Steve Trusty

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Rock solid

Project management is easy, right? Not without proper planning, compartmentalization and communications.

“With complex projects, communications is critically important and the part that is usually left out,” says Kathie Brady, Project Manager at Houston-based IT consultancy DYONYX, who has managed hundreds of multithreaded projects for the firm’s largest federal customers. “Planning and compartmentalization take place first, with an emphasis on how the project will be effectively communicated and to whom.”

Smart Business asked Brady for her insight managing complex projects.

Where do you start?

Without a solid plan, the project is doomed. With multiple objectives and stakeholders, proper resources and increased coordination is paramount. The plan must include: purpose, scope, resources, schedule and budget. This may sound basic, however, you have to understand that no part of the plan stands alone; each affects the other. For instance, if the scope changes, schedule and budget change. If resources become limited, the scope or schedule has to be adjusted. And, communication and sign-off of these changes become critical to project success.

What do you mean by compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization breaks the entire project into subprojects; stage gates and milestones, each with its own plan and leader. High level tasks are broken down into layers of responsibility with critical success factors for each segment. Compartmentalization reduces project complexity. Invariably, as other team members are brought in to help with certain tasks, compartmental communications becomes even more important.

How do you set up the communications part of the plan?

Too much information is overwhelming and counterproductive. Too little information results in undefined expectations and lack of accountability. With complex projects, information exchange and coordination are critical at all levels. Portal-based technology can be used very effectively in managing communications — more so than a constant interchange of e-mails. Portals also provide an effective means of automatically notifying stakeholders, tracking multi-threaded discussion lists and providing a document repository (with roles-based access) to everyone involved, from anywhere and in real time.

How important are the leaders in each segment of the project?

Choose your leaders carefully, selecting for experience and knowledge of their portion of the project. Project leaders should be good mentors and team players. Since there will be multiple subprojects taking place simultaneously, the team concept of interaction is essential for success. Subproject leaders not performing to expectations require the project manager’s quick analysis and decision. Can you mentor them and get back on track or do they need to be replaced? When any team member genuinely jeopardizes the project, replacement is the only answer. If a replacement is required and an individual from outside of the team is selected rather than redistributing the work to an existing team member, the documentation portal and communications network established early on will aid in the knowledge transfer and ramp-up time.

Can you walk us through an example of a complex project?

These days it is common for businesses and government agencies to go through continuous transition, either due to a change in service provider, new technology or change in operational requirements. Let’s consider a complete, technology-based transition project, for example. You would establish plans for each of the subprojects for, say, Microsoft Active Directory, Exchange e-mail, BlackBerry, file systems, applications and help desk transition. Each subproject will have its own plan, schedule, tasks and resources.

Placing the existing technical documentation and any additional information discovered during the process on the portal makes it available to all subproject team members. The project manager works with the subproject team leaders in developing an overall schedule: the application migration can’t start until the active directory (AD) structure is completed, so coordination and communication are key. The AD team is going to discover information that will be needed by the applications and file systems teams, such as service accounts that run those applications and user file permissions, though these teams don’t need to know the details of how AD will be migrated. By sharing the knowledge the AD team gained via the portal, the application and file systems teams can ensure that their portions of the transition go smoothly without getting bogged down in the details of the AD project. A completed transition plan, which incorporates plans for each subproject, can be made available to all team members for review and identification of risks prior to starting the transition.

KATHIE BRADY is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with DYONYX, currently serving as the project manager in charge of IT services for the Division of Immigration Health Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Reach her at (202) 732-0090 or Kathie.Brady@DYONYX.com.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Who will control your money?

When you no longer have control over your financial affairs, do you want the courts, legislators and taxing authorities to decide how much of your wealth you, your family and your favorite charities get to enjoy?

“It’s important for those who want to leave as much of their hard-earned wealth as possible to family to plan ahead,” says Carlos A. Rodriguez, senior vice president and senior trust adviser, with the Private Wealth Management division of SunTrust Bank in Tampa. “You take control while you can, or you’ll have none.”

Smart Business asked Rodriguez for insight on how best to preserve and transfer your wealth during life and at death.

What should be handled first?

Your first priority should be to preserve the wealth that you’ll need to access while you’re alive through financial, retirement and asset protection planning. Before you start making substantial gifts, you’ll want to make sure you have what you need for retirement and extended medical care. Also, plan to minimize incapacity costs associated with an extended illness or guardianship proceeding by having a durable power of attorney, advance health directives and a revocable living trust. In addition, consider maximizing investments in tax-advantaged and/or creditor-exempt assets.

