Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What is a Solution Accelerator?

We are often asked what is the difference between a software product and a solution accelerator such as Microsoft Stimulus360 or Microsoft Grants360. The distinction is important because confusing solution accelerators (also called templates or solutions) with products leads to unmet expectations.

All of us are familiar with software products such as Word, Excel or Outlook. These products contain features and do certain tasks for us. While they allow for some configuration and personalization of preferences, they essentially work the same way for all users. This is acceptable because word processing and email are largely similar for users in many industries. My Exchange and Outlook setup may be bigger or smaller than an organization, but essentially the user experience is the same.

Products usually come with prescriptions on how they are installed and configured, and this process is made as easy as possible. For some products. it is as simple as clicking a link, downloading and a couple of clicks later the product is installed.

Solution accelerators are more like tools than they are like products. In other words, instead of getting a table you are getting wood, hardware, and sometimes even a saw to cut the pieces to length. Grants360, for instance, provides a website for soliciting grant applications. The website works right out of the box, and a user can submit an application, but for a complete solution you need to do some analysis and customization. For instance, you would replace the logo in the sample with your organization's logo, replace the instructions with your instructions, and perhaps add new fields that are germane to the type of grant you are awarding.

Solution accelerators make sense for line of business applications which do not have universally consistent business rules or features. Grants for homeless shelters track different information from grants for cancer research or environment cleanup, so the solution accelerator approach allows the required tailoring. Microsoft Stimulus360, for instance, contained reports which met the requirements of the Office of Management and Budget for ARRA (stimulus) grants.

Custom reports are almost always needed for line of business solutions. Each manager likes to see data in a different way. Analyzing reporting needs also uncovers data fields that should be added to the solution.

A solution accelerator is a different approach than custom development, which offers nearly unlimited customization but is expensive, risky and time consuming. Solution accelerators fit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between off-the-shelf products and custom development.

If you choose a solution accelerator, you need to plan for services including requirements analysis, configuration, customization, training, and documentation. The effort required will be more than a typical product installation, but the work is required for line of business solutions if you want them to match the way your organization works.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Microsoft Releases Grants360

On September 20, 2010 Microsoft released Grants360, a solution accelerator for grantee organizations. InfoStrat and its partner TrueTandem developed the solution to provide end-to-end management of the grant process, from soliciting applications to review, award, and post award tracking.

Grants360 (databasheet) is build using Microsoft Dynamics CRM for the management module and Microsoft Azure for the public website. This means that when Dynamics CRM 2011 is available, the entire solution can be hosted in the cloud (by Microsoft), hosted by a third party or run on premise.

Grants360 (demo)complements Stimulus360. Where Stimulus360 was tailored to the unique requirements of federal stimulus (ARRA) grants, Grants360 is more general purpose. It can even be used by non-profits for their grant activities.

We are posting more materials on the solution on GovServer.com. Watch for video demos and tutorials coming soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Top Ten New Features of Dynamics CRM 2011

At InfoStrat, we have been eagerly awaiting the newest version of Dynamics CRM and are excited to see it available now to the public. Now is a good time to learn more about the new version.

If you have an hour for a demonstration, check out this video:

http://digitalwpc.com/Videos/AllVideos/Permalink/f9625bd7-7009-4bed-ab7a-c3fbb548d6ac

If you want a shorter summary, here are my top ten enhancements to Dynamics CRM 2011:
  1. Cloud. Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online will have fewer constraints on customization, making it easier to use Microsoft as your hosting provider. To show its commitment to the cloud, Microsoft will make Dynamics CRM 2011 available on the cloud before it distributed for on premise deployment.
  2. Integration with SharePoint. You can use SharePoint for document management along with Dynamics CRM. We have done this ourselves for our solutions but now Microsoft is doing it for us.
  3. Slickness. The user interface has been updated, replacing tabs with the familiar Office ribbon and generally looking more modern.
  4. Multi-form capability. This allows you to design a form that changes based on data entered by user or based on user roles. It could be done in the past but required serious coding.
  5. Field level security. Combined with multi-form, this offers a great deal of flexibility that was not practical with prior versions of the product.
  6. Dashboards. You can build the same flashy dashboards you are used to in SharePoint with Dynamics CRM. Maps, graphs, the works.
  7. Custom activities. Extend the standard activities in Dynamics CRM such as phone and email by adding your own.
  8. Workflow dialogs. Make workflow interactions more sophisticated by creating custom dialogs.
  9. Outlook integration. Dynamics CRM 2011 improves the integration, especially for creating emails in Outlook.
  10. Data auditing. This is another feature that we have needed for a long time. We developed our own plug-in for earlier versions but are grateful that Microsoft is including in the product.
I hope these hints of the new features will tempt you to take a look for yourself. InfoStrat will be making its GovServer solutions available in Dynamics CRM 2011 on the heels of the release.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Microsoft Releases Dynamics CRM 2011 Beta

