Archive for solutions

Vaporware, the age old technology scam

Posted in General with tags , , , , , , on July 20, 2010 by newideasconsult

I have a real pet peeve, and its solutions being offered to customers that simply do not yet exist or do only a part of what they should, vaporware in other words!  It’s been a bane for me for years, way back during the old Netscape vs Microsoft wars, then during my tenure at ICL, and since when consulting with clients and seeing just what their suppliers try to sell them. The issue with vaporware is that it starts with dishonesty, a sale to a customer based on fictitious features that then leads to shifting delivery dates and higher budget demands whilst the vendor tries to ‘finish’ the product at the customer’s expense.

I have no problem with the concept of selling components to customers that then needs customization once purchased.  In fact this modular approach we apply in the transaction management software we developed.  It makes sense to build components or modules into a platform that then needs customization for a customer, as opposed to writing a fresh solution from scratch every sale you get.  There is logic in approaching software development in such a way.

Time and again tenders or quotes are awarded on the back of dubious claims by solution providers, and it is the client who ends up with a raw deal.  The current economic climate does not help either as everyone seems even more desperate for business.  A bad situation is just made worse, and we should not stand for it.  As consultants though the task is ours to evaluate those solutions and manage the client and supplier’s expectations.  Tough when time lines and budgets tighten around you, but necessary if the client is to have a fair deal.

Developing a smart vendor evaluation process is a first step in the right direction, and it needs to be a process that keeps up with the fast changing world we live in.  We all know the basic questions to ask, but often we weigh them incorrectly leaving us with a short list of the usual candidates, to the exclusion of new dynamic solutions who may be looking for their first project, but have no references or solutions with a different approach because we were too vertical in the type we were looking for, and so on.  A flexible approach with a framework of core requirements and an openness to fresh ideas is not an easy balance to find I agree, but there seems to me to be no other option.  Technology changes so quickly these days that being too rigid in weighting your supplier evaluations or being to casual in your selections could cause your client financial pain and an incompatible outcome.

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virtual payments nirvana

Posted in General with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by newideasconsult

I often converse with companies and individuals seeking to ‘reach the un-banked’ through various technology solutions, either based on cards, ‘e-wallets’ or mobile phones, and am quite surprised when during the conversation the issue of where the cash for such solutions would be processed is met by some confusion or inaccurate responses by those very business people.  I specifically state it like I do, because ultimately no matter how ‘sexy’ or ‘sophisticated’ or ‘uncomplicated’ such a solution sounds, it always needs bank accounts behind it.  The unbanked will still need a place where cash is loaded and dispensed and those funds found within this solution will still be settled into and out of the solution owner’s own transactional (bank) accounts under customers instruction.  All solutions I have seen and or experienced work this way, though many may hide those bank accounts under several digital layers or they process those virtual account transactions through individual physical bank accounts or combined project bank accounts.  So to call these solutions anything other than banking solutions would be wrong in my opinion.  The line ‘how to reach the unbanked’ would make more sense if it reads ‘how to bank the unbanked’.  This may result in more regulatory appreciation by the ‘non-bank’ owned payment solution providers and their customers in the future, but is that such a bad thing?  It still stuns me that many people use PayPal for example without reading its own T&Cs that clearly define just how little regulation it is required to abide by…  The rush to new technology or the latest fad payment solution should become tempered when merchants and ‘account holders’ alike realize that there is no ‘virtual payments nirvana’, no silver bullet solution for the unbanked, and no ‘easy’ compliance process, though history shows otherwise.  If they are offered such, I would suggest they take a long hard look at the company’s terms & conditions, as well as the regulations they are subject to or not.  ‘Access to cash’ is what technology either makes easier, cheaper, more difficult or more expensive, and most if not all new ‘virtual payment’ services give you access to your own funds or enable you to access digital services using cash. What you as both a customer and a merchant need to figure out is if the choice you made makes your life easier and more risk free, and your banking and or payments less expensive, or not.  Your cash either sits in a bank account in your name or in someone’s else within such solutions, and they are either regulated or they are not.  For many customers, such clarity of the issues comes too late.