What about the death tax?

Under the current federal estate tax laws for 2007 and 2008, a single person dying with more than a $2 million estate is actually leaving the IRS 45 percent of everything over $2 million, unless he or she leaves the ‘excess wealth’ to charity. A married couple with children, if they plan it right, can leave the kids and/or grandkids a combined $4 million free of estate tax. If Congress does nothing, these ‘exemption amounts’ will automatically rise to $3.5 million and $7 million, respectively, in the year 2009.

The experts speculate almost unanimously that the estate tax will be made permanent in 2009 and beyond with a per-estate exemption amount set at $3 million to $3.5 million and an estate tax rate of about 45 percent.

How do second or third marriages affect the situation?

There are planning issues unique to second or multiple marriage situations. These pose the biggest problems if you don’t have a well-developed and spelled out plan. Either a prenuptial — before marriage — agreement or a postnuptial — after marriage — agreement is imperative if your desire is to provide anything to children from a previous marriage. Surviving spouses have certain default inheritance rights in most states that can take priority over a conflicting bequest [e.g., to a child from a previous marriage]. Without a prenuptial agreement, it is not only possible but probable that a deceased spouse’s children from a previous marriage could receive less than anticipated or worse, be cut out entirely because of the surviving stepparent’s inheritance rights.

What is intergenerational wealth planning?

In addition to, or oftentimes in lieu of, a prenuptial agreement, a certain type of trust, commonly referred to as a ‘dynasty trust,’ can serve as a tool to keep the family wealth in the family across several generations. For example, if parents leave assets to their children in a way that the children have unlimited control and ownership, those assets can be depleted during the kids’ lives by their own creditors [i.e., tort, divorce] and at their deaths by estate taxes. In other words, ‘inherited wealth’ — if it comes with no strings attached — is usually fair game for the heir’s creditors, financial predators, ex-spouses, guardianship costs and the IRS. The dynasty trust allows ‘inherited wealth’ to pass down the generations in a way that will limit this ‘financial drain’ while at the same time allowing the members of each generation to benefit from the wealth.

Is the death benefit on life insurance taxable?

Because of the tax and creditor protection advantages the state and federal laws have given life insurance, it can be an incredibly powerful tool. It comes as a surprise to most that the death benefit on insurance covering their lives will be ‘counted’ as part of their taxable estate at death. However, if the life insurance is owned inside a properly structured Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, or ILIT, then the death benefit will be outside of their taxable estate. The use of an ILIT is especially important for real-estate rich, cash-poor individuals. The heirs can access the cash inside the ILIT via a loan or asset sale to cover the tax bill and, thereby, don’t have to sell the real estate at unfavorable, ‘fire sale’ terms.

Neither SunTrust Bank nor its employees are authorized to give legal or tax advice. The views expressed in this article are not intended to be relied on as such. You should retain your own legal counsel or tax advisor before entering into any transaction described in this article.

CARLOS A. RODRIGUEZ, J.D., LL.M. is senior vice president and senior trust adviser in the Private Wealth Management division of SunTrust Bank in Tampa. Reach him at (813) 224-2477 or carlos.a.rodriguez@suntrust.com.

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Wealth management issue

You have successfully dedicated yourself to growing your business. It is thriving and something is prompting you to think longer term. What about your retirement, your family, your employees and the preservation of what you have built? Have your investments been geared to growth or to preservation? What are the differences?

“Research has shown that the skill set that creates great wealth is not necessarily that which maintains and preserves it,” says Sean McHale, team leader, private wealth management and senior vice president at SunTrust Bank in Tampa. “Wealth is created by risk-taking and concentration on activity. Wealth is preserved by minimizing risk and diversifying activity.”

Smart Business talked with McHale for more insight on how successful business owners can shift their mindset to better preserve what they have created.

What are the first things a business owner should do in shifting his or her thinking from growth to preservation?

He or she must move his or her thinking beyond the day-to-day operations and growth. The owner must decide that he or she needs to develop a nonbusiness focus and consider future and family. Just as the owner has been successful by setting and attaining goals for growth, he or she needs to do the same for maintenance and preservation. It is very easy for the entrepreneur to see the need for a new piece of equipment. It is harder to recognize the need for estate and financial planning, but it requires the same type of commitment of time and resources. Business owners need to lay out what they want to accomplish. They also need to look at the strengths of family members. Are any of them going to be involved in the business down the road? If so, how? Are their talents more geared to growth or preservation? It’s important to determine how each party’s talents will be utilized.

