Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hidden Costs of Using Outdated Technology

About five years ago, my article, “Beware the Underlying Costs of Using Dated Technology” (subscription may be required) appeared in the New York Law Journal. The point of the article is still valid and it is a good time to revisit the topic.

When budgets are tight, firms and legal departments wisely question every expense. They often postpone technology upgrades to avoid or reduce costs. In reality, there are a number of hidden costs of not upgrading and they may end up costing more than the expected savings.

Over the course of my career, the legal profession has incorporated technology into daily life to the point that it is considered critical—and not just for billing and accounting. As with automobiles, technology today does more but also costs more than it did 5 or 10 years ago.

Technology projects and ongoing maintenance also have costs. Beware the temptation to cut them too far. When deciding whether to upgrade, look at the less-obvious costs of standing still while your competitors and partners pass you by. Total the short-term savings of not upgrading your technology and then get ready to subtract. I created the illustration below, “Costs of Not Upgrading,” for the original article, but it has been omitted from the archive version. The graph shows a number of cost items that most offices will encounter. They are categorized into direct versus indirect and hard versus soft costs.

Be sure to factor in these probable consequences of not keeping your technology fairly up to date:

1. Growing Impact of Disruptions – What does down-time cost you when an old system falters or your staff encounters incompatibility obstacles?
2. Increasing Costs of Catching Up – Are incremental costs that spread the pain over time better than a huge outlay to catch up years later?
3. Injury to Reputation and Business Development Efforts – Will your customers and future customers develop a poor impression if your technology lags?
4. Missed Opportunities to Save – Are there new capabilities available that can produce savings to offset upgrade costs?

The current economy can actually help you here. Almost every tech vendor out there now has discounts, incentives and faster delivery times than they did when business was booming. You may be able to obtain significant price concessions if you act soon and even lock them in for later. Just like major corporations today are driving deflation in their supply chains, technology customers have significant bargaining power in price, delivery schedules and other contract terms that will not be there when the economy takes off again. So much so, that a number of software vendors are giving away their software these days, according to this article on WSJ.com (subscription may be required).

Another benefit to upgrading when business is slower: less disruption to your customers and clients. Take advantage of the lull by ramping up for the chaos that is likely when many sectors take off at once later this year.

Whether obvious and predictable or more remote and intangible, there are costs incurred when not upgrading. The hidden costs of delaying upgrades can easily overcome the more apparent costs of staying current. Take another look at the project costs analysis before making that technology budget cut. Now may be the best time to boldly upgrade. The conservative mantra of “a penny saved is a penny earned” should yield to the wiser advice -- “do not be ‘penny wise’ and ‘pound foolish.’”

Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Your Law License At Risk?

Managing Attorneys already have a lot on their minds. One thing they often overlook is the risks to their law license from failure to comply fully with MRPE 5.1 and 5.3. Although some state versions (e.g., Texas and California) vary from these model rules, they still place a general burden on any attorney who supervises the work of others.

Rule 5.1 requires lawyers with managerial authority within a firm to make reasonable efforts to establish internal policies and procedures designed to provide reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm will conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct. Such policies and procedures include those designed to detect and resolve conflicts of interest, identify deadlines in pending matters, account for client funds and property and properly supervise inexperienced lawyers. Rule 5.3 requires the same effort to ensure that non-lawyers in the firm will also conform to the Rules. So what constitutes “reasonable efforts?”

Rule 1.0(h) defines “reasonable” as the conduct of a reasonably prudent and competent lawyer. The effort, then, becomes those that a reasonably prudent and competent lawyer would take. Since that is still not very clear, we have to look at ethics opinions.

First, the bad news. Ethics committees are getting more savvy. They know that lawyers have dozens of ways to use simple software tools to manage their practices and staff. They use such tools themselves and no longer will tolerate luddites who help create problems by failing to employ affordable, preventive measures. They also are not impressed by lawyers who set up systems but then do not use them effectively, even if no harm actually occurs.*

Additionally, even where the rule does not expressly use it, disciplinary panels apply the “knew or should have known” standard, rather than actual knowledge of any violation by a member of the firm. See, for example, the panel recommendation affirmed in In re Conwell.

Now the good news. It does not take a lot to meet this threshold. Start by training all your staff on the rules. Make sure everyone, lawyer and non-lawyer alike, understands that all the rules apply to all of them.

Next, ensure you have or that you implement systems that fix gaps in your office. There are many software options ranging from free to expensive, depending on what you want the tool to do for you.

Finally, be able to prove that you did in fact establish and use those systems. “If it is not in the file, it did not happen” is a still good rule of thumb, even in today’s digital information age and regardless of whether your “file” is electronic or paper. Although lawyers advise clients frequently on the need for compliance, they too often overlook their own compliance obligations. A few simple steps can make a huge difference should any ethical issues arise down the road.

* In the Matter of Sullivan II (Review Dept. 1997) 3 Cal. State Bar Ct.Rptr. 608, 1997 Calif. Op. LEXIS 184, 5-6 (the "failure to maintain an effective calendaring and follow-up system as a means of supervising employees and monitoring cases places the attorney at risk of violating the Rule regardless of whether the attorney has actual knowledge of the status of the case") (secretary's misconduct of hiding and throwing away files, incoming pleadings, notices and other documents did not excuse attorney's failure to seek court approval of client's settlement).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sad State of Affairs in Texas

NPR has two related stories this week on the housing industry in Texas. One implicates the Texas Supreme Court and the other the Texas Residential Construction Commission as potentially suffering from extensive undue influence from the housing industry and certain key principals.

These stories are part of a disturbing pattern that has emerged recently and reminds me of the scandals in years past. Remember the 60 Minutes segment in 1987, "Justice for Sale?" Craig McDonald has a good summary here. The backlash from that may have pushed the pendulum too far into the other direction. Instead of the plaintiff's bar and Democratic Party, it is now the business sector and Republican Party who are implicated.

It is not limited to the housing industry. Look at this story by KHOU Channel 11 in Houston and this one in the Huffington (Tx) Post. The Royce City (Tx) Herald Banner sounded an alarm last year about similar concerns in a state appeals court.

