Technology

Don’t let scope creep ruin your next IT project

Today’s business technology is both powerful and restive. No matter how “feature rich” a software solution or hardware asset may be, there’s always another upgrade around the corner. In other words, it’s just a matter of time before your company’s next IT project.

When that day arrives, watch out for “scope creep.” This term refers to the tendency of a project’s objective (or “scope”) to gradually expand while the job is underway. As a result, the schedule may drag and dollars may go to waste.

Common culprits

A variety of things can cause scope creep. In many cases, too few users give input during the planning stage. Or misunderstandings may occur between the project team and users, obscuring the purpose of the job.

Excessive implementation time undoes many projects as well. As weeks and months go by, business processes, policies and priorities tend to change. For a new system to meet the needs of the business, the project’s scope needs to be executable within a reasonable time frame.

Ineffective project management is another common culprit. Scope creep often arises when a project manager underestimates the complexity of the tasks at hand or fails to adequately motivate his or her team.

5 steps to success

To stop or at least minimize scope creep, follow these five steps:

1. Distinguish “must-haves” from “nice-to-haves.” Draw a red line between the functionalities your business absolutely must have and any added features that would be nice to have. Schedule the prioritized requirements in the form of phased deliverables during the project’s life cycle. Add “nice-to-haves” to the final phase or, better yet, defer them to future projects.

2. Put agreed-on deliverables in writing. Use a Statement of Work document to clearly outline the stated project requirements. Be sure to cover both those that are included and those that aren’t. Have everyone involved sign off on this document.

3. Divide and conquer. Segregate the project into small, manageable phases. As it proceeds, continue to review and sign off on each phase as it’s delivered, following an adequate testing period.

4. Introduce a formal change management process. If someone demands a change, ask him or her to rationalize the request in writing on a change order form. Then analyze the potential impact, estimate the added cost and time, and obtain consensus before proceeding. Adhering to this step typically eliminates many low-priority demands.

5. Anticipate some scope creep. It’s a rare project, if any, that proceeds exactly as planned. Allow for some scope creep in your budget and timeline.

Head-on approach

Improving your company’s technology should be cause for excitement and, eventually, celebration. Unfortunately, it too often brings anxiety and conflict. Tackling scope creep head on can help ensure that your IT projects go more smoothly. Our firm can help you assess the financial impact of any technology solution you’re considering and, if you decide to proceed, set a budget for the job.

© 2019


Getting ahead of the curve on emerging technologies

Turn on your computer or mobile device, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or skim a business-oriented website, and you’ll likely come across the term “emerging technologies.” It has become so ubiquitous that you might be tempted to ignore it and move on to something else. That would be a mistake.

In today’s competitive business landscape, your ability to stay up to date — or, better yet, get ahead of the curve — on the emerging technologies in your industry could make or break your company.

Watch the competition

There’s a good chance that some of your competitors already are trying to adapt emerging technologies such as these:

Machine learning. A form of artificial intelligence, machine learning refers to the ability of machines to learn and improve at a specific task with little or no programming or human intervention. For instance, you could use machine learning to search through large amounts of consumer data and make predictions about future purchase patterns. Think of Amazon’s suggested products or Netflix’s recommended viewing.

Natural language processing (NLP). This technology employs algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in emails, texts, documents, conversation or otherwise. It could be used to find specific information in a document based on the other words around that information.

Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is the networking of objects (for example, vehicles, building systems and household appliances) embedded with electronics, software, sensors and Internet connectivity. It allows the collection, sending and receiving of data about users and their interactions with their environments.

Robotic process automation (RPA). You can use RPA to automate repetitive manual tasks that eat up a lot of staff time but don’t require decision making. Relying on business rules and structured inputs, RPA can perform such tasks with greater speed and accuracy than any human possibly could.

Not so difficult

If you fall behind on these or other emerging technologies that your competitors may already be incorporating, you run the risk of never catching up. But how can you stay informed and know when to begin seriously pursuing an emerging technology? It’s not as difficult as you might think:

  • Schedule time to study emerging technologies, just as you would schedule time for doing market research or attending an industry convention. 

  • Join relevant online communities. Follow and try to connect with the thought leaders in your industry, whether authors and writers, successful CEOs, bloggers or otherwise. 