I’ve decided that I need to work at wealth preservation. Now what do I do?

You need to get together with a trusted adviser who will provide the required guidance to meet your goals. That person should be intent on discovering what your goals are. The adviser needs to listen carefully. He or she needs to demonstrate expertise and value your time. You need to let him or her know what your goals are and whom they affect. If your goals are unrealistic or not well developed, that needs to be discovered. After the adviser discovers what you want to achieve, he or she needs to develop a solution that fits your needs and then deliver on it. The solutions should be based on need rather than on a particular financial product.

What about the business advisers that I am already working with?

They are extremely important and their input is essential to maximum success and helpful in your growth. You will want your business to continue to grow and will utilize their assistance in that continued growth. As you shift some of your thinking to investments that are going to preserve and maintain your wealth, it is important to have an adviser specifically for that area. In turn, besides listening to your goals, the adviser can obtain further insight from others, such as your CPA, attorney, senior business managers and, possibly, even your insurance adviser. In some cases, your investment adviser will not need to go outside his or her own team to provide solutions to your needs, but he or she should be willing to do whatever is necessary to meet what you have carefully articulated as your needs.

What is the most important piece of information that I can supply to this adviser?

You should determine and tell your adviser the most important unmet goal or objective you have outside of your business. Then let him or her put together some plans to meet those goals or objectives that you can evaluate and decide to implement if you think they are helpful.

Is this going to be an expensive experience?

Your chosen adviser should be willing to expend whatever is necessary upfront to show you that he or she has discovered your needs by listening, developed a solution that fits your needs and delivered that solution to you so you can implement it. Everyone should be looking for a long-term relationship that is going to compensate each party for the long-term results that were created for you.

SunTrust Private Wealth Management is a marketing name used by SunTrust Banks, Inc., and the following affiliates: Banking and trust products and services are provided by SunTrust Bank. Securities, insurance and other investment products and services are offered by SunTrust Investment Services, Inc., an SEC registered investment adviser and a member FINRA and SIPC.

Securities and Insurance Products and Services:

  • Are not FDIC or any other Government Agency Insured

  • Are not Bank Guaranteed

  • May Lose value

SEAN MCHALE is Wealth Services Team Leader at SunTrust Bank, SunTrust Investment Services, Inc. in Tampa. Reach him at (813) 224-2467 or by e-mail at sean.mchale@suntrust.com.

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Business ethics

The most important quality of a business leader today is integrity. This is the finding of a recent survey developed by Robert Half Management Resources. It was conducted by an independent research firm and includes responses from 1,400 CFOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 20 or more employees. These CFOs were asked, “Which of the following qualities do you feel is most important in business leaders today?” Integrity garnered the most responses at 31 percent. Experience and communication skills were second, each with a 27 percent response. Technical or functional expertise was the selection of 11 percent of the respondents.

According to Terry Phillips, vice president of Robert Half Management Resources for Northeast Ohio, “Businesses have learned some hard lessons from the corporate scandals of the recent past. They recognize, more than ever, that they need transparency in financial reporting to retain or gain the trust of those relying on the reports.”

Smart Business talked with Phillips for his insight into the results of this survey and the impact on today’s business climate.

What do the results of this survey tell us about the needs of today’s businesses?

It solidifies what we are seeing in the dayto-day requests received from businesses. The top three qualities in the survey are so important and fit together. Companies want professionals who can immediately apply their experience in an organization. Financial executives with Sarbanes-Oxley/SEC reporting experience and a public accounting background are in particularly strong demand. Communications skills are extremely important as financial executives need to translate technical concepts into terms a variety of audiences, both internally and externally, can understand. They have to be able to converse by the written and spoken word to those above and below them in the organization chart, stockholders, bankers, suppliers, customers and anyone else that has a financial interest or need for financial information about the company. And, all this must be accomplished with the utmost integrity.

What is ‘integrity’ and why has it become such a desired leadership quality?

Integrity is a firm adherence to a code of values. It implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge.

Integrity, reputation and ethics are the cornerstones of good business. Shareholders, employees, corporate boards and financial institutions rely on and have an interest in the accuracy of a company’s accounting and financial disclosures. Investors need to feel confident about the underlying integrity of businesses in which they have a stake, and in the company’s management. The attention paid to those situations where the line was crossed, and the resultant losses to so many were so great, has caused more businesses to be even more careful in how they handle their financial matters and how they communicate that information. It has to be accurate and truthful.