Where is this going to lead?

Let's Be Open About The Source of Legislation

There is considerable coverage of "earmarks" and the influence that special interests have on legislation. Though a lot of attention is given to the symptom, no one seems to have a solution that would garner enough votes.

Congress should try this for a while: tag every provision in every bill or amendment that was requested by or written by anyone outside the legislature with its source. Let the public know who came up with the great idea that found its way into the proposed legislation so that we can see what is really going on behind the scenes.

To ensure this is done honestly, give the President limited, line-item veto power to strike any provision that originated outside the legislature but was not tagged as such and add internal penalties in each chamber for those who violate the tagging rule.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Can Your Advocacy Use a Mashup?

Based on the comments and emails, these posts on creative ways to incorporate new technologies into local advocacy have been helpful. There is a lot more to discuss and more tools and applications seem to appear every day.

I covered the basics in “Develop a Twittering For Your Cause” and expanded on them in “Think Locally, Act Globally.” In another post, I covered how a small business or nonprofit might incorporate Twitter into an Emergency Communication Plan. This post adds to all of them and takes the suggestions up to the next level.

“What is a Mashup?”

A “mashup” in this context is a web application that combines data from more than one source. Imagine video from YouTube, text from Twitter and a map from GoogleEarth, for example, so that the Tweet refers to the video and the subject of the video is shown on the map.*

These separate web sites allow users to combine them. It is not as easy as sending an email, but it also is fairly straightforward. If you can animate a PowerPoint with action and music, chances are you can also connect the “APIs” from these systems in a simple mashup. (Or you can get the software tekkie in your office to do it for you.)

For an interesting combination of blog, Twitter news Tweets, Google Maps and Google Earth, check out Virender Ajmani’s mibazaar page. Specifically, look at the AIG Bonus Outrage page. Ajmani’s description:

There is a lot of talk currently on Twitter related to the outrageous bonuses given to AIG execs with the taxpayer money. I decided to look at twitter for tweets related to AIG. I took this information from Twitter along with User's location and mapped it out on Google Maps. There are two buttons at the top left corner of the map which are labeled "Eastern Untied States" and "Western United States". The map defaults to "Eastern". If you click on "Eastern United States" button then tweets are shown from within 1500 miles radius of "Cincinnati, Ohio". If you click on "Western United States" button then tweets are shown from within 1500 miles radius of "Los Angeles".

“How can I use a mashup in my advocacy?”

If you cannot wait to develop a Twittering (a group of followers on Twitter), you may be able to identify patterns in the Tweets (chatter) posted by the public. With a filter for key words and an overlay of the Tweets onto a map, you have an instant picture of the general commentary that may be related to your cause. You may not find many Tweets that mention a specific public housing project, but you are very likely to find them with “unemployed,” for example. Click here to search Twitter for Tweets about “public housing in galveston.”

If you do not see much chatter on your topic, start one! Use something like Tweetworks to start a discussion. Set up a group and post a public question. Get the discussion started and be ready to pitch your cause. (This is where the cause-specific resource page comes in that I discussed in an earlier post.)

In another post, I will comment on some very nice tools to help keep the chaos of Twitter, Facebook, etc., contained and managed.

* For some very interesting, working mashups, check out MashupAwards.com.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits - Part 5: Gather Feedback & Communicate

This is a good point to review the general outline:

1. Diagnosis/Assessment: “What is happening now?” “Exactly how do we do everything that we do?”
2. Analyze Workflow: “Is this the best way we can operate?” “Do we need to do any parts of our work better/cheaper/faster/with fewer people?”
3. Identify Options for Improvement: “Where can we work differently?”
4. Design new processes or steps: “What will work for our organization?”
5. Gather feedback: “Is this in line with the organization’s mission?” “Does it actually improve the way we work?”
6. Test the new workflow: “Does it work in the real world?”
7. Monitor the results: “Are we getting the results we sought?”
8. Diagnosis/Assessment: “If no improvement, why?” “If that worked, what else can we improve?”
9. Begin a renewed effort

Step 5: Gather Feedback About Your New Processes

Take your improved processes to the front line staff who will actually perform them. It may be a tough crowd, but you will get valuable feedback. They do not have to like the idea of change or the new ideas you want to implement.

Frame the questions carefully AND remind participants of the guiding principles. It may be your mission statement, your funding restrictions or just the project goals for improvement. If you have comparative data from competitors, that usually helps staff see where the organization stacks up in a larger context.

It is a mutual needs situation: you need their candid feedback to make sure you did not miss anything; they need to feel that their input was valued and considered, even if not adopted. This will help in the long run as you shift work to the new procedures.

The Communication Plan

This is a good point to remember the most important aspect of any project: the communication plan. Without a consistent, reliable way to communicate the plan, process and progress, your project will be far more difficult to complete. Make sure you cover these points in your communication plan:

Why? Why are we undertaking this BPI project now?
What? What will happen?
When? When will it start and finish?
Who? Who is involved in which phases?
How? How will everyone stay up-to-date on the project?

With a fun way to show progress, such as a thermometer-style graph that you fill in as you finish each step, you can refocus everyone from the fear of change to watching results happen. Make sure the communication is relatively frequent so that everyone remembers how important it is and has time to prepare for the changes that will affect them personally.

You may want to include anonymous feedback quotes occasionally that show a balanced view of the participants. This continues to build credibility and a sense that change is not being done TO the staff, but FOR the organization. Most people will be on board; you do not want anyone to sabotage the project due to a misperception.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Communicating After A Disaster

Photo: copyright 2008 Britney Jackson

Does your small business or nonprofit have a disaster communication plan? This is more than a way to find out if the office is closed due to inclement weather. This type of plan is activated when the office may be inaccessible (or worse) due to a major disaster. You may need to use it in the event your server room overheats this summer and shuts down email, phone and internet access for everyone.