Today Microsoft unleashed the long awaited new version of Dynamics CRM to the public. You will find a dramatically revamped user interface, tighter integration with Microsoft Outlook, and technical parity between the Microsoft-hosted version and running Dynamics CRM on premise.

Go here for a test drive: http://offers.crmchoice.com/CRM2011Beta-Landing

or the download links: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/en/details.aspx?FamilyID=0c7dcc45-9d41-4e2e-8126-895517b4274c&displayLang=en

For InfoStrat, the new version makes it easier for us to offer our solutions in whatever deployment mode our clients need -- on premise, hosted or cloud.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lessons from Northrop Grumman Failure in Virginia?

This week witnessed one of the most dramatic government information technology failures ever, with an outage that paralyzed twenty six state government services for days in Virginia. The Department of Motor Vehicles was the most visible outage, leaving thousands of frustrated motorists and forcing law enforcement to relax enforcement to allow time for drivers' license renewals.

Northrop Grumman holds long term contracts for IT services worth more than $2.5 billion which has generated controversy since it began.

Investigators will be sifting through the incident to determine the causes. What lessons will emerge from this crisis? How can similar problems be averted in the future? Are massive outsourcing contracts a mistake? Would state employees have performed better than contractors in resolving the issues or coming up with workarounds?

Some press accounts pointed to hardware failure in devices manufactured by EMC which were highly unlikely to fail as they did. Recovery procedures took longer than anticipated and some data is still missing as of today, including 12,000 to 16,000 photographs for licenses and delivery cards.

The only people who can be grateful for this incident are those who write business textbooks, as this is certain to become a popular case study,


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Will the Obama Administration Take on Contractor Corruption?

Now is the perfect time for the Obama administration to tackle the problem of government contractor corruption. Local government agencies are strapped for cash and small businesses are suffering in all sectors, making fraud and waste politically intolerable. Anti-corruption actions would bolster support for the administration among business owners and improve confidence in government among all citizens, even those on the far right such as libertarians and Tea Party members.

An initiative to eliminate programs and contracting approaches that have proven vulnerable to abuse would fit well with the Obama initiatives to reinvent government and to create openness and transparency. Obama's core constituency would be hard pressed to argue against such reform.

To be successful, the initiative would have to target corruption in both large and small companies. The large contractors already seem to be the focus of audits and investigations. They are most likely to play the revolving door game of hiring former senior government officials and lobbying their way to large contracts. Many large integrators have taken over so many government functions that agencies cannot imagine how to operate without them, even if they do not perform up to expectations. The week Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced cutbacks that will hit large companies hard, including bringing back functions that have been outsourced in the past.

Hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved by eliminating corrupt contracts with small companies. According to a July 2010 article in Federal Computer Week, the Small Business Administration (SBA) continues to certify fake companies for its Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) program. Some companies have been certified with business addresses that do not exist, and SBA only visits in person a small fraction of HUBZone companies.

HUBZone is not the only setaside program which is attacked by unscrupulous contractors. The 8(a) small business program is for companies which meet criteria for being socially and economically disadvantaged. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation found that federal agencies awarded $325 million in small business contracts to firms that were not eligible for the designation. Large companies with sales of over $1 billion have even won contracts set aside for small businesses.

The blatant violations are the tip of the iceberg with contractor fraud. For every HUBZone company which reports its address as the Alamo there are untold numbers that commit fraud on a more subtle scale. Some HUBZone companies maintain fake addresses in wiring closets in a disadvantaged neighborhood while in fact operating in an exclusive neighborhood or show employees on their books who do not actually work for the company. The 8(a) program had a time limit for companies which forces them to "graduate" and lose their preferential treatment and compete on the open market. Some successful multi-millionaire company owners evade this by transferring the company to their children who start a new 8(a) firm.

Well intentioned preferential contracting programs end up adding additional costs to government contracts and sometimes reducing the sucess rate of projects. Unqualified companies can win contracts, then subcontract to qualified companies after adding their markup. It would be difficult to determine how much the government wastes on extra layers of contracting, but markups of five to twenty percent are common.