Is integrity hard to measure?

While integrity can certainly be subjective, taking an ‘integrity self-audit’ can be a good measurement tool. An integrity self-audit can include asking and answering such questions as: Whom in the business world do you admire and why? What qualities are appealing and how can you emulate those traits? Do you regularly share appropriate information with your colleagues/team members to ensure there are no opportunities for misinterpretation or misguided actions?

Is integrity an innate quality or can it be improved upon?

Successful leaders have a core set of values that they consistently uphold in business. To insure that employees have a clear understanding of what is expected, many companies have either implemented or enhanced ethics training throughout their organizations. Ethics has to start at the top and be carried throughout the organization.

Is the CFO’s role more difficult?

Companies want financial executives who not only have SOX experience, but who also demonstrate honesty and integrity around corporate governance regulations. Integrity has always been a valued trait, but it’s high on the list of qualities sought in leaders today.

TERRY PHILLIPS is vice president of Robert Half Management Resources for Northeast Ohio. He can be reached at (330) 252-1870 or by e-mail at Terry.phillips@rhi.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Better technology

How are you maximizing the use of technology within your company? Are you utilizing the technological tools to maximize business efficiency in the workplace? Are you offering corporate training on the latest software to keep your staff current with the constantly changing technology trends? Or, does your company approach technology in a lackluster and unmotivated manner, believing the technological wave of computers replacing humans is merely a bubble waiting to burst?

“Technology is here to stay,” says Rebeca Searcey, communications specialist with Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance. “The younger employees and those just entering the job market have lived with technology all their lives. They are not afraid of it and are ready to explore uses that may not even yet be available. The use of technology is going to continue to grow. Businesses wanting to grow are going to have to grow with it.”

Smart Business talked with Searcey for additional insights into incorporating new technology into today’s business.

What are some examples of the current technology that is helping businesses grow?

Web sites, teleconferencing and online training are three options used in today’s workplace to maximize operations, deliver quality customer services and an overall better customer experience. Today’s consumer is accustomed to a high-tech experience. Most companies are making an attempt to employ some, if not all, of these tools in order to maximize their competitive edge. The need for technological advances to provide efficient business services is growing. Companies that want to be a part of the competitive business community understand that as business technology grows, so shall a company’s knowledge and reliance on it.

Aren’t most businesses already using Web sites?

Web sites came into popular use in the early 1990s. But, what companies are realizing is that static Web sites have lost a valuable opportunity to engage their customer within the first three seconds. Ten years ago, these static Web sites were the norm and the business, not the client, was the most important piece of the puzzle. With the emergence of Web 2.0 and the tools associated with this evolution, the Internet and Web sites have evolved to become consumer-based and user-generated. A majority of customers use Web sites to research and actively engage with your company. Through the use of blogs and other consumer-driven functions, clients are in control and can have significant influence in the market. The platforms in use today have far-reaching and much more instantaneous abilities.

How can video or computer conferencing help my business?

Video and teleconferencing options can reduce liability of travel and thereby increase productivity. Investing in teleconferencing technology can facilitate meetings with multiple attendees from numerous locations and enable the viewing of documents or presentations from each individual’s computer. You can virtually be face to face with one or more customers or colleagues from miles away.

How does telecommuting differ from teleconferencing?

Telecommuting is the option of the employee to work from home. It utilizes the same technology as teleconferencing and, in many cases, the same technology vendor can offer both solutions. Telecommuting offers flexibility and can be a boost for creativity and can reduce office-related distractions. By working from home, the employee saves, on average, two to four hours of commuting time. At first mention, telecommuting can frighten most employers, perceiving that they don’t have direct control over their employee from home. Telecommuting may not be for all employees. But, it is up to the company to determine a workable policy. Also, in hurricane-prone states, such as Florida, 25 percent of companies without this technology may be vulnerable to stoppage. With telecommuting technology and a plan, a company could resume business within a few days.

How can online training benefit my organization?

Online learning enables student-centered teaching approaches. Every student has a way of learning what works best for them. The online environment makes instructors more approachable. Students can talk openly with their trainer through online chats, e-mail and in newsgroup discussions without delay. Users can sign on at their convenience, without the need for coordinating schedules and logistical details.

How can I become more technologically savvy?

Research. Educate yourself on new technological advances. Organizations such as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum can be a great resource and offer workshops and seminars that provide great insight into new technologies. IT schools and the chambers of commerce also offer informative opportunities for companies.

