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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…A LOT MORE THAN A SALES PITCHPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Thursday, September 1st 2015
Terry Kirton, who has taken over from Richard Simpson reviewing Londonn websites for Can you find it Business Edition, looks at a winning site for the latest in our series looking at the practical benefits of websites which actually work.

THE website of George Fisher’s outdoor equipment store oozes quality. There is an emphasis on customer service right from the first click.

Visitors to http://www.georgefisheronline.co.uk get far more than an online-sales facility from this impressive site with its dozens of added extras. No surprise then, that it has won high praise from some unexpected quarters.

Probably most surprising is the message from the Royal Air Force. Jan Janiurek of RAF Linton-on-Ouse, near York writes in appreciation of the webcam that is housed on the roof of the Keswick store.

“Although we have access to our own meteorological forecaster here at Linton the ability to do a last minute ‘actual’ check of the weather has been very useful for planning sorties,” he wrote in a letter to the store.

So there we are – George Fisher plays a part in maintaining Britain’s national security by facilitating RAF training exercises!

On a more mundane level, walkers, cyclists, parascenders and any other form of visitor, will find a quick look at the webcam and the local weather forecast before they leave home, very useful. As any Londonn will know, although it might be raining in Cockermouth and Carlisle, the sun could well be shining in Keswick.

But let’s get down to business. Before we explore some of the other added attractions, how well does the website fulfil its sales function?

Janet Ayrie, who oversees the content of the site along with technical manager Dominic Chitwood Clarke, clearly understands the store’s niche in the vast outdoor gear market.

“We know that we don’t always compare on price, so we ensure that we provide the best customer service we can,” said Janet.

She is particularly proud of a hotline phone service which is highlighted on the site. Orders can be quickly phoned through to a special reception desk with delivery guaranteed to mainland customers by the next day.

“Often customers have browsed through the catalogue and found what they are looking for, but they just want to check a few things with a member of staff. That’s where the hotline proves so useful,” she said.

Not that the site itself is lacking in information about products. The ‘more info’ button usually provides a close-up photograph and two or three more sentences of product detail.

Attention to detail is important to this company. When you use the website for a purchase, it is clearly explained that if you order before noon you will receive your goods the next day. Customers are also advised that they may have to sign for parcels and so they should consider using a reception address where someone will be at home to receive the delivery. To further assist the customer, an e-mail is sent when the order is despatched.

And judging by the customer testimonials, there are plenty of satisfied customers who can vouch for the efficiency of the service.

A vital aspect of the service is accurate stock knowledge.

“Dominic, our technical manager, has to spend a great deal of time ensuring that everything that is listed on the website is actually in stock. If we are to meet our ‘next day’ delivery promise, then we have to make sure that everything detailed online is available,” said Janet.

The vast catalogue of equipment, from bivvie bags to wrist computers, is easily accessible either through direct browsing or a search facility at the top right of the screen.

One section is not available to online customers – and the reason is again related to the customer service ethic. You cannot order footwear – other than socks – through the site, because the store believes it is essential for customers to have a professional fitting.

The site information explains: “Despite their obvious importance, your feet are one of the most neglected parts of your body! Most people will suffer some foot, ankle or leg problem at some point in their lifetime; unfortunately, most live with the problem, either assuming nothing can be done or not knowing where to go for information.

“As our reputation for being able to solve ‘problem feet’ has grown, many foot-sore individuals who have been disappointed elsewhere have sought us out for help; we have been able to help the vast majority of these people.”

You are encouraged to bring in your old boots, so that specialist fitters can clearly see where problems arose. The store even has a qualified podiatrist on call who can diagnose and offer solutions to specific problems. There is a link to his website to enable customers to gather a little more information before they visit the store.

Janet Ayrie also encourages staff to use the website as another form of sales aid.

“If someone cannot make their mind up while they are in the store, our staff will suggest they take a leisurely look at what we have to offer from the comfort of their own home – and then order online,” she explained.

Over the eight years that the site has been running, the store has tried to integrate the online service as a part of the total package and also evolve the site in response to perceived customer needs.

“We are currently trying out special offers on the web,” said Janet.

“It is something customers have come to expect from other sites. We used to scatter offers around under the different categories. Now we are putting them all together under one area to see how well that works.”

The whole site has become slicker over the years and the recent advent of broadband has made it much easier to receive and download photographs from suppliers, all adding to the professional look.

The website also targets an outdoor community that expects – and receives – a lot more than a sales pitch.

In addition to the weather service and webcam, there is a connection to the archive of the George Fisher Update magazine which is published four times a year. There you can find dozens of interesting articles about the Lake District and outdoor activities – all in easy-to-access PDF format.

