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Twinfield show their vision of the future of accounting

Two weeks ago I was part of a modest International stream as part of  Twinfield's very impressive National Accountancy Day in The Netherlands.  They have been running this Annual event for 6 years and it has grown from 30 attendees back in 2005 to 500 last year, and well over 600 attendees this time, along with an exhibition area where around 40 companies showed their Twinfield connected applications and services.  There was a buzz of excitement, and a feelgood vibe you might expect from a Salesforce event, but not necessarily with a collection of mostly accountants as the audience.

The event was significant, both because of the size and the fact that this was the first event following Wolters Kluwer's takeover of Twinfield earlier this year.  It gave me a chance to gauge the progress they've made and  judge how well Twinfield will thrive under their new parent's regime.  The initial indications are very positive.

The International stream was attended by UK customers like Goodman Jones, CWM, and Wingrave Yeats.  Twinfield's Irish partner presented their Ezora reporting system.  P2D explained their document scanning solution that is now live linking purchase invoice scans ...
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Making a date for the Accountancy Age Awards

AA-awards 2008This year's Accountancy Age Awards dinner will be a red letter day (well evening) for us, with two of our customers up for three awards.
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AccountingWEB lukewarm on SaaS - why is that?

John Stokdyk refers to the great SaaS debate that we had earlier in the year within the pages of AccountingWEB in his IT Zone roundup of 2006.  He refers to Dennis Howlett and myself as evangelists for the topic, and their own David Carter, who thinks SaaS is all "just hot air".  John thinks that:
"Based on the progress reported so far by SaaS vendors and user comments on AccountingWEB during the year, David (C) wins the decision on points. But that's not to say SaaS is going to go away."
So SaaS is dismissed as hot air, but then damned with faint praise in that last sentence.  Dennis suggests a one word response, and expects that I'll have something to say.  It's worth reading the comments at AccountingWEB and Dennis's post, but I wonder why AccountingWEB are so lukewarm about the topic?
 
In one of the comments, Stuart refers to a recent Economist article and says:
"Two comments stand out:
 
1. a bigger reason than money for switching from traditional software to web-based alternatives has to do with the pace and trajectory of technological change
 
2. it is “absolutely inconceivable” that he and his staff could roll out improvements at this speed in the traditional way—by buying software and installing it on the university's own computers."
These sentences alone are a great pointer to the value of SaaS based solutions.  But it's not just The Economist where the topic is being written about and taken seriously.  Gartner Says 25 Percent of New Business Software Will Be Delivered As Software As A Service by 2011McKinsey suggests that 61% of North American companies with sales over $1 billion plan to adopt one or more SaaS applications over the next year.  There are major conferences on the topic .  Whenever I talk to Microsoft, they tell me SaaS is a major topic for them too.  They have a specific group, their Emerging Business Team, who are targeting SaaS players that use Microsoft technology (rather than the open source platforms) with a whole raft of assistance and marketing programmes.
Which all makes me wonder why AccountingWEB (who, of course, deliver their own service across the web) want to ignore this particular technology wave?  Is it too cynical to suggest it's because their advertising revenue streams come from the old guard of the software business who haven't made the move to SaaS yet?  It can't be lack of knowledge, because they have a good track record of bringing in guest writers to contribute material and reviews on specialist areas (and I know a few who would volunteer!).  I just can't work it out.
 
The UK's technology cycle tends to lag behind the US market by around 12-18 months.  That means that we are due for a surge in attention on the topic here in 2007.  In my humble opinion AccountingWEB, as the premier online resource for accountants in business and practice in the UK, should be leading rather than following their readers.  Compared to other topics they do cover like integrated CRM or workflow, they should be providing much more content, opinion and balanced debate on the SaaS topic. 
 
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Blogtronix - a great enterprise 2.0 collaboration and web publishing platform

About 4 weeks ago I wrote up a few preliminary thoughts on Blogtronix, following a long, late night (for me!) session with George Athannassov and John West, but I've finally had time to do a fuller write up.
 