Now that the oil is no longer leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, can the federal government stop the leaks from its spending programs?

This blog entry is published simultaneously on blogs.infostrat.com and http://www.govloop.com/.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Cloud Computing -- How High Should Government Fly?

The information technology industry has fallen head over heels when it comes to cloud computing. Many analysts have weighed in on the inevitability of shutting down your outdated server room and shifting to services that are hosted on the Internet at a remote data center.

It's hard to argue against the cloud computing trend, especially since most of us who are active in IT are using cloud services ourselves, whether it may be email, cloud storage, online collaboration, and many more.

Government agencies are also enraptured with cloud computing, as it conjures up visions of faster projects not to mention the perennial prospect of giant cost savings. The Obama administration is promoting cloud computing and agencies are embarking on an unprecedented push from government owned and controlled computing to using commercial capabilities. So far, no major missteps or tragedies have marred the cloud love affair.

But not so fast. Government needs are different than either our individual consumer needs or corporate requirements. To maximize savings with cloud computing, you have to accept the services as offered to the mass market. The more you ask for customization, the higher the cost of initial acquisition and maintenance.

Government customers often value stability more than keeping up with the latest in technology. The ability of cloud services to be updated literally overnight may be a curse as well as a blessing for government workers. What if a new feature requires retraining? How would a vendor resolve conflicts among requested features?

The business rules of government are different than those of businesses. Even the smallest details such as nomenclature or definitions may be embodied in regulations which are reflected in information systems. When the federal tax code changes, for instance, the IRS must update its software for receiving, enforcing and auditing taxes.

Security requirements are more stringent for government than for most businesses. It would be damaging to a company to have its chicken seasoning or soft drink recipe exposed, but government agencies have higher stakes such as national security. The agencies focused on law enforcement and national security correctly see the risks of cloud computing outweighing the putative rewards. Civilian agencies face security challenges as well, such as privacy for health information and social services.

Even government purchasing is ill suited to cloud computing. How do you write a procurement for subscription services whose costs cannot reliably be predicted? What if actual usage doesn't match what is budgeted? Will the proprietary nature of most cloud services discourage competition for contracts? Will government customers become handcuffed to particular services and have a hard time switching vendors?

Will government fly too high like Icarus in the quest for cloud computing and end up taking a nasty fall? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Be Careful What You Ask For

Software projects are inherently risky, and the ways to run astray begin even before the project begins. The quality of a procurement solicitation governs the results of a project, laying a solid foundation for success or creating unnecessary problems that doom a project.

Since the negative examples are often more illustrative, here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

1. There is no such thing as etcetera in a specification. Over the past few weeks I have reviewed requests for proposals that list open-ended requirements for integration, mentioning one or two specifics and then the dreaded "etc." rears its head. The result is that vendors either decide not to bid or pad the price to cover the risk of the unnamed integration.

2. Fixed price requires fixed specifications. If you choose a fixed price contract, vendors cannot determine a price without complete and detailed specifications. Fixed price combined with vagueness can result in a game of change orders where bidders price the minimum and then add dramatically to the cost and time through a series of change orders. Some integrators specialize in this approach because it is difficult to switch vendors in the middle of a project.

3. Watch out for gold plating. If you need a system for ten people, don't specify that it must scale to 10,000 users. Otherwise, you will end up with a city bus when you had a compact car in mind. Vendors will do their share to upsell and goldplate all on their own without encouragement from the solicitation.

4. Don't dictate how to get there. Encourage vendors to use creative approaches to solve your business problem. You can easily ask for more than you need and therefore pay more than you needed to pay for a solution.

5. Don't wait too long for results. Be sure to break the project into short phases with measurable results. There are many software projects that drag on for years before shipping a product, only to find out too late that it does not meet business requirements.

Writing a solicitation that is specific and detailed, without reaching for the moon and the stars, can be the start of a successful software project.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why Information Technology is Like Exercise

I must confess that I don't like to exercise, especially when it's purely for health reasons. I haven't run far and long enough to become addicted to the runner's high. I feel better after I run for the rest of the day, but it still takes effort to get up early and get out there. For me, exercise is best in retrospect.

On the other hand, I am a huge gearhead. I like researching the latest camping equipment, golf clubs, fishing lures, backpacks and even running shoes and socks. It feels great to gear up to be ready for fitness. Sports Authority can testify to my optimism for fitness.