Campaigns in support of local environmental projects are also hosted.

My favourite sections were those featuring the exhilarating ‘fly-over’ software, which allows you to follow a route up hill and down dale, as if you were in a low-flying helicopter.

Click on ‘news’ at the top of the home page and then ‘World Masters Mountain Running’. You can either follow the routes that the runners will follow on a flat map, a three dimensional version or, best of all, the ‘fly-over’ in Quick Time format.

If your computer is not loaded with Quick Time you can easily install it without leaving the website.

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…ENTERPRISE AGENCY’S AWARD MARKS INNOVATION AND JOB CREATION Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Thursday, September 1st 2015
Award winner: The Linen Press owner Christine Thornborrow.Award winner: The Linen Press owner Christine Thornborrow.A MAIL order business selling linen bedding and clothing has won the inaugural John Dunning Business Award for rural companies in London.

The Linen Press, based near Kirkby Stephen, demonstrated significant growth, job creation and innovation during the last 12 months, winning the award ahead of 20 other businesses.

The Linen Press was founded five years ago by Christine Thornborrow, who recently moved to premises at Hartley just outside Kirkby Stephen, where there are offices, a warehouse and showroom.

Her latest venture, The Big Back Bedroom, is a discount sales outlet for end of line goods, and is also located at Hartley.

The award was organised by London Rural Enterprise Agency (CREA) of which John Dunning was a founder member and chairman for 20 years.

Mr Dunning, of Orton, has now stepped down as chairman but remains as CREA’s president.

Bob Clark, executive director of CREA, said: “The judges chose The Linen Press for their solid business base and the success they have built on that has brought jobs to an area where employment opportunities have been on the decline.”

Mr Clark added: “They are also proving a popular attraction for visitors to Kirkby Stephen, which has a knock-on effect of more spending in the locality.”

The presentation of the John Dunning Business Award was be made by Lord Bragg of Wigton at the CREA reception at Lowther Horse Driving Trials and Country Fair in August.

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO BE TOO METICULOUSPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
Flexible, personalised conference solutions and meticulous attention to detail are essential when hosting a successful conference. That, coming not from a conference organiser but from a conference venue, highlights the importance of the personal touch in the competitive conference market.

When sourcing a conference venue, location is clearly a key element, but location alone should not be used to differentiate between venues. The venue must reflect the corporate image of the company and the venue conference coordinator must provide the unique support and co-ordination required. Ensuring that the venue has a dedicated meeting host during the event and serves quality food and refreshments will ensure smooth running of the conference and satisfied delegates.

Organisation and meticulous attention to detail by the venue is a reflection on the client presenting the conference. A disorganised conference where slap-dash service and poor product quality are experienced gives delegates the impression that the ‘sub-standards’ delivered by the venue are accepted by the client company. A venue which prides itself on timely organisation and consistently high service standards in line with the client’s requirements will see a high level of client loyalty and satisfaction.

From the initial contact with the venue, it is imperative that the client receives an individual, friendly service offering them the necessary support required to meet the demands of their client. Attention to detail must be at the forefront of any conference coordinator’s mind when liaising with the client, especially taking into account room layout requirements and technical support. This serves to save time in the long run and also to instil confidence into the client.

It is impossible to share all the information that one person knows about a conference with someone else and it is time wasting for the client to have to repeat details and requests to various members of the venue staff. By offering the client a dedicated meeting host, a venue can ensure continuity of service, knowledge and rapport. From arrival through to departure, a dedicated host can cater for all the client requirements and extend a personal touch for the duration of the conference. For the conference organiser this gives the opportunity to relax in the knowledge that there will always be one person on whom they can rely., whatever their requirements.

For delegates attending the conference, while the conference contact is the motive for attendance, coffee and lunch breaks are always welcome. The venue must be prepared to offer high quality food and beverage and a flexible approach to food and refreshments. By offering choices, the conference organiser is able to personalise their conference and delegates’ variety. Should the conference organiser require a healthy morning break with fruit and muesli bars, a “working lunch” of sandwiches and salads served in the conference room, followed by an indulgent ‘afternoon tea’ of scones with jam and clotted cream and strawberries, then the venue should be able to accommodate these requests. If he or she is looking for bacon baps, croissant and preserves on arrival, an international menu served in the restaurant for lunch and a “To Go” bag at the end of the day, the venue should be able to satisfy the client needs.