By now, everyone has at least heard of Ready.gov, the set of websites published by Homeland Security. There are plenty of useful tips and tools there. One of the tips in the Ready.gov/business pages is a Crisis Communication Plan. As expected, it recommends essentially a phone tree plan:

Set up a telephone call tree, password-protected page on the company website, an email alert or a call-in voice recording to communicate with employees in an emergency.
But why make this so hard? In the excitement of a disaster-in-progress or the immediate aftermath, your office voicemail and self-hosted website may be inaccessible. You may not even have electricity or internet access to be able to update a web page. Most people, however, will have mobile phones (and amazingly find ways to re-charge them).

A simple solution that has been crisis-tested over the past few major disasters around the world is Twitter.* Yes, that strange web site where people seem to post weird or coded messages about everything from lattes to boring meetings. Even its creators had no idea that Twitter would one day become what it has. Here is a nice write up about how Twitterers covered the Mumbai terrorist attacks late last year.

Setting up a basic, Emergency Communication system on Twitter is very easy:

1. Begin with a “private”** Twitter account. You can set Twitter to only allow people you approve to read the postings. Keep the profile private, also.

2. Now, tell everyone in your emergency contact list the twitter account name and ask them to “follow” you there. You will need to approve each request in a private Twitter list.

3. Recommend that everyone set up their PDA Phones and mobile phones to work with Twitter. Software and services such as BrightKite and Orangatame's TwitterBerry are popular tools to help people “tweet” from mobile devices.

4. Once you have your emergency contacts approved as followers, send out a test message. Like the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the National Weather Service, it is a good idea to send out a test message every few months to remind everyone about the system.

Now you have an external emergency communication system. In another post, I will talk comment on how some have taken this to an entirely new level in past disasters and how you can, too. (If you want to manage multiple Twitter accounts in one screen, try a tool like TweetVisor (which is still in Beta release version, by the way).)

* This example uses Twitter and related tools. There are similar options using mobile phone software that works with Facebook and other social media sites. I have no financial interest in any particular system.

** The "private" part is important. Tweets on Twitter are public unless shielded. See "The Dark Side of Twitter" for some examples of how Tweets can cause headaches and train your staff to communicate carefully, even in the "private" posts.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Should You Manage a Non-profit Like a For-Profit Business?

An article in the April 2009 Entrepreneur Magazine highlights a charitable organization that takes pride in its for-profit traits. In my years as a consultant for and employee of non-profit organizations, I encountered plenty of groups with the opposite mentality.

Even though nonprofit revenue is not generated based on hours billed or widgets produced, one might think that years--even decades--of financial struggles would motivate nonprofit leaders to adopt more entrepreneurial attitudes about expenses and accountability. Yet there are still a number of non-profit managers who resent accountability in any form.

I remember the first time I asked a non-profit's CFO for a departmental expense report. I was shocked that no one tracked how much paper, copier toner, or other supplies were consumed by the various units or even remote offices. Instead, he practiced “fund accounting,” where the income and expenses are attributed to one or more sources of funding, often using some magical formula to allocate a portion of the TOTAL expenses to each. (This particular person was very proud of his formulas, too!) He did not have the time, he said, or see any reason to break expenses down any other way.

If you do not know what activities cost your organization (except by some gross division process), how can you know whether you can accomplish your work with less expense? If your organization does not have a benchmark for basic expenses down to the operational unit or even work group level, how can you determine where operational costs can be trimmed or whether a piece of equipment should be replaced with a more efficient model rather than simply repaired? Or which practices make better use of your resources?

Funders may soon awaken to the lack of interest among their grant recipients in fiscal accountability. Why should they continue to fund an organization that cannot explain—or prove during audit—what the costs of one unit are for postage or long-distance versus another? Some oversight boards are charged with ensuring that charitable organizations do not mismanage their funds. How long before “waste” falls into the category of “mismanagement?”

Benchmarking is nothing new in nonprofits. They have done it for decades in terms of plotting needs and delivery of services. It is rather new in terms of expenses in the nonprofit world. Why not start now? Figure out where your overhead is really going.

Here are some costs that for-profit operations typically track, either by department or project, to ensure they are operating efficiently:

 Postage
 Copy paper
 Long distance phone charges
 Printing services
 Travel expenses
 Copier consumption (either lease expense or depreciation)
 Office supplies
 Beverages
 Library & Research Expenses

Perfection is not necessary. Use existing workgroup divisions and geographical clustering where possible at this stage. Track the expenses for copy paper, for example, by the copier where it is used, rather than trying to break the total down too far. You can do this by storing the paper separately at each copier and counting the boxes of paper delivered to each copier over a 2-3 month period. That will give you a good baseline for usage.

Once the data is in, take a look at it. Anything catch your attention? Does one copier cost more serving 5 people than another serving 10? Are you really saving paper using double-sided printing, or do people “forget” to select that option most of the time? You may even find those who still print a majority of their emails!

Here are some areas where you may find surprising data:

 Costs of in-house color printing vs. outsourced (be sure to include staff time, copier wear and tear and downtime due to repairs)
 Costs of leasing a large networked copier vs. buying (with and without a maintenance contract)
 Costs of office supplies when ordered by one central office or staff person vs. distributed ordering in each department
 Costs of self-booking travel expenses vs. using a reliable travel service that works for the best rates for the organization
 Costs of computer software that you “rent” online as you use it vs. purchasing (be sure to factor in training, maintenance and upgrades)

In the end, your organization will be better off for this exercise. At the very least, you will actually know the answers to some of these cost questions. Most likely, you will spot opportunities for doing better. Every dollar shaved off costs is another dollar your fund raisers do not have to find in this tight economy to deliver important services to your community.

Monday, March 23, 2009

National Service Corps Bill Clears Senate Hurdle

This is from the New York Times blog, the Caucus.

As many as 250,000 people may be one day working in partially-subsidized service to America. Hopefully, some of them will be trained on how to manage ad hoc crowds of volunteers who show up in response to a disaster.

(See earlier posts on C-DROMO.)

Think Locally; Act Globally

Years ago, while conducting program audits for a federal agency, I was amazed to see how disjunctive the various regional offices were. There was very little information shared between these offices. The outside contractors knew this and were able to hide their fraudulent activities for years longer than they should have if the regional offices compared notes.

That was before online social advocacy.

In a previous post, Develop a Twittering For Your Cause, I commented on ways to use new online media tools to draw attention to a cause. Now, I want to dig a little deeper.