Demand driven mobile solutions

Posted in General with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2010 by newideasconsult

One of the issues we see surfacing during an economic drought is the demand test for products and services, especially in the ICT market.  These are the days of tighter budgets that see suppliers of services forced to shut down some services or products because they’re not being used.  Previously generous budgets allowed free reign in launching service after service, and short of our own egoes we were pretty much untethered in terms of what those offerings were.  To be the first with a service tended to be more important at times than giving the customers what they want.  I think today this type of approach has undergone a radical change and we are quickly starting to see a more realistic picture come to the fore in terms of what customers want.  For example, smart phones have changed many things for the consumer and quite often each model’s launch also causes a wave of goodwill that produces the most elaborate of services, supplied by retailers, content providers, and even banks.  Internet banking was slow in its initial uptake by financial insitutions in the late 1990’s early 2000’s, and I often wonder whether that tied to looser purse strings have seen these same companies now rush to launch mobile services to their customers regardless the need for them.

Nowhere can this be seen clearer than with mobile banking, where solutions have popped up from everywhere by everyone and sold as the ultimate customer service by many, including myself.  Mobile applications are definitely growing in demand , but I believe we may be missing some very obvious signs of what the customers actually want or need.  Today’s mobile banking product range reminds me of the Internet boom years, where everyone, regardless of country or creed, are being sold the most fantastic, high end, feature rich applications you can dream of, from balance enquiries to inter account transfers to P2P payments to 3rd party billing to prepaid MLM sales, and many more.  However the iPhone in the middle of Manhattan delivering the most wonderful financial application to a very appreciative sophisticated market, will fail miserably in Ho Chi Minh City, where an equally sophisticated market would be utterly frustrated by the same application.  A Blackberry service in Johannesburg is equally fantastic in bringing the world to its user, but fails fantastically to do the same for the farmer in Kimberley.  Yet we find that corporations behind these applications keep trying to sell them to everyone, from the East to the West, from the businessman in London to the farmer in Philipines, and time and again they fail to satisfy their customers or revoke the service completely.

Two reasons that jump to mind would be the wrong product for the wrong market, and the other a very crowded market place.  I have had some interesting chats with fellow technologists about mobile applications that may work in one country, but will suffer in another.  Person to Person payments must be one such an example, with the negative press recently caused by Citi Bank’s decision to shelve their P2P mobile service last December, causing quite a few hot debates.  P2PP works, just not in the USA right now and where it does it is not yet profitable and won’t be for some years to come.  Americans (and Westerners in general) have choice, and lots of it, and so thinking that they will rush to their phones to start transferring funds from one to the other, when they have many services in the market already enabling such a transaction, services that are known and trusted by those who would use P2P payments, was ridiculous.  Forcing those same parties (or at least one) to have a Citi bank account to enable the use the service was even crazier and showed a lack of understanding the P2PP early adopters market.  Another reason would be that a crowded market can often delay the take up of a new format of an old offering, which is exactly what mobile phones offer.

P2PP on the mobile platform works fantastically well in a 3rd world environment, minus a lot of Western bells and whistles though.  Banking applications in Vietnam or Zambia or South Africa or where ever, are often so basic in their format that the Western market would scoff at it, but they work and their use is growing rapidly.  This is because they offer their customers just what they need, a quick no-pains way to send money to someone.  They work because quite often they are the ONLY service available to the consumers in these regions that offer such a facility.   They work because they are almost always designed to work on any Java enabled phone, even the most basic models.  SMS banking too is similar in its acceptance in these regions because again it is an unsophisticated service that does what it says it can, and is easy to use.  Again no need for high end smart phones or changes to customer practices.  Mobile phone users can SMS, most do, and basing such a service on this most basic of mobile skills, makes a lot of sense to do.

For me and others in the industry, the mobile phone offers only another channel for the consumer to transact and access their accounts with, nothing more. Mobile applications too are for global markets what horses are for courses, to each its own.  You cannot apply a universal approach in product or service design to the mobile channel, and you cannot launch such services globally simply because it is fashionable in one city, country or region.  One of the most important considerations to make as a mobile service application developer is to ensure local representation or experience in the design team or you may miss the mark altogether.  Doing so for each market you enter, may sound like overkill, but could save you considerable losses in the long term.