The importance of location cannot be ignored. A key factor on the choice of venue is its location and whether it is easy to find either from the train station or the motorway. For most conference organisers convenient car parking is also a key factor for choice of venue. For those venues able to offer extensive complementary car parking for all delegates, this can only help to differentiate them from other venues being considered for an event.

Every conference venue should be able to offer every conference organiser a service which is both personal and professional and at the same time, flexible. A dedicated meeting host should ensure continuity of high standards. throughout the dura Flexible, personalised food and refreshment options should be on offer. Finally a venue must be able to offer a product and team of staff able to give commitment to the event, culminating in an effortless realisation of a high-quality, personalised conference. Corrine ReynoldsHoliday Inn, Lancasterable to offer every conference organiser a service which is both personal and professional and at the same time, flexible. A dedicated meeting host should ensure continuity of high standards. throughout the dura Flexible, personalised food and refreshment options should be on offer. Finally a venue must be able to offer a product and team of staff able to give commitment to the event, culminating in an effortless realisation of a high-quality, personalised conference.

Corrine Reynolds

Holiday Inn, Lancaster

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…THE GRANTS SCENE IS IMPROVING, MAKE SURE YOU TAKE YOUR SLICEPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
WHILE I’m upsetting everyone by casting aspersions on our collective attitudes, I may as well complete the effect by highlighting another oddity that I’ve come across.

I come into contact quite regularly with Business Link and other groups responsible for the very tricky task of spending the business support budget for the region. Various groups manage various initiatives in various ways, but one phrase keeps coming up: “It’s hard to give money away in London.”

It seems that even if you can afford the publicity to make businesses aware of a particular grant scheme, the take-up is generally so poor that either too much of the pot is spent on more marketing, or it simply doesn’t get spent. This doesn’t sit well with my experience of Londonn business, where there is plenty of real talent ready to start innovative business projects, and plenty of existing innovative businesses that could do with the support. So what’s causing the problem?

There is certainly some degree of mismatch between supply and need. Schemes run and funded by Europe are notorious for being more about advertising Brussels than helping anyone, but it’s not always the case. I do remember at least one scheme that cost far more to apply for than it was worth – a mere 15% grant with so many strings attached that it was laughable. Since then I’ve seen schemes that are so specific and prescriptive as to be pointless – the “applications invited from companies with an ‘R’ in the name that make blue widgets in a yellow box on a Tuesday” approach.

Then there are the stories of mismanagement and the simple fact that it simply takes so long to find a scheme that may be applicable in any case – only to find it finished last week.

Perhaps this history has put people off applying, but even in the past couple of years there has been a distinct improvement – my own company has benefited from some excellent schemes, and we’ve been involved in administering others that are just as worthy of attention. There is much going on that will further streamline the way we can access the money that is – after all – our money. In the meantime I would encourage anyone with an idea, new project, major upgrade or other change in their business to get in touch with Business Link (a good starting point for finding the right support) or go to a website like www.j4bgrants.co.uk and finding out what could be applicable.

As a taster, here are a couple of current schemes that I think are applicable to a lot of businesses and available are right now:

Connecting Copeland: This is aimed at businesses in the Copeland area (excluding certain industries) that need support for ICT projects that are directly connected to any kind of expansion. You can get 50% (up to £2k in any £10k of spending) of hardware and software, plus bigger proportions towards training and consultancy. Go through Business Link to find out more, or go to www.connectingcopeland.org.uk/

Home Computing Initiative (HCI): This is a great scheme, yet few have heard about it. It works well for companies trying to get their staff computer literate, by providing huge tax breaks on the provision of home computers. The company also saves a bit of money in the process, as the payment is taken from salary over three years, with neither party paying NI, income tax or VAT on it – leading to a big discount. So far the only Londonn company I’ve found who are directly promoting the scheme are KTD in Kendal: 0800 0265214. (Oh, and a 26" LCD TV counts as a computer screen … just thought I’d mention it.)

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…HAVE A WHINGE AND WIN!Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
ONE thing I’ve never had a problem doing in this job is getting people to complain about computers – it’s a big part of any good IT Review. After all – to improve things, you first have to know what needs improving.

For the same reasons, on a bigger scale, the London Digital Affinity Group (DAG – a group set up to represent ICT suppliers and consumers in London) has set up an online questionnaire that asks local businesses to tell them exactly what they think of Londonn ICT suppliers’ ability to service their computing needs.

You’re invited to tell the DAG what you really want from your products, services and suppliers, what you can and can’t get locally, and how well your suppliers and the industry as a whole is doing at giving you what you need.

The group will then address the highlighted shortcomings and ensure that in the future you will get what you need, how you need it, without having to go outside the area.