Let’s say your organization is addressing deplorable conditions in housing in your area. You could work with the local media and perhaps get the attention of the local housing code enforcement agency. The landlord, a limited partnership whose general partner is a corporation based in another city, would eventually make some improvements to avoid fines until the attention faded.

Or you could really make a difference.

Start by alerting your followers that there is a problem. Post some pictures and quotes from tenants. Encourage others to look for similar situations in their area involving the same principals or related entities.

Next, get a press release out that combines some of the content and links the posts together. Follow that with a call to the local government office responsible for enforcing habitability laws. Ideally, this will happen in multiple locations at one time. If you have not already received a call from local press, call them. Keep the content refreshed with pictures, comments from tenants and government officials and updates on the progress that the landlord makes in addressing the situation.

Now what was a local, isolated issue can become a coordinated, regional or national effort to force the principals of these limited partnerships to clean up their properties across the board or sell them to someone who will. With a larger audience filled with housing advocates, you can draw more attention in more places. That may in turn alert other advocates in other cities who have problems with the same landlord. And retaliatory actions against the tenants should be far less likely with so much scrutiny already in place.

Re-read my post on “Developing a Twittering” and imagine how your organization can turn the heat up on your adversaries in order to effect change in your neighborhood.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits – Part 4: “What is stopping us?”

Step 4: Design new processes or steps: “What will work for our organization?”

Habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is “Begin with the end in mind.” Do not spend too much time wrestling with what “the end” is for your department. There can be many “ends” within a workflow such as reportable statistics or closed matters. All you need to do is begin the process re-engineering with those ends always under consideration.

Now, work backwards with this question: “What is stopping us from ____?” For example, “What is stopping us from having a reportable ____ statistic?” “What is stopping us from marking this matter ‘closed?’” You get the idea.

The answers point you to the next step back in the process. For the reportable stat example, that may be a finalization step or documentation step. Before that, you may have a communication step. And so on.

Most people find diagrams, flow charts and white boards very useful here. Some use software such as Visio or process mapping tools. Anything that allows you to erase and edit easily will work. Focus on the “what” here, before you decide on the “how” aspects. Ignore as best you can the way your department currently gets from start to finish. Try to draw this map fresh, with a sense of simplicity and directness.

The benefit of working backwards is that you can put aside some of the religious battles that may be attached to the way some tasks are currently done in your organization. It is a little like changing your approach to writing a report. If you start with the conclusion, then write the section leading up to the conclusion, followed by the section that will precede that one, you eventually get to the beginning. This way, you avoid writer’s block and a lot of wasted time editing out irrelevant passages that you wrote while struggling with what to write. You may not end up with a Harry Potter-style tome, but you can certainly get a technical report completed more efficiently.

With a good perspective of “what” needs to be done, now study the diagram for “how” you should get there. This is an inventory of the details in each “what” step. If a communication should be made, for example, should that be done by memo, email, letter, wiki or blog post? Who should communicate to whom, how and with what level of security, urgency, certainty of delivery and accountability? Does the communication itself complete that task or trigger another one?

At the end of this process, make sure you capture the diagram and all of its detail. You will need it in the next stage.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Managing Risk Through Compliance

So is your business or organization “too small” to worry about compliance? Perhaps the better question is: “How can we ensure (or regain) compliance with a reasonable effort and expense?”

Compliance does not have to be expensive or onerous. Many times, it is a matter of taking care of compliance as you go about your daily work. Let it pile up until the deadline is near and it will seem impossible, cost more and distract you from your primary mission. Like the journey of a thousand miles, take it one small step at a time throughout the year and you will make remarkable progress.

Compliance can be a smooth part of your normal routines if you incorporate it carefully and then communicate to all staff not only the value in terms of risk-management but also the benefits of ensuring accurate, incremental accomplishments throughout the year. Make it easy to do daily, without too much fanfare or extra attention to it.

Start with your compliance reports. Can you collect the data along the way? If so, where and how? You do it with payroll taxes, for example. Why not with your other types of compliance?

Look at the forms and database fields that your staff uses throughout the year. Can you add a few fields to capture the data you want to aggregate at year-end? If you have applied for a job at a large corporation or government agency in the past couple of years, you have seen this concept at work. Most now ask every online applicant demographic questions that the HR department needs to keep for its EEOC reports on applicant profiles. They collect the data throughout the year, aggregate it anonymously and keep it available for any reports (or litigation) later. If the business waits until it needs the data, it may have a very difficult time even gathering accurate data to defend its hiring practices. With a little effort along the way, compliance documentation is painless.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Traps For The Unwary: CSR Laws Can Turn Savings into Expenses

In tough economic times, many businesses turn to “commission only” sales staff in order to keep sales activity without permanent salaries. When it works, this can work well for both the CSR (Commissioned Sales Representative) and the company. When the relationship gets off track, however, small business owners can be surprised with litigation and extra expenses that exceed the savings they expected.

Over half of states have special statutes that apply to disputes between CSRs and the companies who hire them. Some require a written agreement; others do not. Most provide for multiplication of damages plus an award of attorneys fees and costs of suit to the CSR who prevails.

Prevention is Prudent

Both the CSR and the company should heed the same advice in most cases to reduce the likelihood of litigation later.

1. Know the law.
2. Have a written contract that includes:
a. Definite payment deadlines
b. Clear conditions for payment
c. Specific term and scope
3. Live by the contract

Begin by understanding the law that applies. Most will apply based on the residence of the CSR, not the company. Companies with CSRs in multiple states must know the law in each.

Then make sure the written representation agreement is thorough and signed by both parties. In some cases, statutes will fill in terms that neither party intended unless you expressly address those topics in the written agreement. At the very least, make sure the terms and conditions for performance pass the “grandmother test:” they are so clear your grandmother could understand them.

From that point, it is important that both parties follow the terms of the contract. Acting inconsistently with the agreement, even with the best of intentions, can establish a course of dealing argument that the actions of the CSR and the company replaced the written agreement. It is better to revise the agreement to fit the changing needs of your relationship.