REBECA SEARCEY is a communications specialist with Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. Reach her at (813) 740-4680 ext. 227 or at searceyr@workforcetampa.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Battling high health care costs

Health care costs in this country have more than doubled in the past eight years. The average employer-sponsored health plan now costs more than $8,500 per employee per year. The problem is even more dire for businesses in Texas. The state’s national ranking in medical care is one of the lowest on the basis of medical costs, access and quality.

“Costs are still outpacing general inflation, and the long-term outlook is grim unless we do things differently,” says Jeff French, Benefits Consultant for Gallagher Benefit Services Inc. “The time has come for a behavior change at the individual level and a cultural change at the corporate level. Rather than providing funds for ‘sick care,’ we have to look at how we can utilize information and dollars to provide true health care.”

Smart Business talked with French for additional insights on refocusing health care efforts and dollars.

What has been the norm in dealing with employers’ rising health care costs?

Over the past five to seven years, employers have reacted to rising health care costs by increasing their employees’ share of the bill (either through higher payroll deductions or higher co-pays and deductibles). Although shifting the cost burden to employees is the easiest short-term fix for employers, it is a poor long-term strategy for cost containment.

What about using technology to help?

Technology is everywhere you look these days, and the tendency in this modern age is to assume that a high-tech answer is always the best. Technology has certainly provided some amazing advances in medicine that have improved the quality of life for many people. Data mining and predictive modeling of medical information have also enabled health plans to identify and engage employees who are at high risk. But in our efforts to find some magic treatment or piece of information that will lower our health care costs, we have lost sight of one simple truth.

What is that truth?

It may not be glamorous or high-tech, but the simple truth is that healthier people have lower health care expenses. The preponderance of dollars expended by employer-sponsored health plans has been used to treat avoidable conditions related to unhealthy lifestyles. Only the leftovers are used for wellness and prevention. It’s no wonder that 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. As the number of obese Americans continues to rise, it is worth noting that health care spending for obese adults is about 56 percent higher than normal adult rates.

How does an employer go about reducing health care expenses?

The answer lies in behavior change at the individual level and cultural change at the corporate level. One recent study showed that behavior is the most important determinant of a person’s health status. Genetics, environment and access to care were the other determinants, but none of them were even half as important as behavior in determining health status. When people begin to adopt healthier behaviors, health care costs will come down.

How can this become accomplished?

First, an individual has to be ready to change. Employees need to understand that poor health and rising employer health care costs are taking up dollars that could otherwise be used for employee pay raises. They also need to understand that their current lifestyles will determine their quality of life in the future and their ability to enjoy retirement. Once employees understand these implications, it is incumbent upon employers to provide resources that will motivate and assist employees in their efforts to change. Maybe an employee wants to quit smoking or lose weight, but he or she doesn’t know where to begin or have the necessary support. This is where an employer-sponsored wellness program can provide the needed resources and incentives. Wellness programs come in various shapes and sizes with equally variable price tags, but there are a few key imperatives.

First, in order to create a ‘Culture of Wellness,’ there must be buy-in from the top officers in the company. They must lead by example and communicate with employees regarding their wellness success stories. Second, there need to be incentives that are meaningful to the employees. The amount of an incentive should obviously vary based on the demographics of the work force, but the key is to reward employees (and their families) for participation and achievement. The third imperative is a wellness-coaching program. Once a person is ready to change, the wellness coaches can provide information, support, encouragement and accountability.

By refocusing our efforts and dollars to encourage healthier living, we can spend fewer dollars on caring for the ill and more time enjoying good health.

JEFF FRENCH is a Benefits Consultant for Gallagher Benefit Services Inc. Reach him at (713) 358-5912 or jeff_French@ajg.com.

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Knowledge management

Organizations primarily compete on the basis of knowledge and information. Knowledge not only of their own circumstances but also that of the environment, governmental agencies, competition, customers and anything else that might help the business grow.

According to Dr. Tom Froehlich, Professor and Director of Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University, “Business owners and managers need to understand the discipline of knowledge management and why it’s important to have employees with this skill set. It is an area of expertise that allows mid-career professionals to contribute to an organization in a lasting way.”

Smart Business talked with Dr. Froehlich for more information on knowledge management and why it’s important.

What is knowledge management?