There is so much more on this topic and my post has already been hacked to pieces to fit, so for now I will lay this issue to rest for some new post in the future.  Your comments though are most welcome and your opinions equally valuable in the debate about what works and why.

A personal look at banking solutions in Africa

Posted in General with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by newideasconsult

Banks and their facilitators have had many challenges over the years operating in Africa. It has been a painful process for many and one that has had 1st world integrators perplexed many times when considering rolling out their products here.

Africa is not unique in its problems, but it does set an interesting challenge due to the combination of issues that impact any such banking project. The usual challenges exist of course, as in the lack of consistent communication and power, as well as security and data protection. Throw in a healthy dose of political interference or influence or demands and the skills shortage, and it starts getting tricky.In my industry, it has become a trying process of carefully balancing all these factors to achieve an acceptable solution to all participating parties.

I remember how shocked I was to sit in a Barclays Bank (with the Caribbean & African regional managers of their card processing div) meeting some years ago in London and hearing just how expensive it was for them in 2002 to get their African merchant transactions processed, PER transaction! It was unbelievable how expensive, but against their customer’s perceptions something they just had to do as a bank. It was inconceivable for their card customers to pay with their Barclays Card somewhere in Africa and not be accepted, so this cumbersome network of links had to be created to authorize and settle their card transactions. At that time, mobile penetration was in it’s infancy and growing rapidly, and Barclays only had about 800 merchants of importance that they wanted to retain for their customers in Africa. Since then this demand would only have grown rapidly, and hopefully the ABSA deal would help their teams better understand how things can be done successfully at a much lower cost now, not that ABSA is perfect, not by a long way!

That said, it’s Africa and this vast continent has its own challenges that we simply have to overcome if we wish to serve the majority with a banking service. Today the mobile networks have offered us an amazing network for consistent wide area data transfers, making our banking solutions for real-time transaction authorizations, processing and settlement much easier to consider at a lower cost than before. Fraud is rife though and so we are forced to look at adding robustness to our solutions we would not have considered for a first world roll-out.

Many good banking solutions exist today both for the front end processing and bank-end accounting, but too many are fixed systems requiring the bank or client to conform to it instead of changing to meet that bank or client’s current process requirements. My own view here is that we must lose our colonialist approach of ‘we know best’ and start considering Africa as a market unique in many ways and worth accommodating with more flexible solutions.

Though regulations are always rigid and rightly so, they only protect where they are respected by the participating individuals, otherwise they are worth less than the paper they are written on. However, this is not just an African issue, but can happen anywhere in the world today – take the apparent cardholder data breach at PCI DSS certified Network Solutions as an example – so regulations alone will not ‘enforce’ a better banking environment for our solutions, services or products. Our technology needs to police itself better and hence the unique design challenges we face as technologists here, pitting cost against performance against customer expectations against robustness.

We see some giants arising within Africa itself to do this relatively well. Two solutions come to mind, eTranzact and Fundamo, both mobile phone based banking solutions with excellent track records. Both have years of experience with the African challenges for such banking solutions, and both have had many years exposed to African fraud and managed ways to continue to address this pro-actively. They are good examples of solutions that work well in Africa and though one is an active service and the other a product provider in the banking space, both have been recognized by their peers for the excellent companies they have become.

With the changes in the technology landscape happening very quickly, the African market will open up to many more players, and the whole ‘cloud’ computing world will pro-actively focus on this market to gain a strong foothold, with Google or Microsoft leading the pack. Banking solutions will also see a strong growth and to me the SaaS model of service or product offering over the mobile phone channel may be the saving grace for many solutions wishing to gain a foothold in Africa. Offering your product to banks and their facilitators in a SaaS format allows for powerful tools to be handled by basically trained staff remotely managed by well trained SaaS operational managers.

