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Consulting Can Be a Little Like Pulling Out Your Own Teeth

[Note: This article cross-posted to End User SharePoint here: http://www.endusersharepoint.com/2009/09/09/sharepoint-a-case-study-in-ask-the-expert/]

Sometimes, when you’re working as a consultant (as a profession, or in a consultative role within your company), you find yourself living in an Onion story.  The Onion has a series of articles called “Ask an [expert] about [some problem]”.  This follows the famous “Dear Abby” format where a concerned person is asking for personal advice.  The onion’s “expert”, however, is so focused on his/her area of expertise and current problems that the expert ignores the question entirely and rambles on about his area of expertise.  As consultants, we need to keep that in mind all the time and avoid falling into that trap.  It’s classically described like this – “when you use a hammer all day long to solve your problems, everything starts to look like a nail.”  We professional consultants are always on guard against that kind of thing, but we come into contact with people who are serious professionals in their own role, but are not consultants.  They don’t have the same need or training to do otherwise.

Last week, I wrote about one of my company’s clients and an on-going project we have to enable high quality collaboration between various eye doctors in the US and Canada performing clinical research on rare disease.  In addition to leveraging core SharePoint features to enable that collaboration, we’re also working an expense submission and approval process.  It’s complicated because we have so many actors:

  • A handful of individuals at different doctors’ practices who can enter expenses on line.
    • There are over 40 doctors’ practices.
    • At some practices, the doctor uses the system directly.
    • At many practices, the doctor’s staff uses the system directly.
  • A financial administrator (who works for my direct client) who reviews the expenses for accuracy and relevancy, approving or denying them at the organizational level.
  • A 3rd party accounts payable group.  These people pay all of the bills for out client, not just bills coming out of the rare disease study. 

The Accounts Payable group has been a challenge.  Working with them yesterday reminded me of the Onion series.  In my role as business consultant, I explained the need to the accounts payable company:

  • Clinical studies sites (doctors’ practices) incur study-related expenses.
  • They log onto the “web site” and enter their expenses using an online form.  In this case, the “web site” is hosted with SharePoint and the expenses are entered into an InfoPath form.  Expense receipts are scanned, uploaded and attached directly to the form.
  • An automated workflow process seeks approval from the appropriate financial administrator.
  • You, dear 3rd party AP company – please review and approve or deny this expense.  I’ll send it to you any way that you want (within reason).At this point in the discussion, I don’t really care how it needs to be bundled.  I want to work with the AP group to understand what they need and want.

When I explained the need, the 3rd party took a deep dive into their internal mumbo jumbo lingo about expense approval processes, Oracle codes, vice presidential signatures, 90 day turn-arounds, etc.  And panic.  I shouldn’t forget about the panic.  One of the bed rock requirements of the consulting profession is to learn how to communicate with people like that who are themselves not trained or necessarily feel a need to do the same.  Among other things, it’s one of the best parts of being a consultant.  You get to enter a world populated with business people with completely different perspectives.  I imagine it’s a little bit like entering the mind of a serial killer, except that you aren’t ruined for life after the experience (though entering the mind of an AP manager isn’t a walk in the park 🙂 [see important note below***] ).

One of the great things about our technical world as SharePoint people is that we have ready-made answers to many of the very valid concerns that people such as my AP contact have.  Is it secure?  How do I know that the expense was properly vetted?  Can I, as the final payer, see all the details of the expense?  How do I do that?  What if I look at those details and don’t approve of them?  Can I reject them?  What happens if the organization changes and the original approver is no longer around?  Can we easily change the process to reflect changes in the system? Can I revisit this expense a year later if and when I get audited and need to defend the payment?

As SharePoint people, we can see how to answer those questions.  In my client’s case, we answer them more or less like this:

  • InfoPath form to allow sites to record their expenses and submit them for approval.
  • Sites can return to the site to view the status of their expense report at any time.
  • As significant events occur (e.g. the expense is approved and submitted for payment), the system proactively notifies them by email.
  • The system notifies the financial administrator once a report has been submitted for approval.
  • Financial administrator approves or denies the request.
  • Upon approval, the expense is bundled up into an email and sent to the 3rd party payer organization.
  • The 3rd party payer has all the information they need to review the expense and can access the SharePoint environment to dig into the details (primarily audit history to verify the “truth” of the expenses).
  • 3rd party payer can approve or reject the payment using their own internal process.  They record that outcome back in the SharePoint site (which triggers an email notification to appropriate people).
  • In future, it would be nice to cut out this stilly email process and instead feed the expense information directly into their system.

In conclusion, there’s a life style here that I describe from the professional consultant’s point of view, but which applies almost equally to full time employees in a BA and/or power user role.  Work patiently with the experts in your company and extract the core business requirements as best you can.  With a deep understanding of SharePoint features and functions to draw upon, more often than not, you’ll be able to answer concerns and offer ways to improve everyone’s work day leveraging core SharePoint features.

***Important note: I really don’t mean to compare AP people to serial killers.  However, I could probably name some AP pro’s who have probably wished they could get a restraining order against me stalking them and asking over and over again.  “Where’s my check?”  “Where’s my check?”  “Where’s my check?”

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