It represents a range of activities that include the identification, organization, creation, representation, distribution, use and reuse of knowledge in an enterprise so as to increase a business’s efficiency, effectiveness, innovativeness and competitiveness. This knowledge includes explicit information as recorded in electronic or paper form and tacit knowledge, such as the expertise, creativity and the proficiency of the organization’s employees. It aims to identify gaps and needs. These knowledge activities are enacted as an integral part of management, policy and practice at every level of the enterprise.

What this typically means is identifying, organizing and making readily available the intellectual assets of an organization. Best practices are identified and disseminated. Expertise is easily located and shared. New knowledge, particularly for competitive advantage, can be generated. Corporate data is accessible and tacit knowledge, such as a customer’s preferences, can be made explicit and shared.

What are the key identifiable themes included in knowledge management?

The key themes are: capture of employee know-how; innovation incubation; enterprise content management; competitive intelligence; knowledge sharing; organizational expertise management; organizational learning; virtual collaboration; digital asset management; digital rights management; document, records and email management; and communities of practice. A community of practice refers to a group with a common concern for some topic or problem collaborating to create innovations and solutions and to share ideas. Such a group could be internal to a specific company, such as members of the marketing department sharing ideas about product awareness, or across different enterprises, such as car salesmen discussing the best selling techniques.

The focus is on people. Technology can be facilitative, but it is a management of people and their activities that will make the organization efficient and effective.

Why do businesses need knowledge management?

Informal knowledge, such as employees’ know-how, is lost with employee reductions, turnover or retirement. It must be replaced with formal knowledge that allows for easy management of the intellectual assets of an organization. Businesses must increase their rate of innovation and shorten product development cycles because of global competition. There is a need to manage complexity, not only the internal demands of the organization, but in its ability to cope with governmental requirements at all levels and other environmental changes. There is also the need to capitalize on what an organization collectively knows.

How is knowledge management different than the business management taught in graduate schools of business?

It takes a comprehensive approach to the knowledge and information assets of an organization. It includes intellectual capital as part of an organization’s assets and part of its balance sheet. It recognizes that the marketplace has become global, increasing competition and leading to better quality and more efficient means of production.

What are the disciplines involved in effective knowledge management?

Another area where education in knowledge management differs from business school curricula is the disciplines and subjects involved. In addition to such typical business curricula topics as decision support systems or change management, areas of concern for knowledge management include: cognitive science (for how employees acquire and process information); library and information science (knowledge organization, indexing and access); information storage and retrieval systems; technical writing; effective communication and consensus-building among stakeholders; document engineering (creation, access, storage, retrieval, archiving, elimination); enterprise content management; email management; and semantic networks (use of metadata and hierarchies to structure the relationships among ideas and content), to name a few.

What else can be said about knowledge management?

Developments in total quality management, benchmarking, best practices, strategic planning and organizational learning all have some relationship to knowledge management.

Knowledge management includes not only value-added information and information for decision-making, but it also fosters knowledge creation and sharing. For more information, visit http://iakm.kent.edu.

DR. THOMAS J. FROEHLICH is Professor and Director of Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University. Reach him at (330) 672-5840 or tfroehli@kent.edu.

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Justified and optimized

In last month’s issue, Jim Quiggle discussed service-oriented architectures and infrastructures (SOA/I), which represent a shift in the way IT departments operate. As this trend grows, it is even more important that IT departments are optimized and justified.

“Architectures and infrastructures that don’t support the business have no justification to exist,” says Quiggle, director of professional services development at Agile360 Inc. “If they are not optimized, they don’t enable business agility and may hinder workflows. SOA/I coupled with operational and solution frameworks can close the gap between the business drivers and deployed IT service solutions. These are justified by business need and optimized based on the costs versus the business benefit provided or business risk avoided or mitigated.”

Smart Business talked with Quiggle for more insight into methods for justifying and optimizing infrastructures and architectures.

How is justification and optimization affected by SOA/I?

The traditional approach is based on ‘pain points.’ One example is when someone complains about the speed or features of the e-mail system. Another example is when business management expresses a need for a way to manage warehouse inventories, and a solution is implemented.

When pain points drive IT solutions, the deployed systems probably are over-engineered, and therefore, cannot be optimized. This is because the chances of hitting the unknown service level requirement mark is low. If the systems are under-engineered, IT must deploy additional systems to resolve the continuing pain points.

With SOA/I, the pressure is taken off IT, and the rest of the business defines what is needed. IT then presents the available options and trade-offs for business approval. Justification is based on the needs of the business as determined by the various entities within the business. There is also the potential benefit of meeting the needs of partners that deal with the business with no additional cost for processes.