  • Check industry-focused publications and websites regularly. 

Taking the time for these steps will reduce the odds that you’ll be caught by surprise and unable to catch up or break ahead.

When you’re ready to undertake the process of integrating an emerging technology into your business operation, forecasting both the implementation and maintenance costs will be critical. We can help you create a reasonable budget and manage the financial impact.

© 2018


A strong BYOD policy combines convenience with security

It’s easy to understand why more and more businesses are taking a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach to the smartphones, tablets and laptops many employees rely on to do their jobs. BYOD can boost employee efficiency and satisfaction, often while reducing a company’s IT costs. But the approach isn’t without risk for both you and your staff. So, it’s highly advisable to create a strong formal policy that combines convenience with security.

Primary concerns

As an employer, your primary concern with BYOD is no doubt the inevitable security risks that arise when your networks are accessible to personal devices that could be stolen, lost or hacked. But you also must think about various legal compliance issues, such as electronic document retention for litigation purposes or liability for overtime pay when nonexempt employees use their devices to work outside of normal hours.

For employees, the main worry comes down to privacy. Will you, their employer, have access to personal information, photos and other non-work-related data on the device? Could an employee lose all of that if you’re forced to “wipe” the device because it’s been lost or stolen, or when the employee leaves your company?

Important obligations

A BYOD policy must address these and other issues. Each company’s individual circumstances will determine the final details, but most employers should, at minimum, require employees to sign an acknowledgment of their obligations to:

  • Use strong passwords and automatic lock-outs after periods of inactivity,

  • Immediately report lost or stolen devices,

  • Install mandated antivirus software and other protective measures,

  • Regularly back up their devices,

  • Keep apps and operating systems up to date, and

  • Encrypt their devices.

The policy also should prohibit the use of public wi-fi networks or require employees to log in through a secure virtual private network when connecting via public wi-fi. You may want to forbid certain apps, too.

In addition, you need to spell out your rights to access, monitor and delete data on employees’ devices — including the types of data you can access and under which conditions. In particular, explain your wiping procedures and the steps employees can take to protect their personal information from permanent erasure.

Protection now

Nearly everyone who works for your company likely has a smartphone at this point. As such devices integrate themselves ever more deeply into our daily lives, it’s only natural that they’ll affect our jobs. Establishing a BYOD policy now can help prevent costly mistakes and potential litigation down the road. We can provide further information.

© 2018

Businesses aren’t immune to tax identity theft

Tax identity theft may seem like a problem only for individual taxpayers. But, according to the IRS, increasingly businesses are also becoming victims. And identity thieves have become more sophisticated, knowing filing practices, the tax code and the best ways to get valuable data.

How it works

In tax identity theft, a taxpayer’s identifying information (such as Social Security number) is used to fraudulently obtain a refund or commit other crimes. Business tax identity theft occurs when a criminal uses the identifying information of a business to obtain tax benefits or to enable individual tax identity theft schemes.

For example, a thief could use an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to file a fraudulent business tax return and claim a refund. Or a fraudster may report income and withholding for fake employees on false W-2 forms. Then, he or she can file fraudulent individual tax returns for these “employees” to claim refunds.

The consequences can include significant dollar amounts, lost time sorting out the mess and damage to your reputation.

Red flags

There are some red flags that indicate possible tax identity theft. For example, your business’s identity may have been compromised if:

  *   Your business doesn’t receive expected or routine mailings from the IRS,
  *   You receive an IRS notice that doesn’t relate to anything your business submitted, that’s about fictitious employees or that’s related to a defunct, closed or dormant business after all account balances have been paid,
  *   The IRS rejects an e-filed return or an extension-to-file request, saying it already has a return with that identification number — or the IRS accepts it as an amended return,
  *   You receive an IRS letter stating that more than one tax return has been filed in your business’s name, or
  *   You receive a notice from the IRS that you have a balance due when you haven’t yet filed a return.

Keep in mind, though, that some of these could be the result of a simple error, such as an inadvertent transposition of numbers. Nevertheless, you should contact the IRS immediately if you receive any notices or letters from the agency that you believe might indicate that someone has fraudulently used your Employer Identification Number.