One of the frustrations of the current web 2.0 and enterprise 2.0 world is that there are great social networking and collaboration tools that each cover a limited range of functionality or do one thing well.  It's good for these companies to have focus, but for a more complete, enterprise wide solution I'd love to have several products connected together with a single log in, with my favourite bits of functionality from a few others included too.  The other aspect is that many of the tool providers have a more consumer oriented approach, which works well for initial adoption and training within a department, but leads to concerns over how scalable the solution will be, and how acceptable it will be when the CIO or IT get involved in a more significant, enterprise wide rollout. 
 
Blogtronix - the enterprise 2.0 collaboration and web publishing platform
George's starting point for Blogtronix addresses these two key issues.  Firstly, he has assembled a collection of collaboration tools that cover blogging, wikis, document management, RSS feeds and social networking in an integrated approach where the design philosophy is "no boundaries".  Secondly, he has adopted Microsoft .NET and SQL Server technology as the platform, as well as a choice of deployment options.  This approach, plus the fact that Blogtronix already have a live implementation with 50,000 users, 5,000 of whom are active, will mean that most CIOs will take the solution very seriously.  For the rest of us, provided it has the functionality we need, we shouldn't care what the underlying database and platform is.  
 
Blogtronix is a community based, web publishing and collaboration platform that will be useful to most businesses, and have a variety of applications.  Major organisations like the BBC have implemented social networking to connect together like minded people in their organisation and to facilitate collaboration.  Euan Semple put together their approach, which developed over time using a number of different tools.  They started with an internal bulletin board, which has been used by over 18,000 of their 24,000 employees.   Then created their own social networking tool called Connect, which helps them track down specific expertise in their organisation, and form interest groups for particular projects.  After that they started using blogging tools for internal communication.  There are currently over 130 in the organisation, one of which is regularly read by over 4,000 employees.  They have also implemented use of wikis as well.  Around 500 people have access to them in a controlled way to do things like creating procedural documentation, or for project collaboration.  The big advantage with a product like Blogtronix is the BBC could have done all of these things with just one platform to learn, and a single log in. 
 
When you log in to Blogtronix as a user, it generally has the look and feel of a function rich, 3 column style blog site, although you can also create static pages of any sort of content that you need.    You'll see any posts, articles or documents you've written, the groups that you belong to, connections you've made with other users, links to useful sites (internal or external), feeds you've set up, events for you or the groups you belong to, news items, the menu structure of your site, categories to help you find content, or a tag cloud.  But everything is configurable.  All of the various content modules that are available can be switched on or off, moved up or down, or between columns.  You could add your own widgets using javascript.  You can use CSS style sheets to change the look and feel.  You can choose a 1, 2 or 3 column style.  Feeds can be RSS or XML-RPC, but could be news feeds, blog posts, or comments on posts.  The system is fully multi-lingual, but you could use those same language files to change all of the terminology if you wanted to.  This all comes back to the design criteria of creating a platform with no boundaries.  It operates on Mac or PC, with Safari, Firefox or Internet Explorer. 
 
Blogtronix has an impressive and flexible security system.  You can set up as many groups and sub groups as you like, maybe with some form of tree structure.  These could be internal within your company, or external with partners, customers or suppliers, or you could set up areas of your system that are publicly available.  Your membership will  define which groups you belong to, your rights and security access, but it's also important to understand that you could be on Blogtronix's Software as a Service hosted service, using their appliance, or deploy the product behind a firewall.  With some configuration and set-up, any Blogtronix user can be connected together with any other. anywhere. 
 