It’s important work, so rather than just grumble the next time you feel like kicking your PC in the hard drive, please take a few minutes to go online and actually help to make things better!

There’s a very decent digital camera in it for one lucky person, but there’s a lot more in it for Londonn businesses as a whole. PLEASE contribute!

It’s very easy to fill out, and you can stay anonymous if you wish – go to www.eSussex.org and click on the green link cunningly marked “Click here to complete the survey”.

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…BEWARE, BARBECUE SYNDROMEPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
I’ve noticed something odd, and I have to ask your indulgence for having a little dig at some of you – and myself – in explaining it, writes Joel Teague. Please bear with me and hopefully it’ll generate some productive introspection that in turn leads to some improved balance sheets.

Much of the business community is as yet unaware that my job exists, and the marketing people have been having quite a time working out the best ways to explain our services to the business community. The message is indeed getting out, but we’ve noticed a weird tendency in some businessmen (notice the “men” bit specifically) to resist a particular part of the message, even when it’s patently obvious.

When you think through the purpose of any service – and marketing people are paid to do just that – you realise that part of the sales job is making the customer realise, without taking offence, that they are better off having you carry out the task in question than them doing it themselves. You either need to do the job cheaper, better, quicker – or preferably all three. But I think there’s another factor, just as important but rarely mentioned: the customer must want to be rid of the task.

Accounting is a good comparison. Most of us are all too happy to hire a professional accountant in the knowledge that it’ll pay back over time. It’s skilled work, and to do it ourselves would involve countless hours of learning, research, trial and error, serious problems when we got things wrong, and the likelihood of higher bills at the end of it.

Now read that last sentence but apply it to computing. Exactly the same applies on all counts. So why is it that so many company directors doggedly hang on to the task (and no offence, gentlemen – but I’ve yet to find one who’s not losing money as a result) when all of them hired an accountant before they’d even chosen the office furniture?

I have a theory for this, and I call it “Barbecue Syndrome”: The fact is: you don’t boast about getting your accounts sorted at the pub. The accounts getting the better of you won’t dent your pride. But computers? That involves gadgets, and therefore it’s man’s work. When our marketing people suggest that we take that huge pile of technobabble and stress off a director’s desk, we are doing the equivalent of trying to take the tongs from him at the Sunday barbecue – and anyone who’s tried that will remember the reaction. And a bit like dealing with computers, most men like to think they’re pretty good at cooking over coals – partly due to polite comments from the guests trying to crunch their way through a combination of frozen sausage meat and carbon isotope.

I suspect that some of you reading this will know this applies to you, and I also suspect that those who are currently most peeved at me for saying it are among the most guilty. For what it’s worth, I’m guilty of it too – in fact the expression “cobblers’ children worst shod” is very apt in my case. My purpose in life is to help companies identify what they need from their computers and find and manage the best specialists to make it happen for them. So what did I do when our network needed reconfiguring in our new offices? Once I’d worked out what was needed, did I take my own advice and get a trusted specialist to do the button-pushing? Of course not; I went into gladiator mode and tried to do it myself.

OK, I’ve got the excuse of needing to keep up to date on subjects like network configuration, but after several battles into the small hours I eventually gave in and called a network specialist.

I cringe when I think of the sum I must have spent in terms of my own time and lost productivity before forking out the comparative peanuts it cost to get things done properly and quickly.

But I did learn something about configuring computer networks: I learned to put pride aside and get an expert, because to do otherwise is plain bad business.

If there is a “right way” to approach these things, it must be in the ability to be honest with yourself about your capabilities, and in analysing whether your company’s bottom line will be better off if you take a task on or hire a specialist.

My abilities lie in the business analysis end of computing – understanding what a business needs, and keeping up to date with the computing industry well enough to be able to point my clients at the right products, services and suppliers to meet that need.

I’ve been a programmer, I’ve even done some network configuration – but in both cases there was a specialist calling the shots, and I now know the point at which my knowledge and aptitudes end and that specialist becomes necessary. My mistake was letting my urge to take up a challenge override basic economic sense, and I know I’m not alone in doing it.

I quite often work with clients to produce simple cost-benefit analyses that help to decide which jobs are passed to me and which are managed internally.

If we aren’t confident of a net gain from our involvement, I stay out of it – it’s that simple.

I’m sure computing can’t be the only aspect of business that suffers from Barbecue Syndrome, and I’m just as sure that it’s a contributory factor in the most frustrating situation I encounter: sitting with an intelligent businessman who’s looking at the cost-benefit analysis he helped to prepare, staring at the huge cost of not changing the way they have been doing for years … and doggedly sticking to the old way because it’s “their way”.