At the end of the day, though, the gear doesn't make you fit. You have to get out there and run, bike, swim, hike, or hit that ball or puck to stay in shape.

Information technology is similar, in that it takes more than gear and software to improve business processes. The most important ingredient is the will to change and openness to assess the way an organization works and find better processes, then automate them if necessary. Buying the latest and greatest technology does little for an organization not willing to invest the time to use the new tool.

When the will to change is absent, no amount of money, hardware or software can make up for it. The examples of failed software projects are legion, and many can be traced back to a lack of leadership or a failure to make tough decisions and tradeoffs. In other cases, the failure is in the last mile of the project: failing to train users and encourage adoption of the new system.

Over the years, we have had the good fortune to work with a large number of IT leaders who were not afraid to shake things up, take chances, and make tough decisions in order to reach their goals. We usually know at the beginning of a project whether the client has this requisite toughness, and its presence is a reliable predictor of project success.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Software Development Methodology v Reality

Last week my company held its operations summit to review how we deliver solutions to our customers. We presented best practices and discuss tools, models, and approaches to understanding, designing and implementing software solutions.

This discussion made me think back on how the ideals of methodology differ from the reality on the ground. Everyone can agree on the value of having complete, ironclad requirements before development begins, but we all know that this is unrealistic. Among the many ways that requirements fall short is that they are incomplete and inaccurate. Some requirements ultimately are thrown overboard because the cost of implementing them is higher than the business value, and others because they lead to a business process that is too complicated or otherwise unworkable.

More recent methodologies such as Agile and SCRUM are more explicit about dealing with uncertainty. Perhaps we need to be more direct in dealing with inadequate requirements, setting a lower threshold of completeness and accuracy before development begins.

Even if we could make the requirements one hundred percent complete and one hundred percent accurate, change always rears its ugly head. Seldom does the consensus of management remain solid forever, and business rules may change from exogenous factors such as changes in laws and regulations.

On the other hand, perhaps we need to cling to the abstract ideals, even knowing that in our human world we will fall short.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lotus Notes Migration to Dynamics CRM

I can't explain why, but over the past few weeks my company InfoStrat has seen increased interest in Dynamics CRM as a tool to help migrate from Lotus Notes to the Microsoft platform. It turns out that many Notes shops have custom Notes apps that don't map easily to SharePoint, and Dynamics CRM fills the gap by allowing rapid development of solutions that rely on structured data.

We provided training along with Microsoft to a group of Federal customers who were looking for ways to migrate to the Microsoft platform and also find a tool with which former Notes developers can be productive. Many Notes developers who are not interested in becoming Java or .Net programmers can quickly become proficient with Dynamics CRM because it offers quite a bit of power and flexibility without writing code.

Watch for a forthcoming whitepaper on Notes migration on www.infostrat.com as well as a video on this topic.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stimulus360 One Year Later

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since we created the Stimulus360 solution for Microsoft. When the American Recovery and Revitalization Act (ARRA) passed last year, few could forecast the impact on state and local government. The program was unprecedented in scope and pace, and required state, county, city and federal governments to quickly design and implement systems to track the funding and make information on grants available to citizens.

As it turns out, probably no solution was more widely adopted for ARRA tracking than Microsoft Stimulus360. In its first year, Microsoft Stimulus360 was adopted by over twenty governments across the country, including six states (AZ, CA, IL, MO, MS, WI), cities including DC, San Francisco, and Seattle, and large counties such as Harris County (TX), Los Angeles County (CA), and Cook County (IL). All together, governments using Stimulus360 account for over 100 million of the U.S. population and 2,000 grants worth billions of dollars.

What were the lessons learned?

1. The time has come for hosted solutions in government. We learned a great deal about hosting Dynamics CRM in the past year. Offering a hosted solution saved us and our clients several times. Without the hosting option, it would have been difficult to serve smaller customers, and hosting made it much faster and easier to make changes to Stimulus360.
2. The federal government can move quickly when motivated. The pace of ARRA funding really was impressive, and many of the rules and policies had to be worked out on the fly.
3. Flexibility is paramount, even for complex line of business systems. The Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform in particular helped us respond as reporting requirements were changed by federal agencies.
4. Partnering helps projects in many ways. We were fortunate to find teaming partners across the country to extend our geographic reach and provide complimentary technical skills. Working alone, InfoStrat could not have reached nearly as many customers.

We expect that some of the principles used in ARRA will expand to other government grants, and there is no visible slowing of government transparency efforts.