Within a particular community there are facilities to show you who's online, recent content, recent comments, the most read posts, the most discussed authors, user ratings for authors and posts.   The post editor allows you to upload files, access the system's image and file manager, insert audio,  HTML objects, add tags, Technorati tags, categories, create an automatic post summary, making this a strong blogging platform in its own right.  You can add video from YouTube, and there is a separate module for video blogging.  Their wiki functionality is comprehensive, but not as strong as some products, but they are working to improve it.  For example they don't have a wiki spreadsheet editor yet.  However, from a document creation point they have everything you would need to create and store documents and sub documents in a hierarchical folder structure.  You can attach images, flash, video, attachments, links, and export content to Word.  All changes are properly tracked so you can view the complete document history, compare changes and restore previous versions. 
 
The document management system can store any types of files, and links to the wiki document system.  Within document management or attachments there is comprehensive version control, where the system will automatically increment the version number when another version of the file is uploaded.  Categories and tagging with key words is available with documents and the wiki as well. 
 
As a user I can set up a personal profile and a corporate profile.  This could include my work history, education history, skills, responsibilities, job function, training, notes, anything.  If I have the appropriate admin rights, I can search for people by criteria and keywords, and then make connections with people for a particular project or topic. Of course, within the system I can send a message to any other Blogtronix user.
From an administration point of view, I have the facility to set up forbidden words, or track particular warning words.  I can drill down to see when and how the system is being used, and easily identify the content and opinion creators within particular groups or organisations.   From a content management point of view, the system has trigger and workflow capability to help you  manage the drafting and publishing process.
 
My overall take is that Blogtronix is an excellent collaboration and web publishing platform that will be useful to a wide variety of organisations.  Their hybrid deployment approach and technology choice will make the product attractive to major corporations.  The application lends itself to creating a community environment in a company with thousands of employees.  However, this product will be just as useful to small and medium businesses as well.  It provides an integrated approach to content production and community interaction, so that it could work as your company intranet, support system for partners or customers, or even your customer facing website.  One of the downsides of this kind of tool is that it is so flexible, with so many different applications, that the message of how useful it could be gets lost within the options available.  Although the Blogtronix website touches on the possibilities, the strength of the product doesn't come across - they need more examples to bring it to life.  I don't know what their marketing strategy is, but I would narrow the focus on to some specific niche markets to build up a customer base.  I'm already thinking of some specific applications in our customer set - practice management for example.  In any case, this is an enterprise 2.0 product you need to take a serious look at. 
 
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Goodman Jones win at the Accountancy Age awards

Goodman Jones new websiteFirst I have to disclose that this post is a shameless advert for what we do, as well as a plug for one my clients.  At last night's awards ceremony, my good friends at Goodman Jones won  this year's Accountancy Age awards in the category "Best use of internet by a Practice".  They are an ideal example of how accounting practices can embrace the new Internet technology that is available, from the basics of their website, to the way they are using Software as a Service tools to help the business and the services they provide to their clients.  In the awards issue of their magazine, Accountancy Age described the key reasons why GJ won the award:
 
  • They commissioned and built a new website that really communicates what they do and how they help their clients, and which provides a better information source for their target communities.  The judges praised the site's innovation and "stunning presentation" and applauded the firm for "creating a site that was truly aligned with customer needs".  One client commented "Goodman Jones site is such a doddle to get around.  Everything is so clearly laid out, I can easily find what I'm looking for in a couple of clicks".
  • Used the website to provide an intranet for their clients as a delivery mechanism for some of the reporting and services they provide.
  • In a "clear departure from more common brochure sites", GJ have moved in to providing a SaaS based online accounting solution for their clients, which is directly accessible from their website.  The judges were impressed by the fact that it has direct links to online banking, which they called "outstanding".
  • They have started a blog, written and managed by Philip Woodgate, one of the partners, which is aimed at providing SME/SMB advice.  Another client said "SME Blog is a great way to stay in touch with issues that impact small and medium-sized  enterprises.  The informal nature of the site means it is easy to dip in and read".
  • They've embraced using tools like GoToMeeting to have online meetings, training sessions and to support their clients.
  • They've also adopted blog technology to provide a support system for their online clients, as another way that they can interact with them, provide direct support, help, and advice.