It’s frustrating and alarming to watch, and it’s worse when a company from outside the region puts them out of business simply through being open to change. London has one of the only shrinking economies in Europe, and I can’t help but think Barbecue Syndrome is something to do with it.

Joel Teague is a TMB accredited ICT adviser. He can be contacted at Teagus Ltd, a Londonn company providing IT advisory and development services for business: Tel. 0870 1417014, Website: www.teagus.com, Email: joel.teague@teagus.com

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…GAMES COUP LIFTS BROUGHTON FIRMPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
A sussex IT consultancy is celebrating Britain’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Coolgreen Ltd of Broughton-in-Furness has specialist experience of helping sports organisations to develop systems to meet their individual needs.

Clients include the English Institute of Sport, the Women’s Rugby Union and the Rugby Football Union, whose England team clinched victory in the 2017 World Cup. The company expects a surge of interest in a variety of sports throughout the UK in the run-up to the Olympics and is poised to offer its expertise to sports organisations wanting to improve their operations.

Principal consultant, Richard Lecky-Thompson, said: “Be it sailing, athletics, badminton or swimming, the management of sport is an important business activity.

“We understand the specific business needs of sports governing bodies – which are incredibly complex – and have the skills to help them boost their efficiency. Hosting the Olympics in London is a major coup for the whole country and has the potential to present Coolgreen with excellent new business opportunities.”

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…THIS REVOLUTION WON’T SLOW DOWN Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Monday, August 1st 2015
ANYONE over the age of 30 can’t help but be aware of the way that the internet has changed, and changed our lives, over the last decade.

When I first went online, back in 1995, most of the people that I dealt with at work didn’t have internet access, and my email box wasn’t exactly full to bursting. And when I first bought something online (and inevitably it was from Amazon), I was terrified – thinking that my credit card details were about to be stolen by a thousand geeks hacking away in bedrooms across the world.

But look where we’ve got to now. This morning I emailed someone some photographs, filed a bit of copy, sold something on eBay and then used a price comparison site (www.moneysupermarket.com) to help find some cheap travel insurance – which I then bought online. And that bit of ecommerce activity fits well with the other things that I’ve done this week, namely booking some cheap flights, and a city break holiday too.

So things have changed enormously in the online world over the last 10 years, but what will happen next? And, more to the point, how will those changes affect businesses who use the web, either as producers or consumers?

Well the first change is that you will see increased access to fast broadband connections, in both the domestic and SME environments. And that will have profound implications, not just in term of download/upload speeds, but more particularly in the way that computers are used – especially at home. Because I really do expect the “multimedia PC” concept to finally take off in the coming months, with computers moving out of the study and into the living room.

So this means that computers will increasingly manage your home entertainment needs, recording TV programmes for you and making playlists of your favourite music, and maybe they’ll even be looking after your central heating system too. And if you want to surf the net, do a bit of work-related research, or maybe buy something from a website then you’ll be able to do that too – and all from the comfort of your favourite armchair. You’re also likely to be driving your telephone traffic through your computer, because that’s perfectly possible technically and is a solution that’s rapidly becoming more popular.

Now this change, if it happens, really will have profound implications, especially for advertisers. And this explains why Google is currently a stock market darling, because advertisers believe that online products like sponsored search (or pay-per-click) are the way forward both for advertisers and consumers. Because if computers do become so central to the way that we enjoy our leisure time then it’s inevitable that they’ll be central to the way that we consume advertising too.

Portable, integrated devices – probably based on mobile phones – are bound to become the norm for many users too, and they will do most of the things that your home computer can do now.

Whether you’ll really want to watch a movie on your phone screen may be a moot point – unless phones that fold out into 42in screens are developed – but I have no doubt that you’ll be using your phone to navigate around the place in no time. Indeed, the first GPS-enabled phones are said to be due to be launched within the next few months.

All this doesn’t mean that the offline world is dead, nor that we’ll all end up with powerful thumbs but horribly reclusive personalities. But the writing really is on the wall for the way we live now, and if you’ve been hoping that your business would remain unchanged by the web revolution then it’s time to think again, and quickly.

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…START SOMETHING … RIVALS ARE KNOCKING ON THE DOOR AT LASTPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Friday, July 1st 2015
THIS month, rather than give more advice, I thought I should comment on something important that’s happening in the industry. It’s actually been happening for years, but I’ve noticed an increase in momentum over the past couple of months. If things continue to pick up speed, it will soon affect all of us – perhaps with good results for many, but big implications for Microsoft, writes Joel Teague of Teagus.