Prevention tips

Businesses should take steps such as the following to protect their own information as well as that of their employees:

  *   Provide training to accounting, human resources and other employees to educate them on the latest tax fraud schemes and how to spot phishing emails.
  *   Use secure methods to send W-2 forms to employees.
  *   Implement risk management strategies designed to flag suspicious communications.

Of course identity theft can go beyond tax identity theft, so be sure to have a comprehensive plan in place to protect the data of your business, your employees and your customers. If you’re concerned your business has become a victim, or you have questions about prevention, please contact us.

© 2018

Ideas to Help Detect Email Scams

By this point, most us have seen email scams in our inbox.  Most likely, we even have a smirk when we spot that email from out-of-the-country asking for a wire money transfer.  Lately, many of these scammers are pretending to be businesses or vendors that we frequent. So, how do we tell if an email is legitimate or a scam?

The sender email address is misspelled or misleading. 

Look closely at the details.  A missing letter in the address or very miniscule changes indicates the email is not from the official business. Study the sending address, and make sure that the parts before and after the @ symbol are accurate.

Grammatical errors in the email.

Misspelled words, improper use of the language, or improper use of punctuation are subtle indications of a scam.

Bad formatting in the body of an email.

Blank lines, broken text, odd spacing, or incomplete formatting indicates a scam.

Beware of “winning a prize” or a “deal” that is too-good-to-be-true!

If the email congratulates you and indicates you have been selected to win a prize, it is most likely a phishing scam seeking to gain information about you and your account. 

Attachments or links.

Clicking on any attachments or links in a suspicious email may execute a malicious virus or malware. In most email applications, you can hover your mouse cursor over a link and a small pop-up window will display the true destination of the link. Always hover over links in email before clicking to make sure they take you to the correct and safe destination! This example shows a link posing to be Docusign.com but, it directs you to a malicious site!

docusign.png

When in doubt, don’t click on the link.  Instead, go to the sender’s known web address or call the sender at a known telephone number other than what may be specified in the email.

Requests for payment or personal information.

Never initiate a payment or provide confidential information based on an email without independent, verbal verification.

Examples:

  • You receive an email that appears to come from a vendor informing you of new payment instructions.

  • You receive an email that appears to come from someone in your organization that instructs you to urgently initiate a payment or provide confidential or personal information.

Business Practices and Safeguards

Preventing business email compromise requires a series of practices to strengthen the organization’s security position.  The following are items to consider:

  1. Educate employees on how to recognize phishing emails and how to practice good cyber hygiene.

  2. Develop rigid payment authorization processes with financial personnel using various confirmation methods that perhaps include written or verbal confirmation.

  3. When in doubt, any suspicion of a malicious or fraudulent email should be reported to your IT professional for analysis.

A Note Regarding Communication from the IRS

The IRS initiates most contacts through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service, not through email.

The IRS does not:

  • Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer.

  • Demand that you pay taxes without the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.

  • Threaten to bring in local police, immigration officers, or other law-enforcement to have you arrested for not paying. The IRS also cannot revoke your driver’s license, business licenses, or immigration status. Threats like these are common tactics scam artists use to trick victims into buying into their schemes.

All payments to the IRS should be to the “United States Treasury”.

 

6 ways to get more value from an IT consultant

IT consultants are many things — experts in their field, champions of the workaround and, generally, the “people persons” of the tech field. But they’re not magicians who, with the wave of a smartphone, can solve any dilemma you throw at them. Here are six ways to get more value from your company’s next IT consulting relationship:

1. Spell out your needs. Define your desired outcome in as much detail as possible up front, so that both you and the consultant know what’s expected of each party. To do so, create a project scope document that clearly delineates the job’s purpose, timeframe, resources, personnel, reporting requirements, critical success factors and conflict resolution methods.

2. Appoint an internal contact. Assign someone within your organization as the internal project manager as early in the process as possible. He or she will be the go-to person for the consultant and, therefore, needs to have a thorough knowledge of the job’s requirements and be able to fairly assess the consultant’s performance.

3. Put in some prep time. Before the consultant arrives, prepare his or her workstation, ensuring that any equipment you’re providing works and allows appropriate access to the required systems — including email. Don’t forget to set up the phone, too, and add the consultant to your company phone list. Also, alert your staff that you have engaged a consultant and, to alleviate potential concerns, explain why.