Disputes Happen

If disagreements arise, the contract is the place to start looking for answers. If the situation is not addressed in the contract, then other writings may fill in the picture. Emails, policy manuals or general procedures can be used by a judge to determine what the “rules” are and how to resolve the dispute. Many disagreements can be resolved with an amendment to the contract that both resolves the present issue and prevents disagreement in the future.

The party seeking to enforce an agreement must first prove the agreement then his entitlement to a remedy. If he has not done his part, then the other party may not be obligated to perform. Likewise, any confusing terms in the contract will be generally interpreted against the interests of the party who drafted it, because courts assume the drafter was looking out for her own best interests. This is where the “grandmother test” comes in.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

C-DROMO: Where it fits - When it is needed

Here is a statement on the Volunteer.gov website from late 2008 that helps illustrate the point I am making:

"It is also important for potential volunteers to not self-deploy to the coast of Texas, but instead to wait until there is a clear understanding of what volunteer resources will be needed and where. We are currently urging those who want to help people affected by Hurricane Ike to make cash donations to nonprofit organizations that are active in disaster work."

By the time various organizations inventory what they need, post those on their web sites so they are indexed by the Network for Good system, many local volunteers (who may not even have web access) could have already been working. And some people prefer to give with their hands, rather than money from tight budgets.

We should have trained resources already in place who can work with "self-deploying" volunteers--many of whom may not think to look on some obscure website before heading out to lend a hand--so the volunteers can be organized and assigned rapidly.
Network for Good and Volunteer.gov also have a piece of this solution in place. The C-DROMO program could easily fit under the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Let’s get these pieces in place before the next hurricane strikes the U.S. There is no need to expand government staff for this program, as we can use the structures in place to provide the semi-permanent support for the public volunteers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits – Part 3: “Aha! Moments”

Step 3: Identify Options for Improvement: “Where can we work differently?”

When consulting once with a government employee, I asked if he thought there were any tasks that did not make sense to him in his work. He told me a story. “See, we had this form...” he began.

The form was a compliance checklist designed to walk the staff through marking off each compliance point. OK, I thought. Seems logical. The employees mark off each item, initial and date the form to confirm the check has been performed. I looked back at him somewhat puzzled. “The very last check box was the one that made me question my supervisor. 'Why are we even doing this?'”

The final check-off point on the form read:
“[] This form has been completed then shredded. Date:______ By:______”

Hopefully, none of your processes, checklists or tasks are so inane, but do not assume that is the case. I am sure that compliance checklist item made sense to someone at some point, but no one could identify its source.

Look for ways to eliminate unnecessary tasks. Can more work be done by a person while they are already working on another step? Just because it has always been done a certain way by people in certain job descriptions does not mean it still makes the most sense. A lot of lawyers and business executives now type their own documents, for example, without feeling they have been demoted. They prefer the efficiency of getting the letter completed and mailed in one process rather than several back-and-forth sessions with their support staff (who are now freed up to do other tasks).

When you work through this analysis, pay particular attention to those moments when you feel like saying “aha! So THAT’S why we do it that way!” If the reason is not clear to you, it probably is not clear to others. Once you identify why a task is performed a certain way, you can then evaluate whether the reason still exists and, if so, whether the solution still makes sense.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

While we are tinkering with labor laws...

There is a lot of talk currently about the “Employee Free Choice Act” introduced in this Congress*. Some opponents see it as little more than a boost to unions trying to organize workers at companies like Walmart and Southwest Airlines. Some supporters think union organizers need help to reach employees at non-union companies.

If there are going to be changes, then let’s make the changes for both sides fair and with one central theme: helping American businesses of all sizes compete better in the world marketplace. If Congress is truly interested in fairness, there should be some accommodation in any new legislation for after a bargaining unit is in place.

Many industries have embraced work teams as a way to improve quality, raise productivity and support employee morale. But some businesses have faced opposition from union leadership and even threats to pursue claims at the National Labor Relations Board when they seek to include front-line employees in their efforts to improve business processes.

It is time to plainly overrule the Electromation and DuPont rulings that joint employer-employee committees are illegal when a union has been recognized. Times have changed since the Wagner Act. Employees are more sophisticated and the workplace is more challenging. We are no longer simply facing unsafe machinery or inhumane hours. Now there is competition from places with no limitations on how management and labor can cooperate as well as places where there are no employee protections. Both sides want to win that competition, so let’s put a new structure in place:

a. Expressly exempt employee teams and committees organized and tasked with improving operational efficiency from the scope of the Wagner Act even if they sometimes address working conditions. If “working conditions” can be used to block these teams, then they are almost pointless because evaluating the way work is assigned, monitored, graded and performed will to some extent bring into question an aspect of the environment in which the work is carried out.

b. Expressly encourage employer-employee cooperation and collaboration in areas of quality assurance, operational efficiency, process optimization and workplace innovation (and exempt such efforts from the Wagner Act) in the interests of helping bolster American competitiveness in all work places. We have to move past the historical animosities that were present and codified in the labor movements and resulting legislation dating back to the 1930s. Manufacturing industry unions would do well to understand information industry workers and how nimble, innovative and collaborative teams of workers from multiple disciplines and perspectives can drive success in the marketplace.

c. Expressly permit communications from management to the bargaining unit members in general that explain its rationale for positions and actions when there is a good faith reason to believe the local union leadership is not accurately conveying such information to the members. There are too many situations where an employer is forced to negotiate with those who pretend to represent their bargaining units, but only serve their own personal interests in reality. When an employer has a good faith reason to believe the local leadership is not acting in good faith as a representative of its membership, the employer should be able to require evidence of support of the leadership’s position on the matter.

d. Clearly codify which types of votes must be by secret ballot and continue protection for those most important votes: whether to organize and whether to disband. Secrecy and anonymity are quintessential to the American notion of balloting. If unions want to vote with a show of hands on business in a meeting, that is one thing, but voting on whether or not to organize or disband a union should always be by secret written ballot that is subject audit by the NLRB if there are questions of integrity of the vote.

e. If we are making unionization easier, we need to also make de-certification of the local union easier. There are too many situations where an employer is forced to negotiate with those who pretend to represent their bargaining units, but only serve their own personal interests in reality. When an employer has a good faith reason to believe the local leadership is not acting in good faith as a representative of its membership, the employer should be able to require evidence of support of the leadership’s position on the matter. We must discard the old practice of allowing tyranny by a minority of employees. Let’s supersede state laws permitting mandatory union membership. If employees want to unionize, they can; but if they do not want to become union members, it is un-American to force them to do so.