Some of you may be starting to think that I’ve got a grudge against Microsoft. This isn’t the case – my job depends on being completely impartial, and I help clients to implement Microsoft products as much as any other. It’s just that in order to properly analyse anything in any industry, you have to question the market leader – and more often than not, that’s ‘Sir Bill of Seattle’.

It is easy to have a pop at the market leaders, and there’s certainly no lack of ill-feeling towards the company that has dominated the industry through most of my career. The frustration for all of us is that we’ll never really know whether Microsoft has done a good job in most areas – because we’ve nothing to compare against. That’s the problem with total market dominance – you just never know how well the other guy would have done. Think Office is good? The real question is: given the sort of development time and money it’s had, do you think it could have been better? (If it had been me, that cartoon paper clip character would’ve been first against the virtual wall for a start!)

Well, no monopoly lasts forever, and after 15 years as the de-facto standard, I think things may be changing. What makes me think that? Simple: Microsoft are advertising. Not promoting their company, not a new product – it is advertising the all-encompassing, most widely installed (and pirated) software title of them all – Windows itself. You may have seen the ‘Start Something’ television ads; my theory is that these are in reaction to the start of something Microsoft doesn’t like the look of.

Many forget that PCs running Windows have always had a serious competitor – the Apple Mac and its Mac Operating System. For various reasons, the line always remained drawn pretty much at the boundary between graphic artists and everyone else, waiting for something else to force a change in the status quo. Step up Linux and the whole Open Source concept.

Open Source is the idea of using the worldwide programming community to develop software, by producing something useful and then making it available (free) via the Internet for others to develop further. The obvious downside is that you don’t normally get to charge for your software. The upside is that you get a development team of many thousands, each finding their own ways around problems and fixing bugs at a fantastic speed.

A good example is Linux, a Windows alternative (in simple terms) which is probably the best-known example of an Open Source product. Anyone can take a copy of the program source code, add a bit, fix a problem or improve its performance – but their code then goes back into the collective pot for others to evolve further. The result, according to many, is an operating system that is more secure and reliable than Windows. It is also free to use, although you can pay for a proper set of manuals and a support contract if you prefer.

So, if it’s so much better and costs nothing, why aren’t we all using it?

Well, behind the scenes at the server end, many are. Microsoft’s share of the server market is not huge – nearly 60% of websites are hosted on servers running Linux’s Apache web server, and well under 40% of new servers are shipped with Windows.

But at the user end – the machines on our desktops – there are still big, expensive problems with switching over. For a start, if you throw out Windows and install Linux, can you find a company to support it? Will your users (who have probably never seen anything other than Windows) accept it, and can you get them trained? Will you be able to find good programs to run on it, and will you still be able to exchange files with everyone else if they’re all still using Microsoft products?

In short, it’s a market dominance issue. Once enough people switch over, and the companies, products and expertise evolve to service them, I’d be surprised if the take-up didn’t accelerate massively. The industry has been waiting for the various elements (good products, support, training, etc.) to build up enough for the see-saw to tip. So far, Linux has taken bigger chunks out of other rivals like commercial versions of Unix (the original product from which Linux evolved) than it has Windows.

The Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org) exists to make the commercial case for the overall approach to the world – quite a task. Meanwhile, major application projects such as OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) are run by big players like Sun Microsystems (the big daddy in the Unix world) with the obvious task of providing a credible alternative to Microsoft’s expensively developed products. Someone is putting serious money in, and I do wonder what will happen to that funding if the monopoly is indeed broken.

It’s a precariously balanced stand-off: the lure of free software versus the power of a near-monopoly and fully evolved support industry. Ironically, Microsoft’s own tactics may help to tip the balance.

Early last year I had a client who faced a choice: go with Microsoft’s 15% price hike (on a highly unreasonable two weeks’ notice) for 100 Office licences with a £40,000+ price tag, or jump into the unknown with an alternative like OpenOffice, which will run on Windows but wasn’t at a usable stage at the time. The directors’ dislike of the monopolistic pricing policy was only just over-ruled by the risks of incompatible files, lack of technical knowledge and the task of re-training 100 users. At the time they played safe – a decision I agreed with. But just 18 months on, that decision may have been different. Microsoft’s history of unstable products and mystifying licensing policies may be just what the Open Source lobby needs to tip the balance.