 

Accountancy Age awards Winner

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Goodman Jones shortlisted for Accountancy Age awards

Goodman Jones new websiteFirst I have to disclose that this post is a bit of a shameless advert for what we do, as well as a plug for one my clients.  My good friends at Goodman Jones have been shortlisted for this year's Accountancy Age awards in the category "Best use of internet: Practice".  They are an ideal example of how accounting practices can embrace the new Internet technology that is available, from the basics of their website, to the way they are using Software as a Service tools to help the business and the services they provide to their clients.  I see the key reasons they've been shortlisted are that they have:
 
  • Commissioned and built a new website that really communicates what they do and how they help their clients, and which provides a better information source for their target communities
  • Used the website to provide an intranet for their clients as delivery mechanism for some of the reporting and services they provide
  • Moved in to providing a SaaS based online accounting solution for their clients, which is directly accessible from their website
  • Started a blog, written and managed by one of the partners, which is aimed at providing SME/SMB advice
  • Embraced using tools like GoToMeeting to have online meetings and training sessions with their clients
  • Adopted blog technology to provide a support system for their online clients, so they can interact with them, provide direct support, help, and advice.

 

Accountancy Age Awards shortlistedI know of some practices that are doing some of these things, but very few who have moved in to all of these areas.  And in their mind, this is just Phase 1 of their plans - they have lots of other ideas for Phase 2 and beyond.
 
As I disclosed at the start, we've been involved in advising them to take this direction - we designed and built the new website and intranet, involved Dennis to help with the "wordsmithing", got Philip in to blogging, and provided the SaaS accounting solution - Twinfield.  However, it is great to see a practice take on board the ideas and jump ahead like this.  I wish them luck for the award ceremony.
 
While I'm advertising, I'd like to congratulate Martin Langedijk and his Twinfield team over in Ireland.  They've just won the Carlow County Enterprise Awards, which also gets them in to the national finals.
 
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BTZ's insider's guide to Wikis

I've been asked to write an article on Wikis for the National Business 2 Business Centre in Warwick, so I thought it was about time I wrote BTZ's insider's guide to wikis, which you will now find on the site resources in the left column.  I'm really keen on the wiki concept.  We've been using a Jot based intranet to help the Twinfield International partners and sales offices to share knowledge for some time.  We are just in the process of setting up a support wiki for our customers, and Dennis and I are just about to galvanise our volunteers to help write content for the first release of StartMEup.
 
Since you can start a SocialText wiki for 5 users for free, or a 10 user Jot based wiki for $10 a month, you really should be allocating some time to find out how this technology could help your firm or organisation.
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Let's rename CRM and CRM software

Following my last post on CRM, Dennis Howlett posted a comment which triggered some off-line discussion.  Dennis, in common with many I know, has a real downer on anything CRM related because of bad experiences in the past, and because the acronym itself is associated with a particular set of technology, when it should stand for so much more.  Let me explain.
 
If you go the best known provider of CRM software, Siebel, and go to their page defining "What is CRM?", the first sentence is this:
"CRM is an integrated approach to identifying, acquiring, and retaining customers."

If you look at their "helpful" diagram it looks like this:

Siebel's view of CRM (definitely not mine!)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Notice that all the arrows are pointing at the customer, with none coming out.  This encapsulates the issue.  Most CRM products focus on helping a firm manage the sales side of their relationship and the sales pipeline.  Some have functionality to cover help desk and call centre processes.  Most never get beyond these things.  These software products shouldn't be called CRM at all.  They are Sales Relationship Management (SRM) tools.  They are necessary in any organisation, but the only help they provide the customer is indirectly, in that the firm does a better job of interacting with the customer because they have more accurate data, or the firm does a more organised job of pushing material out to the client.  They are focused internally on the firms processes, push material out.  They don't cover all of the other sides of the relationship, a two way dialogue, or things the customer may want from our organisation.
 
