

Bond:                                Back in your train spotter’s box, Q! You’re sounding like a salesman. I’m not stupid. I understood you the first time, when you showed me the App near the start of the film. M, you think I don’t take compliance seriously? Where would the Service be without compliance? I gave all my receipts to Moneypenny yesterday. And in any case, you both know I can’t use my phone. I used it to kill a sneering oligarch, and I’m waiting for a replacement. Actually, whilst we’re on the subject, can I get an iPhone this time?

M:                                      Barbara, actually, can we all have iPhones in the next film?

Moneypenny:                  He’s right, M.  Yes, 007, I’m your Proxy, and I’ve submitted your expenses and timesheet for you. But you’ve still got to confirm them in the system.

Q:                                       Ah, yes, we configured it that way deliberately, to make life easier for our so-called indispensable agents. You can, I understand, omit the confirmation stage.

Home Secretary:             Yes, it’s a useful feature. In the House of Commons we do all our own expenses now, ever since that tiny spot of bother a few years ago. We use expense@work, a sister product to time@work, another highly configurable software package from the software author systems@work. It’s easy to use and almost idiot proof (ha, ha, ha, it has to be, if I’m to use it!). Why should you have special license, 007?

(Bond reaches for Moneypenny’s PC, swivels the screen with a violent gesture and a look that suggests at once both defiance and compliance (Mr Craig is a master of this kind of look)).

Bond:                                Let me login and confirm them whilst there’s still time.

(We see Bond confirming his timesheet (see below for suggested content) and then, if he’s quick enough, his expenses, too. Music starts and film ends.)

==

Barbara, I’d be happy to offer a barter deal if you feel a large payment isn’t possible. I feel sure that timesheets and expenses could be of great benefit to your production staff and cast during the making of the next Bond film, and, if it would help, we can throw in free training for the stars.

With best wishes,

Adam Bager – Chairman, systems@work

==

Sadly, I never got a reply from Barbara, but I’ll write again for the next film. With good racy dialogue, such as the above, time@work could seem just as alluring and essential as an Aston Martin, a Sony mobile or an Omega watch.

Bond’s Busy Week

Timesheet 007

Mutual Frustration – Why do IT systems users wait so long for features that already exist?

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I attended a conference recently where, by chance, I met someone who’s using the expense management system that I design – expense@work.  It’s always a little alarming when you meet a real user since you must expect them to be honest, and there are no better judges of what you’ve done. This one was direct:

‘I hate it,’ he said, with the kind of mock fury that told me that he knew he was exaggerating and didn’t really want me to go away and kill myself.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Well, it’s so out of date. I can’t attach images to my expense claims, and I can’t use it on a mobile device,’ and so on.

‘But you can,’ I said. ‘We’ve had those features for years.’

‘Then why haven’t we got them?’

‘I don’t know.’

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It’s so frustrating, but this happens time and time again. And not only with our own software. We also sell and implement a financial system, SunSystems, and again, we often have to deal with users who want features that we have, but who aren’t getting them.

This is actually a widespread problem in system implementation and the end result seems to be unnecessary reputational damage for the software author.

Why does it happen and how can it be avoided?

It happens because system implementation is a lengthy, expensive and risky business and end users don’t often determine what’s on the list of features that they’re going to get. Sponsors and project managers on the client’s side have a highly controlled, and usually narrow, list of objectives, and their criteria of success won’t usually include the implementation of features that are merely ‘nice to have’ but not necessary.

That’s why ‘nice features’ don’t make the list during an initial implementation, but it doesn’t explain why nice new features don’t get implemented later as soon as they become available.

The problem is that once a system is implemented, the policy becomes ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, so new versions with ever more up-to-date features, don’t get implemented either. And this is eminently sensible, because upgrades take time, often go wrong (for a while at least), and cost money. Upgrade projects are sometimes almost as large, expensive and risky as initial implementation projects, even if the software automates many aspects of the upgrade (such as updates to the database).

Software authors want their software to be liked by their end users. End users want ‘nice’ features. The obstacle lies between the two, in the conservatism of the client’s project managers and IT department.

Sadly, I can’t see what’s wrong with this. ‘Conservatism’ is a very sensible policy with business systems. The tragedy is that result is frustration on one side and unhappiness on the other. is there anything we can do about it?

I ask this question without knowing the answer. I wish I could find a way to deliver new features in software without risk or disturbance. But this is difficult. Business software isn’t like a desktop productivity tool. The problem is that what you do in one corner of the system can have unintended consequences in another corner. And when a system is implemented for a client it’s often integrated with lots of other systems, so a change in one corner of our part of the whole, can disturb a corner in another part that isn’t within our control, as authors of just one part, at all.

To some extent this problem is solved in ‘cloud’ or ‘hosted’ solutions, because authors then control the version that an end-user uses, and can introduce and publicise new features without obstruction from intervening project managers.

But ‘cloud’ and ‘hosted’ solutions aren’t always suitable when it comes to complex business software, especially when the software must be integrated with a client’s own systems. When there is deep integration, conservatism rules, and must do so.

And yet, it’s so frustrating to meet end-users and to have to repeat time and time again,’But our software CAN DO THAT!’

Any ideas?

Ready to help!

e@w In 2010, systems@work, our Czech-based subsidiary developed and supplied the software that controls expenses for the UK’s Members of Parliament. It was a huge, prestigious and successful project that we were delighted to win, and involved adapting our expense management package expense@work to fit the requirements of IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority), the body that regulates salaries and expenses for MPs.

Through expense@work MPs can claim allowable parliamentary expenses against strict polices and budgets (not a single drop of alcohol, for example!) and then see their expenses published on a public website for their constituents to see. Budgets depend on the proximity of their constituency to London, and other factors such as number of dependent children.

Following on from that success, we tried to interest the Parliament of our home country, the Czech Republic, in our system.

‘Ah, no, that’s completely under control,’ we were told.

Sadly, we got the same retort from most of the Parliaments we approached in our region and beyond.

So, it’s good news that the new finance minister Andrej Babiš is stirring things up again, suggesting that the Czech Republic needs a body like IPSA to regulate MPs’ remuneration. We contacted his office and left him our telephone number.

Andrej, we’re waiting for the call!