Friendly business

The business of accounting is business. Nobody said that, but it’s true nonetheless. Accounting is a profession that is definitely not about counting beans and wearing cardigans these days. CPA Australia members are core parts of every aspect of Australian business life, and so it is unsurprising that they are often among the first to identify new business issues as they arise and they are the ones given to advises for business improvement. For example, an issue noted recently is the potential impact that online social networking has upon business, and if you work from home in your business, you will need to learn how to take home pay for this. These websites allow friends to chat, share photographs, videos, and to discuss their work, lives, loves, wins and losses. At last count, there were more than six million Australians with profiles on Facebook and MySpace.

It is hardly a business issue that Australians have friends. Mateship is an Australian tradition, whether on the Kokoda track or on Facebook. The issue is that, as our world becomes more connected, it is increasingly difficult to separate personal lives from the world of ‘work’. Private actions now take place in very public places, with search engines voyeuristically distributing these activities for the entire world to see. Consider the recent YouTube ‘star’ who made negative comments about his employer. Once, those excruciating videos would have tormented only his unfortunate immediate family. YouTube provides the conduit to a whole new audience. Questionable tastes in humour cross organisational hierarchies though. There may be regrets for the partner of a consulting firm whose photo was posted online by a member of his staff, complete with Hitler moustache, swastika, and a Nazi salute. Not perhaps the look his professional profile is looking for.

Business owners must cross the generational and digital divide to become digital citizens so as not to be caught unawares, like the new owner of a motor dealership who was unaware of a web comment telling prospective customers to ‘avoid [the dealership] like the plague’. Three years on, that advice is still there and is prominently displayed when new customers Google the dealership. Twitter, a relatively new social networking service, allows users to post ‘microblogs’ from their mobile phone. Comments damaging a business’s online reputation are regularly made there – at one store, while still in the store, a customer ‘tweeted’ to her 789 ‘followers’ about the bad service received.

It is not all negative. Delight the digital citizens and your business will benefit. Robert Scoble, a particularly notorious blogger, mentioned a new book he was reading in a single tweet. With over 34,000 followers, it seems people took note, and the book quickly scaled the heights of the Amazon best seller list.

A generation has matured with the internet at their fingertips. This is a different world than the old world of football, kangaroos, meat pies and Holden cars. Your customers use the internet to inform their opinions. A business can take some steps to present itself in the best light possible, but actively manipulating information is unwise. The punishment for chicanery and ‘bad behaviour’ online is unpleasant, caustic and swift. Transparency and honesty are necessary in the digital world. The actions of an over-zealous employee can quickly ensure that a business is condemned to the scrapheap of irrelevance – consider the very public example of the software developer 2Clix who brought legal action against Whirlpool to have negative comments taken down from its forums.

Increasingly, ‘personal’ and ‘work’ lives collide. People need to be a little more circumspect when posting material online. Activities are often publicly available and can be seen by anyone – an audience perhaps not originally considered. Recruiters increasingly Google a candidate’s name to see what can be discovered. Personal information can be used for identity theft, and likewise corporate information on personal profiles can be used for ‘social engineering’ scams to defraud the business.

Is this an accounting issue? Probably not. Is it a business issue? Definitely, and accountants fundamentally are about business. CPA Congress in Melbourne this year includes a workshop to help people understand how they can use online social networking tools without causing great grief and how a business can respond to the business challenge of online social networking in a positive way. For those few people that are natural digital denizens, the workshop will discuss tactics they already know. For others, there will be hints and tips that will save them time, money and a poor online reputation.

The social networking phenomenon is here to stay and will continue to grow. Businesses must understand the impact of social networking upon the business, and monitor their ‘internet footprint’. Individuals must understand acceptable behaviour when living out their digital life. Simply ‘banning’ or ‘ignoring’ online social networking is rarely helpful. A sensible and informed approach is important, with an awareness of the potential risks and problems.

Social networking: sometimes, it’s about business.

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Answering assignments at a University Undergraduate level

Anyone who has been following my twitter lately will have come to the realisation that one of the things I have been doing for fun and profit lately is lecturing in IT Governance at Queensland University of Technology.

I have to say, as for the fun and profit side of things, I don’t think I can recommend it as a hobby for anyone J. Although you probably already knew that.

I have just finished marking the assignments, and what has struck me is the apparent difficulty that exists for students answering an assignment, so I thought I’d do a bit of a pointer overview for anyone who ever intends to submit an assignment to me in the future. With any luck, I’ll expand this blog post into something more by the time I get to lecture again in the subject next year.

Honestly, I think I will spend an hour in one lecture just going through this overview so that assignments (and by extension, exams) are answered well.