4. Roll out the welcome wagon. Try to arrange an orientation on the Friday before the start date (assuming it’s a Monday). That way, you can give the consultant the project scope document as well as a written company overview (perhaps your employee procedures manual) that includes policies, safety protocols, office hours and tips on company culture to review over the weekend.

5. Keep in touch. Conduct regular project status meetings with the consultant to assess progress and provide feedback. Notify the consultant or the internal project manager immediately if you suspect the job is off track.

6. Conclude courteously. If you need to end the consulting engagement earlier than expected (for reasons other than poor performance) or extend it beyond the agreed-on timeframe, give as much notice as possible.

Act toward a good consultant as you would any valued vendor with whom you’d like to work again. After all, establishing a positive relationship with someone who knows your business could provide even greater return on investment in the future. Our firm would be happy to explain further or explore other ideas.

© 2018

3 keys to a successful accounting system upgrade

Technology is tricky. Much of today’s software is engineered so well that it will perform adequately for years. But new and better features are being created all the time. And if you’re not getting as much out of your financial data as your competitors are, you could be at a disadvantage.

For these reasons, it can be hard to decide when to upgrade your company’s accounting software. Here are three keys to consider:

1. Your users are ready. When making a major change to your accounting software, the sophistication of the system needs to align with the technological savvy of its primary users. Sometimes companies buy expensive software only to have many of its features gather virtual dust because the employees who use it are resistant to change.

But if your users are well trained and adaptable, they may be able to extract added value from a more sophisticated accounting system. For instance, they could track key performance indicators to generate more meaningful financial reports.

2. The price is right. You’ll of course need to consider the costs involved. As holds true for any technology purchase, project leaders must set a budget and focus the search on products and vendors offering only the functions your company needs.

But don’t stop there. Explore add-on services such as free trials, initial training and ongoing support. You want to get the most value from the software, which goes beyond the new and improved features themselves.

3. You need to integrate. This is the concept of networking your accounting system with your other mission-critical systems such as sales, inventory and production.

For most companies today, integration is essential to maximizing the return on investment in accounting software. So, if you haven’t yet implemented this functionality, an upgrade may be highly advisable. Just be aware that a successful companywide integration will call for buy-in from every nook and cranny of your business.

Typically, if a company doesn’t need any major accounting process changes, it probably doesn’t need a major accounting software change either. But if upgrading both will help grow your business, it’s absolutely a step worth considering. We can provide further guidance and info.

© 2018

What businesses need to know about the tax treatment of bitcoin and other virtual currencies

Over the last several years, virtual currency has become increasingly popular. Bitcoin is the most widely recognized form of virtual currency, also commonly referred to as digital, electronic or crypto currency.

While most smaller businesses aren’t yet accepting bitcoin or other virtual currency payments from their customers, more and more larger businesses are. And the trend may trickle down to smaller businesses. Businesses also can pay employees or independent contractors with virtual currency. But what are the tax consequences of these transactions?

Bitcoin 101

Bitcoin has an equivalent value in real currency and can be digitally traded between users. It also can be purchased with real currencies or exchanged for real currencies. Bitcoin is most commonly obtained through virtual currency ATMs or online exchanges.

Goods or services can be paid for using “bitcoin wallet” software. When a purchase is made, the software digitally posts the transaction to a global public ledger. This prevents the same unit of virtual currency from being used multiple times.

Tax impact

Questions about the tax impact of virtual currency abound. And the IRS has yet to offer much guidance.

The IRS did establish in a 2014 ruling that bitcoin and other convertible virtual currency should be treated as property, not currency, for federal income tax purposes. This means that businesses accepting bitcoin payments for goods and services must report gross income based on the fair market value of the virtual currency when it was received, measured in equivalent U.S. dollars.

When a business uses virtual currency to pay wages, the wages are taxable to the employees to the extent any other wage payment would be. You must, for example, report such wages on your employees’ W-2 forms. And they’re subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date received by the employee.

When a business uses virtual currency to pay independent contractors or other service providers, those payments are also taxable to the recipient. The self-employment tax rules generally apply, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date received. Payers generally must issue 1099-MISC forms to recipients.