If you go to CRMGuru, which is a good resource for real CRM topics, and you read their top 10 most popular articles, all of them are related to the customer experience.  They are outward looking, rather inward looking.  Most of them never mention "so called" CRM software, and where they do, for example in an article about China, it's like this:
"quite a large portion of people still think CRM means software or even a call centre."
Current CRM software still has a place, because any firm needs that part of the job done, but it should be viewed as a commodity product that I need as part of my business system, like the Sales Ledger.  It would be much better if we could rename the current range CRM products to Sales Relationship Management (SRM), and think of a completely new term for the all of the tools and things we do to enhance the customer/supplier or client/adviser relationship to dist
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CRM? What's in it for me? What do clients want?

Back on 2nd March Rob Derry posted a question on AccountingWEB's Any Answers, trying to track down a survey he remembered seeing that asked business owners what they wanted from their accountants.  I only saw the item on the 6th, and was surprised on 2 counts: that he hadn't been able to find any reference to it on AW (I can't find any either), and that nobody else had answered or made any suggestions in 4 days.  AA get's a good readership who are usually very active with suggestions.  Actually, the survey in question was the Sage ABC (Accountants Business Collaboration) Survey conducted by YouGov and Launchpad Research which analysed the responses from 486 accountants and 2301 businesses into the relationship between businesses and their accountant.  At the time, I was surprised more wasn't made of such a great set of data.  If you are an accountant in practice, or a supplier working with them, this has some important data on the client/accountant relationship.  For those that missed it, here are the highlights:
Money Matters
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Customer Collaboration Systems (CCS) and Practice Requirements Planning (PRP) anyone?

One of my clients who is moving in to online accounting has decided to set up a shared resource for his business systems team, partners, and managers to share documentation, tips and ideas on the new topic - great idea!  Unlike some people you find in practice or industry, he's just cracked on and done it, and produced a "prototype" that works so he can show his colleagues what he is on about, and get some benefit out of it straight away.  He writes a blog using Typepad, and so this was the first tool that came to hand to create what he wanted.  It allows him to publish material to his community of users, which he has made password protected.  He can set up several publishers to add content.  The content can be organised in to categories, and he has a measure of control over the look and feel and layout.  The users can comment on the material, add content of their own and interact.
 
Yesterday I was trying to convince him that a Wiki approach would be even better, because he would have all of the functions I've just listed, but much more control over the layout and structure of the site, and the most important aspect - the community would be able to revise each individual piece of content rather than just comment, and those revisions would all be tracked.  The downside was that this would be yet another new product that he would have to learn.  He knows deployment isn't an issue, because the Wiki solutions I was suggesting are all Software as a Service (SaaS) based, so he knows signing up for a new product is hardly much different to extending his Typepad licence for the extra publishers.  When I started making my case to switch horses, he started muttering under his breath about his wife, family commitments, too much time tapping away at his blog, and he asked me to stop trying to convince him.  His attitude is - this will work now, and I don't have another product to learn.  If we decide in 3 months time that a wiki approach is better, then we'll simply convert across all of the material when we've picked a better platform. 
 
I think this highlights an issue that I have with current content and collaboration solutions and practice management solutions. 
 
Let's talk about collaboration first.  There are a plethora of solutions out there in the "Enterprise Content Management" space.  We have project based collaboration solutions, Content Management Systems for websites, intranets and extranets, Document Management Systems, Digital Asset Management systems, Records Management, Knowledge Management, Business Process Management systems, workflow solutions, MS Sharepoint, Wikis, Blogs and then products like Near-Time, Wetpaint, Ning or Thingamy.  In each of these application areas or products, there is overlapping, competing and often confusing functionality.  The major providers in this area have a family of products covering all of these topics, but more often than not they have been added by acquisition - they might have a common brand, but not the level of integration that is required.  There are some products with fantastic, individual components, let down by weak functionality in other areas - for example I work with a collaboration solution which has fantastic document management and version contro