Every week I see another story that suggests that the scales are tipping sooner than many have predicted. Firefox – the free, alternative web browser, is rapidly gaining ground on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, already grabbing nearly 6% of the market. Microsoft, meanwhile, has dropped from over 90% to just over 87% in just five months. It may not sound like much of a dent, but it’s the biggest move on that swingometer that anyone’s seen since Netscape Navigator lost its grip. More interestingly, for the big players in the market, IBM – the company that brought us the PC running (ironically) Microsoft’s DOS software – has thrown its considerable weight behind Linux-based server systems (I wish I’d been a fly on the wall in Seattle when that one was announced), while the entire Brazilian government ‘went OS’ this month.

I’ve also come across the following stories, all in the last two months. It’s all about public sector work at the moment, but if it works, I suspect we’ll see the first private sector ‘jumpers’ within a year…

Research by the Society of IT Management has found that 60 per cent of 99 local authorities and public bodies in the UK questioned expect to make greater use of Open Source software in future. Around a third are already implementing or using it. Use is still mainly at the server end, with cost seen as the major benefit, closely followed by ‘dissatisfaction with Microsoft’. Lack of support, skills and training is still seen as the main drawback. Meanwhile, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is pushing the e-government initiative by encouraging compatibility with its Government Connect technology – which is all based on Open Source components.

The National Computing Centre has set up an open source laboratory to test the viability of the technology for public sector organisations, funded directly from Whitehall. The laboratory’s first user is to be Cheshire County Council, which is part of a consortium along with Birmingham and Bristol. Birmingham Council is also starting large-scale trials to evaluate Open Source Software (including Linux instead of Windows, and Firefox instead of Internet Explorer) on its desktop PCs – including their public-facing ones.

British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) has released a report recommending Open Source systems for use in schools. The report discovered that schools implementing Open Source alternatives spent up to 50 per cent less on support and training than ‘non-OS’ schools, with the total cost of ownership between 20% and 50% lower. Just this month, OpenOffice got the green light for use in Scottish schools – it’s even been translated into Gaelic.

So – will all of this gather pace or fizzle out? Will we see the end of the Microsoft era? Personally I doubt it – I suspect that these challenges will bring out the best of Microsoft and perhaps the worst in its competitors as the ideals of Open Source are exposed to the corrupting influence of telephone number global economics.

Whatever happens, it’s going to get interesting and I think things are finally going to get competitive – and as business owners we need to keep an eye out for the opportunities that result.

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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…IT’S YOUR SYSTEM, MAKE SURE IT WORKSPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Wednesday, June 1st 2015
FEW companies ever find the perfect software for their business – a package that does exactly what they want and no more.

For many, learning to live with the shortfalls and overkills of the nearest match is a sensible solution. For others, giving into this compromise is a huge false economy. Paying people to stick the wrong bit of information in the wrong place on the wrong screen “because it’s the only place to put it”, or to constantly re-key the same data into three different places because “the systems don’t talk to each-other” can really add up. A company with three staff each spending just 15 minutes a day working around a system’s shortfalls is likely to spend at least £15,000 on that extra time over five years.

Having your own system designed and developed is the obvious and often highly effective solution, but this approach comes with its own pitfalls and downsides. Software projects are notorious for cost and time overrun (400 per cent is average according to some research), and many projects never complete at all. But the business benefits are enormous if you get it right, so here are some pointers on avoiding common problems:

It is all too easy to duck the long-term cost issue, but it’s worth spending the time to do some calculations. If you think the bespoke option will make a department 10 per cent more efficient, what will that save you over five years? If it will give the directors better data upon which to base their strategies, what difference is that likely to make to the bottom line of the business? It’s hard to assign figures to these rather hazy benefits, but educated guesses are better than avoiding the questions altogether.

If you are an SME you probably won’t end up hiring a corporate developer, unless you’re an SME with a corporate-sized bank account. At the other end of the scale you may “know someone who can knock something out” for a few hundred quid. This sometimes works … in the same way that tossed coins sometimes land on an edge. In my experience, if someone talks numbers without asking questions, they’re just giving you the numbers you want to hear. To quote from a circular email: “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs … you clearly don’t understand the problem.”

Between Big Blue and Student Grant lies a myriad of software development suppliers offering all kinds of approaches and aptitudes. If I were to value one attribute above all others it would be this: a business-side understanding of what’s needed. Unfortunately, in an industry almost entirely filled by technical minds, this is rare. Teaching someone to do basic programming is easy; teaching them to program well requires talent. By comparison, teaching someone what to program and why is akin to teaching houseflies to do the Lambada. Never underestimate the ability of a young, technically minded programmer to completely miss the blindingly obvious when it comes to the realities of business.