Finally, payments made with virtual currency are subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.

Deciding whether to go virtual

Accepting bitcoin can be beneficial because it may avoid transaction fees charged by credit card companies and online payment providers (such as PayPal) and attract customers who want to use virtual currency. But the IRS is targeting virtual currency transactions in an effort to raise tax revenue, and it hasn’t issued much guidance on the tax treatment or reporting requirements. So bitcoin can also be a bit risky from a tax perspective.

To learn more about tax considerations when deciding whether your business should accept bitcoin or other virtual currencies — or use them to pay employees, independent contractors or other service providers — contact us.

© 2018

 

Ask the right questions about your IT strategy

Most businesses approach technology as an evolving challenge. You don’t want to overspend on bells and whistles you’ll never fully use, but you also don’t want to get left behind as competitors use the latest tech tools to operate more nimbly.

To refine your IT strategy over time, you’ve got to regularly reassess your operations and ask the right questions. Here are a few to consider:

Are we bogged down by outdated tech? More advanced analytical software can eliminate many time-consuming, repeatable tasks. Systems based on paper files and handwritten notes are obviously ripe for an upgrade, but even traditional digital spreadsheets aren’t as powerful as they used to be.

Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. But if these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos. This is when different people and teams keep important data to themselves, slowing communication. Determine whether this is occurring and, if so, how to integrate your key systems.

Do we have a digital asset-sharing policy? Businesses tend to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork, but hard copies can get misfiled or lost. Sharing documents electronically can speed distribution and enable real-time collaboration. A digital asset-sharing policy could help define how to grant system access, share documents and track communications.

Do we have a training program? Mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions ensure that all users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper protocols. If you don’t feel like you can provide this in-house, you could shop for vendors that provide training and resources matching your needs.

Do we have a security policy? A security policy is the first line of defense against hackers, viruses and other threats. It also helps protect customers’ sensitive data. Every business needs to establish a policy for regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and providing ongoing security training.

Do we evaluate user feedback? A successful IT strategy is built on user feedback. Talk to your employees who use your technology and find out what works, what doesn’t and why.

Answering questions such as these is a good first step toward crafting a total IT strategy. Doing so can also help you better control expenses by eliminating redundancies and lowering the risk of costly mistakes and data losses. Let us know how we can help.

© 2018

4 ways to encourage innovation in customer service

When business people speak of innovation, the focus is usually on a pioneering product or state-of-the-art service that will “revolutionize the industry.” But innovation can apply to any aspect of your company — including customer service.

Many business owners perceive customer service as a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Customers call, you answer their questions or solve their problems — and life goes on. Yet there are ways to transform this function and, when companies do, word gets around. People want to do business with organizations that are easy to interact with.

Here are four ways to encourage innovation in your customer service department:

1. Welcome failure. Providing world-class customer service involves risk, and inevitably you’ll sometimes fail. For example, many businesses have jumped at the chance to use “big data” to develop automated systems to direct customers to answers and solutions. But the impersonality of these systems can frustrate the buying public until you establish the right balance of machine and human interaction. Remember, every failure opens the door to better strategies for serving your customers.

2. Link compensation to employees’ contributions. Companies that fail to reward innovation aren’t likely to retain their best customers or establish a good reputation. Because customer service employees tend to be paid hourly or relatively nominal salaries, consider a cash bonus program for the “most innovative idea of the year.” Or you could hold semiannual or even quarterly innovation challenges with prizes such as gift cards or additional time off.

3. Praise the groundbreakers. Employees who challenge customer-service tradition may find themselves at odds with management. But don’t be too quick to reprimand those with new ideas or methods. Fresh language and modes of communication enter the public consciousness regularly. Give companywide recognition to those who find ways to adapt — even if their initial efforts bend the rules a bit.

4. Be the customer. Among the most simple and practical ways to innovate your customer service is to simply pretend you’re a customer to get a firsthand view on how your employees treat those who contact your business. Business owners can make these calls themselves or, if your voice is too recognizable, find someone who’s less familiar but capable of taking detailed notes of the interaction.

Finding new ways to improve your company’s customer service isn’t easy. But innovations are always just one bright idea away. If you’d like more information and ideas about building your bottom line, contact our firm.

© 2018