How does a business go about implementing SOA/I?

You start with the business objectives. Vision and strategy come next. It is important to involve all departments of the business. You want to build support services and applications so that the different business systems can reuse and share them. The architecture is leveraged across multiple projects — both internally and externally — eliminating the need to rebuild similar services for each project.

After an organization has set its SOA/I vision and strategy, then the architecture and every infrastructure component across the whole enterprise conforms to the SOA/I. Services become the basic building blocks with which infrastructure architectures are created and supported. These services are integrated to achieve business objectives.

Are there standards or frameworks to follow?

There are two, and they are very similar. One is the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). The other is the Microsoft Operations and Microsoft Solutions Frameworks (MOF/MSF). They are very similar.

MOF adopts and adapts ITIL and combines the collaborative industry best practices with specific guidelines for running on the Microsoft platform in a variety of business scenarios. MOF also extends the ITIL code of practice to support distributed IT environments and current industry directions such as application hosting, mobile-device computing, and Web-based transactional and e-commerce systems. In a non-Microsoft environment, the ITIL framework would simply replace the MOF and MSF frameworks.

Are there basic steps to follow?

There are four basic steps to create a new solution (or change an existing one). They are: (1) plan the solution, (2) build it, (3) deploy it and (4) operate it.

This approach recognizes that a change to a current solution can originate from an operations requirement, a new business requirement or external factors, such as regulatory requirements. These changes also need to follow the four basic steps of the life cycle and, depending on their complexity, can trigger either a new (MSF) project or a smaller-scale request for change within the MOF framework.

Each framework provides useful and detailed information on the people, processes and tools required to successfully function within its respective area. Both MSF and MOF provide technology-agnostic guidance for improving IT processes that can be used in any environment.

JIM QUIGGLE is director of professional services development at Agile360 Inc. Reach him at sales@agile360.com or (949) 253-4106.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Electronic data awareness

If there ever was a situation that emphasized the truism “it’s what you don’t know that could hurt you,” new amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) qualify. The U.S. Supreme Court approved these on April 12, 2006, and they went into effect last December. These rules potentially can affect every U.S. business — yours included. All departments within your business need to be aware of them and work with your information technology (IT) department to assure compliance.

“Right now, in most businesses, there is a wide gap between what the legal department knows is required to comply with FRCP and what the IT department knows is expected of them,” says Jim Quiggle, director of professional services development at Agile360 Inc. “It is imperative that a company’s legal, risk management, general management and IT departments get together to determine the risks and decide what each department is going to do to close that gap in order to be prepared for the new amendments to the FRCP.”

Smart Business talked with Quiggle for more insight into FRCP.

What are the new amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures (FRCP)?

Generally speaking, the new amendments govern the handling of electronically stored information in any civil lawsuit that comes before any U.S. federal court. The new amendments pertain to the handling and disclosure requirements of all data compilations, including e-mail. For IT, this means being able to deliver relevant data by location and description to the court in a timely manner.

Whom do these rules impact?

They impact every business, organization and person that may ever be involved in a federal court case. These would include lawsuits that cross state lines; cases that involve any governmental agency such as the IRS, Immigration, Transportation, Wage and Hour, and Commerce; as well as regulations such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley and more.

There are no exceptions for company size or nonprofit status. When it comes right down to it, it is hard to think of any entity that could not be impacted.

How does the FRCP impact IT?

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems and IT will need to respond more quickly and accurately than before to discovery and internal investigation requests.

The IT department will need to know what e-mail has been stored anywhere in the organization, how to produce it, how much effort is required to produce it, and when and how documents may be deleted.

Right now, a company might be successful with the argument that the technology didn’t exist several years ago to maintain the data in a way that would comply with the new law — but that excuse won’t hold up for long. The courts aren’t going to care about systems. They are demanding the information.

Waiting to come up with a plan until you get called into court is too late. By that time, the company may have to drop all other activity just to produce what the opposing attorneys are entitled to and, if the information doesn’t satisfy the court, penalties will be assessed.

Delays can be costly. A jury awarded $800 million in punitive damages when Morgan Stanley repeatedly failed to produce e-mails in a timely manner. In another case, a U.S. District Court determined the appropriate fine for a late response to a discovery request was $50,000 per day.

What needs to be disclosed?

Everything, which includes current and past information that might be on file servers, employee PCs, backup tapes, cell phones, USB drives and Blackberry devices.