The following pointers are relevant as far as I am concerned if you are ever intending to provide an assignment that gets an above-average to good grade. If you follow these pointers you should at least pass the subject.

Listen to the lecturer

The lecturer wants you to do well. Certainly, I at least know that I’d rather mark good assignments than bad ones. So, attend lectures and listen when subtle (and not so subtle) hints are made regarding the assignment.

Phrases like ‘be sure to read the question’, and ‘only answer the question’ come to mind. Other magic phrases come to mind like ‘This would make a good assignment question’, and ‘Be sure to know what a <insert special word here> is’.

And turn up to lectures and asking questions is a sure way to get an insight into what the lecturer is on about. Not everything can be in the Powerpoint.

Know the marking scheme

Understand the marking scheme, and write so that you address it. For instance, with this most recent assignment, 40% of the total marks were for knowledge, 40% were for analysis, and 20% were for research and communication.

So every answer you give has to address this marking criteria.

Just so you know, Googling and copy-and-paste don’t count much as knowledge unless you’re taking a cut-and-paste class. To me, to demonstrate knowledge you have to provide some facts that answer the question, certainly, but it needs to be your own words (and back it up with research where you need to).

To demonstrate your powers of analysis, you have to answer the question ‘why’? It isn’t good enough to say, ‘do X’, or ‘this applies’ – answer the question why do it, or why does it apply? If your answer doesn’t demonstrate at least some reasoning, you’re going to be missing out on the question. This applies unless the question explicitly states you don’t need to follow the marking scheme for that question.

To demonstrate research and communication, you would firstly be expected to show that you have done some independent research. At an undergraduate level, this probably doesn’t need to be a lot, and in fact it is probably going to be ‘bad’ research. But with things like Proquest around these days there’s really no excuse not to find an article somewhere that demonstrates your point of view. Secondly, you need to write your answer in language that is grammatically acceptable. I know this is tough if English isn’t your first language, but it seems to be tough for non-native speakers as well. To me, to get the answer right, your answers need to be grammatically correct (at an undergraduate level, by grammatically correct I mean tense that is consistent, sentences that are full sentences with a subject, verb, noun, clauses, full stops – that sort of thing).

To me, given the state of the world today you don’t really need to worry too much about using active or passive voice, or even writing great prose (and to be honest, great prose is probably a communication hindrance). Good spelling is a must, but I personally wouldn’t start to ping you until I’d seen a couple of spelling errors every two or three hundred words. Beyond two it’s getting far too sloppy. Think about it – a 5-page report will be about 1,250 words – one typo every 100 words is 13 or so typos in that single assignment. I can live with that, but I can’t give you top marks.

Recall too that paragraphs are your friends, as are dot point lists. If it’s a full assignment, I suspect most lecturers won’t accept dot point answers, but if a dot point list answers the question clearly and easily, use a dot point list after an an introductory paragraph to get the facts out, and then put your analysis in paragraphs.

Format and technical issues

If you have a word limit, stick to it (at least within coo-ee of the word limit, please – more than 10% over the limit is probably going to be a problem for you, not me). To make your case about how you stuck to the word limit, I’d put the word count at the beginning of the assignment, smack dab on the front page.

Have a cover page, headers and footers, and, if your assignment has an appendix, a table of contents is appropriate as well. It will depend on the marking scheme as to whether this affects your mark, but in professional life as well as academic life the ‘duck theory’ applies: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. Make sure the assignment looks the part.

Be sure to give the assignment a good re-read prior to submission to check for spelling errors, word usage, and complete sentences. This means finishing the assignment 48 hours beforehand, letting it sit, and then re-reading it so you’re not so close to the assignment.

Oh, and make sure that little things like page order are done properly, and don’t forget to add your appendices in!

Read the Question

You need to be sure that your answer is actually answering the question that has been asked. This is particularly important when you have a restrictive word limit. Don’t spend a great deal of time defining a term when the question did not ask you to. This can demonstrate knowledge, but will never address analysis and evaluation capabilities, particularly when the definition is virtually copied and pasted.

Be careful that you don’t give the right answer for the wrong question. You can give a good answer, but if it does not answer the question actually asked you will do poorly.

Be certain that your answer addresses the requirements of the question. In answering a question, focus on the verbs that request you, as the student, to do something. Consider the following question:

1. Outline the importance of IT governance to Australian business organisations by accessing current IT governance research. Assess the overall IT governance of Mudflat Plains City Council and provide recommendations regarding steps the organisation could take to improve its IT governance processes.

To do well, the answer had to use words like ‘IT Governance is important because <insert reason>’. Research should be cited too in making this answer (given that the question asked you to do this by ‘accessing current IT Governance research’).