Who says we have to keep a system where one side’s gains are necessarily the other side’s losses. Without the employers, there is little need to have unions, so driving them out of business is hardly a worthwhile effort. Without the productive, skilled employees, there is little management can do to improvise, respond to international competition and succeed in the long term. Not all labor advocates are “power-hungry disgruntled slackers.”

A lot has changed since the 1930s and 1940s. Our labor laws need to be updated as much as the attitudes of union and business leaders do. I challenge both sides to abandon the Marxist us-versus-them attitudes and seek innovative, progressive changes that are both pro-employee and pro-business. This is an important opportunity to plan far into the future, rather than try to improve the past.

For a great summary of the history of this struggle, see the article by Steven Thomas and Judy Best in the Summer-Fall 2001 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine “Work Teams and Unions: Keeping Employee Involvement Legal.”

* The AFL-CIO is clearly in favor of this act; while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and most state Chambers of Commerce are definitely against it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Develop a Twittering For Your Causes - UPDATED

Take Online Social Media to New Heights in Promoting Your Cause

This article in Entrepreneur Magazine – March 2009 by Guy Kawasaki discusses ways to develop a following on Twitter. Kawasaki’s story about needing something that was provided after a “tweet” is a great example.

Online social media is one way to generate buzz, certainly, but what if you need more? You have a cause (or a product). You have a strategy. You want attention. Your goal is action. You have to let people know what you need.

Consider these options the next time you are building an advocacy strategy:

1. Facebook. Create a Facebook page that functions as you public relations media center. Set up the page with your motive for action, add information about the key players in your cause and post updates on your activities. Look at the Anderson Cooper 360 page for an idea of where you can go with video, events, photos and more. Invite people to contribute ideas and accolades on your “wall,” and—most importantly—tell your followers how they can help. Keep in mind that your adversaries may be watching closely, but you might use that to your advantage, too. A relatively new feature on Facebook is Causes. Causes lets you start and join causes you care about. (It also has a donation-sharing system.) Set up your page, then link it to the Causes Home. Your "friends" can then feature your cause on their own Facebook pages.

2. Newsible. Forget the old, expensive and unpredictable “fax blast” press releases. Has anyone ever found them effective in advocacy campaigns? Newsible is just coming onto the scene but has the benefits of pulling together into one place your YouTube video, text, still pics and images. It is like a dynamic, multimedia press release but with easy linkage to nearly every social media system known. Check out this PR about AutismSpot.com. The PR page welcomes comments, too, so you can find supporters and get feedback easily. Most importantly, Newsible is hooked deeply into GoogleNews, providing a boost to your visibility instantly. (And I hear they have a fantastic rate for nonprofits!)

3. Twitter. Forget what you ate for breakfast and where you went sightseeing. Rally support with up-to-date musings, strategies and actions. Show people where you are and tell them where you are going—in a figurative sense as well as literal. Use your mobile phone’s SMS (text) feature to “tweet” from anywhere you get a signal. This can be very handy when the action picks up and you have a lot of followers to keep informed. The CNN Political Ticker page is one example of updates (notice the "tinyurl" trick!). Twitter is not a replacement for Facebook and Newsible, but it can serve a valuable role in keeping your followers interested with small updates along the path to victory for your cause.

4. Blog. Pick a blogging tool and just get started. Set a schedule for your posts and ideally post contributions from several people in your group. If you can only get a post published once per month, don’t waste the effort. If you can get one published at least once per week—ideally no farther apart than 2-3 days—then this is where you can give more information than your “tweets.”

Now put it all together. Find a good base camp site like Facebook that fits your cause and has the features you will need in the long run. Spend the time to set it up well, then maintain it even when you are “too busy.” Once you are off the ground, use one or more of the press release and quick-update tools like Newsible and Twitter to develop your following and guide them to your site. Tweet when you post a blog entry or a new photo of your activities. Reference your blog and Twitter links on your Facebook page. Put it all in your press releases in addition to new material that has not even been on your blog. No matter which one of these someone bumps into, they should easily be able to find the others.

UPDATE: Thanks to a friend of mine for this suggestion: a new web site, HelloTXT, allows a user to send and receive status updates simultaneously to Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and about 40 other social media systems. Now that's convenience!

So raise the profile of your activities. Ask people to follow your cause and pitch in. Let them know what you need when you lead. (And come back to let me know when you succeed!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits - Part 2: Ask the Right Questions

Step 2: Analyze the Workflow and Ask a Lot of Questions

Once you chart out the way work flows in your department or organization, study the outline. Does it make sense to you? If it does—especially if you helped design the flow—have someone outside the department review it.

If it does not, carefully go through the outline or flow chart, asking questions such as: “Is this the best way we can operate?” “Do we need to do our work better/cheaper/faster/with fewer people?” "Why does this take so many steps/hand-offs/documents?"

Your goal should be to get the work done with the fewest number of hand-offs, fewest number of errors and omissions, and simplest procedures possible to still accomplish your end goals. Have you done that?

You cannot answer that question unless you truly understand your end goals. If the goal is simple and limited to your department, then your processes may make more sense to your staff. If there are hidden goals that show up elsewhere, such as a data set of historical information created by the daily work of your staff, then make sure everyone conducting this review understands those goals as well. (And do not assume that the outputs from your department are necessarily required to be what they presently are for the other department—they may be happy to see some improvements or changes, in fact.)

Also pay attention to work that is not required by your central mission. Are there tasks that were added to accommodate the short-comings of a single staff person (who may not even work there anymore)? Or to make life easier for a manager without consideration of the cumulative drag on your total work?