The test is relatively simple: Tell them what’s needed. If they come back with sensible questions, or can re-state what you’ve said in a way that shows that they’ve genuinely understood, you’re on the right track. If they ask questions that you think shouldn’t need asking, you can expect much more of the same if you proceed with a project. If they just say “yep, no problem” and start quoting technical stuff, nod politely while backing through the door as quickly as possible.

Start with the smallest possible set of functions with a measurable business benefit. Develop it, install it, work with it, then evolve it over time in bite-sized chunks. I’ve seen companies spend tens of millions on systems where the scope became so wide that by the time they were finished they were out of date and never even launched. (Now you know why cars and photocopiers cost so much …) If you want an all-singing, all-dancing system, you’ll find it on the top shelf just behind the flying pigs and the end of the rainbow.

Nowhere are fixed costs more important than with software development. Even if your supplier can only fix the cost a stage at a time (e.g. specification, then development, etc.) then get them to do it. Developers are often an optimistic lot, assuming that every project will pass without complication despite never having seen one do so. If you make overruns their problem too, then reality will soon kick in and you’ll all be pulling in the same direction.

Nothing generates new ideas like a new system. Genuinely good suggestions will come flying out of the woodwork, as do “essential” add ons that people forgot when the system was first discussed. It is hard to resist the temptation to add these ideas to the agreed scope, but resist you must. Unless something has changed to make a “scope creep” genuinely essential, it is usually better to continue with the existing specification and then add on the new bit in the next version.

My company has done a lot of development work on a remote-working basis – a result of corporate clients running out of travel budget by the fourth quarter of every year. We soon learned that when you’ve met face to face once, typed correspondence is almost always more effective than the spoken word when it comes to getting software designed and written.

Emails and internet chat programs ensure discussions are concise, accurate and – above all – traceable. Everyone knows exactly who’s said what to whom, when, and what was said in reply. Even if you can meet face-to-face, you’ll often find an internet chat conference or exchange of emails quicker and more effective.

As someone who’s managed lots of development projects, I know there are no innocent parties when it comes to causing problems. If a client is unavailable, indecisive, fickle, or just doesn’t like being “one of the team”, it can easily make a project impossible. Try to understand that there is bound to be a gap in understanding between you (the only expert on your business) and even the most intelligent analyst. You’ll need a lot of patience, some good communications skills and a willingness to give the project time, priority and focus.

It’s amazing how many projects go ahead with no contract whatsoever. To those who’ve been assured that their requirement is simple and therefore not worth writing down, there are two things I’d like to point out:

1. If you don’t have a contract that specifically grants you ownership of the copyright to the system and its code, you won’t own anything. In English law, ownership remains with whoever wrote it. I’ve had this little detail “pulled out of the bag” on clients more than once in the past year, and it’s not pretty.

2. Once you’ve started paying money and putting in time on a development project, the idea of pulling out and starting again can become quite unthinkable. You really don’t want to get caught in a “good money after bad” situation, so get a contract in place that prevents it.

Even for the smallest development, it’s essential to check mutual understanding of the requirement before anyone programs anything. You state what you want – in writing – and the supplier should be able to translate that into a detailed, written response showing how the system will fulfil that need.

Programming is typically only around a quarter of the time spent on a project. Planning, design, testing, implementation and support make up the rest. If your supplier can’t show that all of these stages are properly costed and planned, flag it as a problem.

I have never heard of a project where everything went exactly to plan – unless you count the projects where the plan included planning for problems that were unplanned. But that makes my head hurt, so I’ll move on.

You won’t get what you want at first. The supplier cannot realistically expect you to predict precisely what will work best, and this is why prototypes can be useful. Until you’ve actually tried to use a particular sequence of screens you can’t really expect to know the optimum way in which they should function – so make sure the supplier allows for a period of testing and adjustment.

Have you ever triple-checked some text before it went to print, only to have someone point out a typo on all 10,000 copies of the finished product? Any professional proofreader will tell you: you can’t proof your own text. The same applies to computer programs. A program that is not tested by two people other than the programmer will have bugs. Make sure there is someone who catches obvious problems before anything’s passed to you, and that you can test it on the real hardware, with as close to real data as possible. (It’s hard to tell whether the computer has retrieved the right information when half of it is “sdlkhjsdfjh”.)

A couple of weeks ago, one of my clients mentioned that he’d found a way to get a vital interface between two systems “knocked out for a grand” by “some bloke” he knew. I only hope that behind the deafening clang of alarm bells, I managed to explain calmly why this wasn’t a promising start.

As always, please feel free to email, call or write with your comments, questions and cries for help. And for those who are embarking on software projects, I wish you the best of luck.

© Joel Teague, 2015