Building that SaaS model with the flexibility to adapt to a very unique business environment that is the African market, will be as important. ‘Third world’ business processes differ enormously from first world practices despite the impact of British and French banking practices in Africa in the past century. People just work differently here and one has to make sure your solution caters for this or it will fail, either in its implementation or its use. This is Africa and people are innovative in their own right with how things are done here. Just because a process uses 10 more people than we would have used in the west to deliver it’s respective responses in a business, does not mean it is a failure. If it works that way, try to understand the reason it became that way before shooting it down and trying to enforce some first world argument on the client.

Solutions should show the same grace towards African traditions and business practices than shown towards Western traditions and business practices, whilst addressing very strongly any fraudulent processes with internal checks and balances. Often we fail in this, as we keep offering our own Western developed ideas to a continent rich in its own culture of doing things.

When they do not work, and the evidence is clear that the process keeps failing, we should again handle it without arrogance and ensure that we highlight the failing processes with diplomacy and care. Africa has had a long history of failed projects where people were ignored in the project. They need to be included and the issues managed with the same grace they themselves show so often.

Getting one champion insider is crucial to the success of a project and ensuring its ongoing use will be through thorough training of the staff who would use such a solution. Add to this that the solution should intuitively address the customers too, acknowledging that we are Africans and therefore may look at the application or solution differently is essential. Let me put this thought across in an analogy – if you ask someone to play the Vuvuzela expecting music, you’ll be greatly disappointed, but if you were expected noise, you would be very pleased; handing that person a trumpet, expecting noise will again please you, but if you were hoping for music it will only happen through training and lots of it. As designers of solutions we often design a trumpet and are disappointed in customers when all they produce is noise. When that happens you may have missed the mark, as the customers may only have wanted a vuvuzela, despite your grand design for a trumpet or you may have underestimated the need to train them, not only in the use of the solution, but also in their perception of what the design is used for – in this analogy, for making music, as opposed to making noise. So ensuring that the training and the interface design (GUI) brings across the proper message to the users of your systems in Africa, will achieve the proper results, both in their perception of your solution and in their use of it (swing by South Africa for the World Cup in 2010 and see just what can be achieved with a Vuvuzela btw).

So step 1 for me is a basic SaaS framework of services delivered to the customer in SMS format (information messages, balance enquiries and remittance payments being the only considerations for transactions here). Ensure that the use of this service first grows to an acceptable level before introducing step 2, so that you are clear that customers know how to use your solution.

Step 2 would be adding a Java based application for example, with AUTOMATED activation! Don’t assume that the customer knows what Java is or how to activate DATA on their phones. Design your solution with as much automated installs as possible, in partnership with the bank and the networks, or you will see failure very soon. Also consider making this application introduction a non-banking feature, for example simply send customers the latest news and updates for free as a bank sponsored project. Am I nuts here? No, not at all, but a bank solution in the mobile world is often an utterly boring feature to add to a phone, so one has to bait the hook as it were, and to me there can be nothing as exciting as a mobile chatroom with lots of down-loadable content driving the consumer to download the app for all this free content. Once you feel that there are enough or agreed number of unique customer downloads of your application, introduce step 3.

Step 3 is the introduction of secure banking tools to the customer, who by now have shown that they understand and appreciate the need for bank information using their mobile phones (SMS services) and that they are savvy in the use of the Java or Flash based application you built as the interface to your solution. You have a much more mature consumer base now for the full bank tool set to be featured to, and they would be expecting to manage more advance features on their phones too. Introducing this feature to the various city based networks first and then using family or friend pushes of services to bring on more rural customers (migrant remittances or payroll for example) will help you manage the acceptance of the products during roll-out.

Using consistent market monitoring alongside these steps will help you best understand the needs and problems of your customers, and give you time to adjust for them. Remember the customer must feel that they remain in control and you need to be flexible enough in your designs to adapt to THEIR requirements, within the regulatory framework of the country or region where you are commissioning the solution of course.

Feel free to add your comments to this post as it only reflects my personal view at the moment. As a design community we can better address this type of challenge as a group and I look forward to hearing from you all on what you believe we can add, change or take away from the post and the issues of bank solution design and commissioning in Africa.