For information workers, ask questions like these:
>>>How many times does a single piece of paper change hands?
>>>How many times does someone need information from a paper over the life of that paper?
>>>How often does someone repeat a step that another has done in a prior step in the flow?
>>>Do we have tasks grouped logically so that they are done with the fewest total steps?
>>>Are there better ways to communicate information obtained within the work flow than we are doing?
>>>Is there sufficient accountability and security to ensure information is accurate and not lost?
>>>Are there too many procedures designed to ensure accountability and security?
>>>Does the work flow smoothly?

Interview the front-line staff. Ask the people who do the work all day every day what they think about the processes. They are most often the best sources of ideas on how to work smarter. Your objective is “efficient effectiveness,” meaning you want the staff to be as effective as possible with the most efficiency practicable.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

C-DROMO: Helping Volunteers Help Others

I have been blogging about the need for a program that anticipates and plans for a surge of "irregulars" after a large disaster. Tentatively dubbed C-DROMO--Citizens Disaster Response Operations Management Organization--the federal agency would be primarily volunteer lead and driven, with little taxpayer support.

There is, in fact, a program in Texas that has SOME of the answer in place. The Texas Citizen Corps (http://www.texascitizencorps.org/) facilitates volunteers who want to be trained to help emergency first responders.This is PART of the solution, but misses the larger aspect: those who want to volunteer, not as assistants to police and medical teams, directing traffic in parking lots and dumping trash, but using the skills they have as tree trimmers, carpenters, cooks, electricians, welders, truck drivers, plumbers, painters, equipment operators, accountants, inventory clerks, switchboard operators, child care workers, and so forth.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Too Small to Worry About Compliance?

In the Due Diligence phase of an acquisition not so long ago, the owner of the target company casually remarked, “We can’t afford to worry about compliance because we are too small.” He was probably surprised when the acquisition did not go through.

Is there a “too small” for organizations when it comes to regulatory compliance?

Every business and nonprofit has compliance challenges. They range from payroll tax remittance to local government permits to strings attached to their revenue. Some carry harsher penalties than others, but there are consequences if your organization is caught while not in compliance.

One aspect of managing risk is to determine the costs of failure and balance it with the long-term costs of prevention. If the cost of failure is very small and the cost of prevention is significant, many will choose to “self-ensure” and gamble that they will not have a failure. But be certain you accurately quantify the costs of failure. There may be hidden costs such as damage to reputation, injury to a contractual relationship or an increase in attention from other regulators.

For example, refusing to compensate employees for accrued vacation hours when they voluntarily leave your employment seems like a cost-savings tactic that motivates employees to stay with your organization. Yet if the state the employee resides in requires that you pay the accrued vacation hours upon separation, you face a combination of penalties, legal fees and time away from your core business operations on top of the amount you will eventually pay for the vacation time (plus interest in many states). If you are gambling with compliance, takes only one disgruntled employee to ruin your whole day.

Are there provisions in any of your contracts where you assured the other party that you are compliant with all labor laws? If so, in the scenario above, you may put that contract and future contracts in jeopardy. If the contracts are with a government agency, you may face even worse penalties for false statements in the contract. The cost savings now look far less valuable.
So are you “too small” to worry about compliance? Perhaps the better question is: “How can I become (or remain) compliant with a reasonable effort and expense?” I will explore that in later posts.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Credit Card Interest--Where's our "stimulus" plan?

Why aren’t we seeing some “stimulus” rates in our accounts? OK, we all know it is best to not carry ANY balance, but for some people, it is simply not realistic to see their debts all paid up by the end of this month. So they are charged interest for the loan and a portion of each payment goes to interest first, then toward the remaining balance.

With the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate now down to 3.25% and the LIBOR shown on BankRate.com at or about 0.51%--which are typically used by credit card lenders to set their interest rates--shouldn’t we see some relief in consumer credit card rates? After all, if consumers pay less in interest, some argue, they would be more inclined to carry a balance and even do some heavier charging, helping the overall economy, right?

But the opposite appears to be happening. Banks are raising rates and converting fixed rate cards to variable, higher rates. Ellen Cannon's post on the Plastic Rap blog has more about this unfortunate trend.

And what happened to all the zero percent offers? Is your mailbox getting lonely?

Funny that lenders were ever so eager to lure cash-poor borrowers to charge to the max when interest rates were higher. Give ‘em a rate of zero for six months, then sock it to them after the balance built up by raising the rate to 9%, 12%, even 18%. Where is the love now?

Remember the old excuse for high interest rates or rate increases if you were late on a payment? “It’s because of the heavy write-offs we have for those who fail to pay their bills.” Hmmm. And WHO selected such risky customers in the first place? WHO gave them teaser rates to port their large balances over from prior lenders? WHO continued to send unsolicited cards by the millions to people who already had heavy balances?

With all the hand-wringing over the economic rescue packages and clamoring about taxpayer money going to those less responsible than we, have we forgotten how innocent borrowers have been forced to subsidize the debts of those credit card lenders for decades? It isn’t the irresponsible borrowers we have subsidized that makes us angry: it is the lenders who insisted on making responsible borrowers pay for THEIR mistakes by factoring the write-offs into OUR interest rates. They want a system where there is no risk and all profit in their credit card units. So more people will file for bankruptcy to get out of their debts when things go badly for them rather than work out repayment plans directly.

If you want to see where your cards stack up against others, use the Bankrate comparison tool. But beware: it is good to pay your balances off, it is NOT good to then close those accounts to remove the tempation to use them again. Read more about that from the Credit Card Advisor.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More Details on C-DROMO concept

Here are more thoughts on the C-DROMO concept.

Imagine Galveston, Texas, being swamped with offers for help, food, equipment, etc. Would the Red Cross be able to handle it? The local police department? FEMA?

No. We need people who are prepared.