An assessment needed to be provided of IT Governance (e.g. ‘In my assessment IT Governance at MPCC is level 2 in accordance with the maturity model because <list some reasons why>’. Finally the answer needed to provide reasonable steps that could be taken to improve MPCC’s IT Governance processes.

Defining IT Governance is vaguely useful to the answer, but not much, and is not worth spending a great deal of time on as it is not requested in the answer.

I really hope that this helps some students with preparing an assignment at a University level.  I can see that next year I am going to devote a chunk of time to preparing an assignment.

ITGI Roundtable discussion

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Brisbane ISACA chapter’s Executive Lunch with John Thorp on the topic of Value Governance, Investment Management and Portfolio Management.  Amongst many other qualifications, John chairs the ITGI Val IT Committee.

John’s luncheon presentation was very, very good, and reaffirmed some of the positions I’ve had for some time now.  What I love about COBIT and VAL IT is that it is bringing a framework to all that stuff we have in the past done ‘just because’. 

Some highlights for me from John’s presentation were the following points:

  1. IT investments don’t exist, this is all about investment in IT-enabled change – which we can only change when business and IT know who is responsible for what.
  2. A nice little formula from John:  OO + NT = COO [Old Organisation + New Technology = Complex Old Organisation].  Seen that a few times.
  3. Appealing to the television geeks in the audience (like myself), John pilloried the Star Trek school of management – ‘Make It So!’ is rarely as successful as it is in Star Trek.  For a start, most people have no common view as to what ‘it’ is.
  4. John has a nice turn of phrase – ‘bad news does not get better with age’; ‘decibel-based decision-making’, ‘more effort into less things for more value’ (so true!).
  5. Apparently governance goes back to the Greek word ‘kubernan’, which is defined as ‘continually steering or adjusting to stay on course’.
  6. There is a new VAL IT – VAL IT 2.0, which partners COBIT more closely than in the past, and is maturing.  I suspect that in a year or two the course I am giving on IT Governance needs to pick up on this point and move with it.
  7. What I have always referred to as a ‘business prioritisation forum’ is better called an ‘investment services board’ – at least that is what it is in VAL IT parlance.

I believe John’s presentation will soon be on the Chapter website.

Last night I had also had the honour of attending dinner for a recorded roundtable discussion on the topic of IT Governance, with many local professionals giving their thoughts and comments.  One of the curious things that really did highlight for me is probably that the term ‘IT Governance’ is all wrong – which is why ISACA’s new qualification is called ‘CGEIT’ – Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT.  I haven’t met anyone yet who actually likes the term, yet we keep using it and getting confused with corporate governance issues.

I mean, why don’t we have a marketing governance or an HR Governance, or such like?

At any rate, John is very passionate about advancing the profession in the world of IT management.

It was a good night, and we certainly managed to relax after the microphone was turned off in the convention centre.  I was bitterly disappointed though – the Plough Inn was closed at 10.20 on a Thursday night.  Bitterly disappointed!

ISACA Executive Briefing on IT Governance

Today I am attending the John Thorp Executive Lunch on IT Governance (specifically, he is discussing value governance, investment management and portfolio management).  This is happening at the Convention Centre, and then afterwards I am attending a round table discussion for the IT Governance Institute on the topic of IT Governance and where it needs to go to.

The discussion is complementary to my current role lecturing in IT Governance at QUT and the PhD I am doing in IT Audit (which relates directly to COBIT, and whether organisations need to have different approaches to IT Audit).  My personal view is that not enough organisations are working with COBIT enough, and are treating their IT systems as black boxes.  I don’t believe that that’s appropriate for large, IT-dependent businesses.  And I think that is becoming an increasingly validated point of view. 

I get a guernsey to the roundtable discussion as a ‘leading local professional’ in the area of IT Governance.  Modesty prevents me from affirming that description, but I will fight for their right to say it. 

It promises to be interesting; I’ll post my thoughts on how it travelled after it’s happened. 

Optimising your financial reporting systems for long-term value

I presented for CPA Australia on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, firstly in Sydney, and then in Melbourne.  The topic was ‘Optimising your financial reporting systems for long-term value’, and was part of their streamlining finance processes conference.

Overall the presentations went fairly well.  There’s always a conflict between war stories, which are interesting and helpful, and content, which is helpful.  I try not to have a lecture, but I still managed to run out of time both times.  Note to self:  cut down, cut down, cut down.

Anyhoo, I promised that I’d upload an example survey tool and my speaker notes, so they are attached to this blog post.

You can download the Speaker Notes here, and you can download the full presentation here. The speaker notes are just the dot points I intended to cover off in the presentation.

The example survey can be downloaded here.

I stayed at the Sydney Marriott overnight – that was quite nice:

If you attended, please feel free to give feedback.  I hope something was obtained from the presentation, and if there are questions please feel free to give me a call.