The uncomplicated world of information technology

Posted in General with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2009 by newideasconsult

Technology is uncomplicated.

Yes, I know that this seems to be a contradiction in terms for many people, but technology has to be this to be successful.  In my experience technology must always address one or several needs in an uncomplicated KISS manner or it will almost always turn out as an expensive and bloated solution.  IT where I focus my efforts embodies this for me, even in its most basic form it exists as ones and zeroes. For me as a trained engineer it has always been about looking at a problem or challenge and seeing how to solve it, with or without technology. It has always been a situation where getting from ‘A’ to ‘C’ may or may not require technology, and if required then what technology solution would be best fit to get from the one to the other quickly, economically and simply.

Observing the news about current and past IT projects around the world seems to me to show that many of these projects take the approach of ‘I have a technology solution, now where is a problem I can fit into it’ or ‘I have this great solution, I just need to find where in my organization or my customer’s business there is an ‘A’ to ‘C’ issue I can use to press this into’. So they start a complicated under-planned and often unneeded project that ends with the customer believing the complexity of their problem can only be solved by the solution offered, who then spends a fortune on consultants, integrations and licenses only to sit back a year or five later and realize that their savings from this project is either non-existent or in fact negative, or that the ‘problem’ was never as huge as it was sold to be.

These are possibly bold statements to make in some readers views as technology almost always seems complicated and features difficult to comprehend, but those are most often design faults or bad planning in my view and not something to label technology or information technology with.  Information technology over the years grew into a domain for geeks like me, and as is often the case in the land of the blind where the one-eyed find they become kings and leaders, geeks realized soon enough that customers should be treated as mushrooms, kept in the dark, fed manure, and billed and billed and billed.

I generalize here and that is clearly unfair, but there is a large group of people in IT who still prefer to keep their customers in this state for as long as they can so as to maximize their revenues and profits.  After all, if we are listed IT companies, our shareholders become our priorities and not our customers, as with many industries these days I guess.  When we design solutions we do the same again, where we believe representing a solution in the most complex of ways will keep the customer astounded and paying, very often much more than the work is really worth.

The current way to address problems offered to IT companies by their customers, is to consider ways to ‘fit’ them into the solution from one of the big brands, or to bring in consultants who maximize their own revenue opportunities by making lots room within the final solution specification for even more consulting opportunities, which then leads to branded solution providers bringing in their own pre and post sale experts to see what added products could be included, whilst the going is good, and finally a team of integrators to put everything together, with a project manager hoping the final product will come in above the expected profit margin his employer demanded, with very little thought of coming in on budget or on time, or within a working specification for the actual customer who will be paying for and using this solution.

Again I generalize here, but it is absolutely true from my point of view that many such projects over the years have made IT the ‘complex’ industry it is branded as today, and laid the foundation to the fog of ignorance we hope our customers are lost in, so that we can remain the ‘experts’ who can save the day at a fee of course…

Information technology is actually about solving real business problems for me. About finding the lowest cost solution to a business issue, designed to require the least amount of customer employee training to manage in an ongoing manner. Compare that statement with what has been happening in the IT world today, and it comes somewhat short of reality, I agree. I guess for me it is panacea that consultants and IT professionals can think this way, but I stand by this statement. We as professionals have to come to a point in our careers where we change the view we have of ourselves, from ‘lets take short cuts and make loads of profits off our customers’ type of people to ‘let’s help our customers in a real way saving them real money and being there for them over the long term’ type of people. I am not forcing this on anyone, just lamenting the fact that there seem to be much more of the former type of person in our industry these days than the latter, leaving us with a false heritage and little integrity in the end.

Technology is a simple and wonderful solution to many things and it should be sold that way, even to our customers. We should make it our primary focus to roll out the most simplistic of solutions that actually solve business problems and improve productivity, instead of cause more problems and cost productivity. IT can be this to our customers, but it takes a fresh look at our own approach to them, their budgets and their actual business requirements to make a lasting change to our industry and the way people perceive it.