The inititial concept includes preparing people all over the U.S. with:
>Training for selected coordinators in each of five regions Regional Commanders (1 per region) – responsible for:
>>Recruiting Regional Coordinators
>>Overseeing the fulfillment of program objectives in their region
>>Management of resources allocated to their region
>>Strategic planning for the anticipated disasters in the region
>>Liaising with senior government and military leaders in the region to
>>>facilitate coordinated efforts in the event of a major disaster
>Regional Coordinators (1-3 per region) – responsible for:
>>Recruiting and training Local Resource Managers
>>Detailed planning and execution of mock disaster drills in the region
>>Inventory and assess resources, equipment and needs
>>Prepare communication, logistical and materiel management strategies for
>>>rapid, effective deployment if needed
>Local Resource Managers (1 per state in the region) – responsible for:
>>Creating and maintaining essential contact information for all local first
>>>responder organizations
>>Periodic reaffirmation with local government, first responder, and military
>>>officials of the plans of action in the event of a major disaster
>>Execution of local mock disaster drills to rehearse for smooth response to
>>>real events
>>Collection of essential supplies, equipment, tools and informational
>>>materials for volunteers and store appropriately until needed
>>Preparation of skills inventory lists in conjunction with first responder
>>>agencies for each general type of potential disaster in the area to provide a
>>>quick list that can be communicated to local media as a call for volunteers
>>>with special skills that would help the response effort succeed faster
>>Minimal paid staff for program administration
>>Equipment for logistics, communication and materiel management
>>Technical equipment
>>Emergency Power
>>Emergency fuel
>>Funding for rapid transportation of coordinators to the area of need and
>>>short-term food, equipment and shelter until additional supplies arrive

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Problems at Facebook - Next!

This was posted on Newsday.com yesterday:

Computer security specialists warn that Facebook users havebeen hit with a series of data-stealing attacks in the past week as cyber crooks increasingly stalk social-networking Web sites.

Full article is here.

Process Improvement for Nonprofits – Part 1: “Know Thyself”

The benefits of business process improvement are not restricted to the for-profit world. Shaving small steps off common processes can recover more time to deliver services to more people and the effect of cutting paper, printing, storage or other expenses is something every nonprofit understands. Can you really afford to NOT pursue efficiency?

To begin with, what are BPM and BPI and why should managers of nonprofits and government agencies care? Here are some terms and links to definitions.

Business Process
BPM=Business Process Management
BPI=Business Process Improvement
BPR=Business Process Re-engineering

Next, what does a typical BPI project look like? Here is a general outline that my posts will follow.

1. Diagnosis/Assessment: “What is happening now?” “Exactly how do we do everything that we do?”
2. Analyze Workflow: “Is this the best way we can operate?” “Do we need to do any parts of our work better/cheaper/faster/with fewer people?”
3. Identify Options for Improvement: “Where can we work differently?”
4. Design new processes or steps: “What will work for our organization?”
5. Gather feedback: “Is this in line with the organization’s mission?” “Does it actually improve the way we work?”
6. Test the new workflow: “Does it work in the real world?”
7. Monitor the results: “Are we getting the results we sought?”
8. Diagnosis/Assessment: “If no improvement, why?” “If that worked, what else can we improve?”
9. Begin a renewed effort

Step one is to document the present processes. It is as simple as outlining in an “if-then-else” format like this:

1. Caseworker checks the “Waiting for Callback” message tray, and
>>>>A. If Caseworker sees items in the “Waiting for Callback” tray, then
>>>>>> a. If so, Caseworker determines whether any of the calls are of the type Caseworker can handle, then
>>>>>>>>i. If so, Caseworker calls the person who left the message;
>>>>>>>>ii. Else, Caseworker leaves the message for another person;
>>>>>> b. Else,
>>>> B. If none, then Caseworker moves to the next task or process ....

Each “if” requires at least an “else” to complete the step. Add “then” and “loop back” items where appropriate.

The process outline should contain the “actors,” “objects,” “choices,” “options,” and each probable outcome, broken down into specific steps. This is not a training manual that teaches the reader how to do the task, what to put into each tray or data field, etc. Those details are not included unless they impact the flow of work somewhere down the line.

It is essential to the rest of this analysis that the author of the outline involve others who can validate every step in the workflow. Whatever it takes, get an accurate validation by others who actually do the work. Make sure it is safe for these participants to be completely honest. Never assume work flows according to policy or congruent with training. Work is like water: it typically seeks in real life the path of least resistance. Without an accurate picture of how the work is truly done, other steps will become less and less accurate throughout the remainder of this process.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Consumer Mortgage Cram-down Update

From Bloomberg today:
Cram-Down Mortgage Bill Compromise Likely, Hoyer Says (read article here)

The compromise version of the bill so far contains these key provisions, according to the report:

1. Borrowers must make a good faith effort to seek a loan modification from the lender before they are eligible for the cram-down
2. Borrowers must certify that they have provided their income, expenses and debts to the lender
3. The collateral for the loan must be worth less than the amount owed
4. The unmodified loan must be unaffordable to the borrower

The key provision is that the bankruptcy judge will have the discretion to break through whatever is holding up an agreed solution and to make a reasonable modification that factors the interests of both parties. The existence of a strong-arm power like this will drive the parties to negotiate and also eliminate the situation where a mortgage servicer lacks the actual authority to modify the terms sufficiently to accomplish a result where the borrower avoids foreclosure.

This bill appears to deserve support across the board.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A "Do Not Call List" for Cell Phones?

As an update to the SPAM post earlier, here is something to clear the confusion about unwanted cell phone solicitations:

First, there is no such thing as a "Do Not Call" list for mobile numbers. Even if you register your mobile number on the www.DoNotCall.gov site, it does not have any effect. There is no plan under consideration to create one, either.

Secondly, the reason no such list is needed is because it is already illegal for telemarketers to call your mobile number. (Text messages from your carrier and its partners are OK, however.)

Here is a good blog site for consumer information such as the above: it is a blog by none other than Consumer Reports. Their post on this topic is here.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

C-DROMO as part of NRF

I was reviewing the FEMA National Response Framework information. Seems to me like the C-DROMO program discussed below would fit nicely there.

From the FEMA site: "The National Response Framework presents the guiding principles that enable all response partners to prepare for and provide a unified national response to disasters and emergencies – from the smallest incident to the largest catastrophe. The Framework establishes a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident response."

[Of course, there's the whole debate about whether FEMA should be taken out of Homeland Security, as noted in a post on the Washington Post site last year....one argument against, from Government Executive.]