What can we do to make sure we comply?

First, identify your risk. While the rules can pertain to all businesses, some are at more risk than others. It is a lot like deciding whether to buy hurricane insurance in California or earthquake insurance in the Midwest. Prepare according to your level of risk.

Develop retention policies that show good-faith operations appropriate for the business needs of the organization. Areas of consideration include relevant compliance regulations, the length of a typical company contract and business value of the data. Focus on your business work-flows, costs of data storage and regulatory compliance too, void policies that could be construed as solely for the purpose of deleting potential evidence. Remember that short retention schedules may be challenged.

As you work on developing a monitoring and archiving system that can rapidly retrieve and sort electronic data, also try to incorporate ways to track paper and any other information that is used in the business. By looking for ways to tie the entire business infrastructure together, you may come up with a system that will give you a return on the investment instead of just another expense.

JIM QUIGGLE is director of professional services development at Agile360 Inc. Reach him at Jim.Quiggle@agile360.com or (949) 253-4106.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Your first hundred

As your company grows, so does the need for keeping abreast of additional employment laws. Beginning at 15 or more employees, a firm is covered by certain federal anti-discrimination laws. At 50 employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) kicks in. At 100 employees, a business becomes subject to the WARN Act, which pertains to certain layoffs and plant closings. It is important to be aware of these thresholds long before you reach them.

 

“As a company approaches the 100-employee threshold, there is more to be aware of than the employment laws,” says Peter Donati, head of the Employment Service Group at Chicago’s Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC. “Policies and procedures need to be looked at for standardization. Also, the larger the firm, the bigger target it becomes for litigation. It is a new world that requires new thinking.”

Smart Business talked with Donati for more insight on what owners and CEOs should be aware of as a company grows, especially as it reaches the 100-employee milestone.

How does the number of employees affect policies and procedures?

As the company becomes a larger organization, the owner/founder cannot continue to control all HR decisions. You need to look at more standardized rules and policies that will guide people as they run the business on a day-to-day basis.

Handbook requirements become more critical. It is important for a handbook to reflect the actual practices and priorities of the organization. Does it have what is needed? Does it contain items that should no longer be included? For example, if different departments have different tardiness policies, problems are created when employees converse with each other or are moved from one department to another. How can you explain differences in a valid way? Supervisors have a tougher time if they don’t have guidelines to work within.

Also, compensation and evaluation policies need to be reviewed and standardized.

Organizations need to tie evaluations and compensation decisions together in a way that is both fair and defensible.

Make sure that all employees are classified accurately as exempt or nonexempt. These are hot areas for litigation, and penalties can mount up very rapidly.

What are the key areas to be conscious of as a company approaches 100 employees?

Companies obviously need to be aware of the employment laws that will be applicable, and be ready for compliance before the threshold for coverage is reached. However, laws that may have been applicable to them as a smaller organization also take on greater importance.

When you have more employees, there is a greater chance of litigation. The government takes more interest in your organization. And lawsuits, particularly those involving multiple plaintiffs, present greater risks.

At some point between 50 and 100 employees, you are going to need to consider hiring an HR professional as opposed to non-HR-trained individuals wearing several hats. That person may have to be placed at the same level as other upper-level management.

How can all this be approached holistically?

Bring in an employment lawyer or HR consultant to perform a compliance audit. Besides auditing wage-and-hour-law compliance, a comprehensive audit could include interviewing and hiring practices, how you deal with employees on the job, and what to do when they are separated. Also consider an immigration audit to make sure you are securing and storing I9s (immigration forms) properly and complying with all other aspects of immigration law.

Are there other areas to consider?

Review all your forms and agreements, including job application forms, employment agreements, and confidentiality and noncompete agreements. Some may have been developed early on and may no longer be applicable or compliant with changes in the laws.

Also examine your training policies, especially sexual harassment policies. Know what is permitted and what is not. Where do complaints go and how are they handled? What training is required of management and what is required for all employees? For example, California now requires two hours of training every two years for managers. Potential union activity is another area in which your managers should receive training.

How important is outside counsel for any of these issues?

Even if you have expert in-house counsel, you will want to have a good relationship with outside specialists for certain areas to assure compliance. Getting advice before you make a decision is much better than looking for an attorney when you have been sued by a group of employees. Incorrect decisions can set the company back for years. Get the best advice possible.

PETER DONATI is a partner and leads the Employment Service Group at Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC in Chicago. Reach him at (312) 476-7590 or pdonati@LPlegal.com.

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