Top 4 Tips for Healthier Business Cash Flow

If there’s one thing that Entrepreneurs and SME owners understand, it’s that good cash flow finance is the lifeblood of any business. A healthy cash flow will help a business to thrive and develop, while poor or irregular cash flow can cause it to stagnate or even fail.

Despite this seemingly obvious fact, cash flow issues are frequently neglected until it’s too late to recover. So what can a business do to manage its cash flow effectively? Here are some top tips.

1. Collect receivables instantly

Check the financial health of a new customer before offering them credit. Don’t offer overly generous discounts, and charge a “late fee” to customers who don’t pay on time.

2. Manage your cash

Although you should encourage your customers to pay as early as possible, your own outgoings should be managed carefully. Many people believe in staying ahead of bills and paying them as early as possible, but that’s just poor cash management. Be aware of any late fees you may be in danger of accruing, and schedule your payments to keep your cash flow balanced, as opposed to trying to pay all of your expenses at once. Make sure your employee payday is at a time of the month when you’re least likely to find yourself slipping into the red.

3. Ensure sales continuity

If you offer a regular product or service, consider offering a contract whereby customers can pay upfront to receive it for a fixed period of time. You may be familiar with this technique as it is frequently used in magazine subscriptions. A reader can often subscribe for, say, 24 issues of a weekly magazine for the price of 18, so long as they pay in advance. It’s easy to adapt this structure to almost any kind of regular service or subscription-based product, and helps to promote customer loyalty.

4. Consider using an invoice finance provider.

Invoice Finance is a method of controlling your finance by getting a cash injection when you need it, without resorting to a bank loan. Invoice factoring is a form of cash flow finance that allows you to use your customer invoices as collateral in return for ready cash, in some cases up to as much as 90% of the value of your outstanding invoices. The invoice finance company will then chase up the client payments on your behalf, leaving you with the funds you need, when you need them, and time to focus on other important areas of running and developing your business. Once the invoices have been paid, the finance provider will release the remaining invoice return minus their fees.

When using invoice finance, it’s important to select a factoring company that is well reputable and well-regarded in the industry. Make sure you check out any company you approach thoroughly, and make sure they have the appropriate accreditation. They should also be able to increase your funding as your business grows and develops.

What Is Information Literacy?

Information literacy is the ability to find the information that we need and use that information. This need could be getting information about different courses that the universities offer or selecting the right tour operator for our next vacation. We make numerous trivial decisions everyday and some important ones now and then, like finding the right car or choosing the correct insurance policy. To make the right decision, or more importantly, to make the most beneficial decision, we need to gather all the relevant information before we can analyze the information and make a decision. Therefore, essentially, all the tasks that fall between identifying the information need and using the information that we find to make a decision fall under the scope of information literacy.

So how do we know if we are information literate? An information literate person can:

· Define the problem: That is we can recognize what the problem is and put that in words. Based on this problem, we can define the information that we need. For example, we wish to travel to Europe. We will want to know – the best time to travel, the average cost of travel, the places we want to visit, and so on. Defining all this is the first step in identifying the information need.

· How to get the information: After we define the information that we want to make the decision, we must then identify the sources of information. These sources could be people who have been to Europe, some tour operators, web sites, and so on. An information literate person at this point will create a strategy for finding the relevant information by identifying the most useful and relevant information sources.

· Where to get the information: Now, we know what information we need and how we can find this information. The third step is to find these information sources. We will know people who have travelled to Europe in our community. In current times, we can use the social networking web sites to find people who have been to Europe to hear their first-hand accounts and experiences. Other than these people, we can look up government tourism web sites to get most of the information.

· Is everything true? People are generally truthful about narrating their experiences, but these could be biased for any number of reasons; we all don’t have the same likes and dislikes. There is a lot of information online, but then not everything we read is true. My point? We can define the information need and get the information too; however, we also need the ability to evaluate critically the information we have. For example, the ability to separate a commercial sales pitch from genuine information.

· Using the information: Whew! This has been a long journey and we have all the ingredients ready. But, it is all in bits and pieces. We still need to assemble all of this information in a way that will help us make that decision about the tour. Define priorities perhaps? Decision based on the variables that we defined in the first step.

Information literacy is not new. It is just that we have a lot of information available and need to be aware of ways to look systematically for the information if we do not wish to drown in this ocean of information. Constantly evolving technology and ways of communication make the task more difficult. So, next time you are looking for information, keep these steps in mind before you dive in the World Wide Web.

Technical writers present information to their readers by identifying readers’ information need. Presenting only the relevant information forms the core of their job. Therefore, this is one skill that technical communicators must master reduce the effort readers have to put-in to use the information. Please visit my blog to know why information literacy is more important for technical writers and what do employers think about these skills when they are hiring a technical writer.

Creating Value Through Information

When you attempt to create value, you have to make a choice between alternatives and this requires reliance on information. Understanding how to create “quality” information is paramount to decision making. One way to improve the quality of information is to make sure there is a strong flow of external sources – looking at market trends, surveying the customers, pursuing new technologies, and of course, competitive intelligence. These external sources provide the “reality checks” we need to remove internal bias, common to so many organizations.

“For managers to produce information required for their work, they have to address two broad questions:

1. What information do I owe to the people with whom I work, and on whom I depend? In what form? And in what time frame?
2. What information do I need myself? From whom? In what form? And in what time frame?

– Competing with Information: A Manger’s Guide to Creating Business Value with Information Content, Edited by Donald A. Marchand

Another way to improve the quality of information is to look at your people. Information is how people communicate their knowledge so things get accomplished. Since information relies on people, it only stands to reason that the quality of information has a lot to do with the quality of people; i.e. the skills, expertise, training, experience as well as their communication skills. This can greatly impact the quality of information – improve your people if you want to improve your information.

The quality of information also follows certain characteristics. These characteristics can lend serious value to information. Here are a few examples:

• Up to Date – Information that is current usually has more value than old, outdated information.
• Accuracy – Some sources of information tend to have higher accuracy than others.
• Impact on Decision Making – Information that is useful to decision making will lend value to the organization.

One common problem in creating value through information is putting the information in front of the decision maker. This requires that people have access to information. Too often, organizations have fragmented silos of information, contributing to inconsistency in decision-making. Pulling all of these stovepipes of information together into one common repository can yield numerous benefits, such as: Faster response time by decision makers, better creditability with stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, etc.), improved accuracy through verification, and more value added through the application of analytical tools.

Obviously, technology plays a big role in making this happen – everything from better access to filtering of the information overload. Perhaps the single biggest technology behind the management of information is something called the Data Warehouse. The Data Warehouse pulls together all of the desperate databases, providing not only wider access, but also increased analytical capability through the understanding of relationships between all of this data. So if you are serious about creating value through information, you’ll probably have to consider some form of a data warehouse.

“Capitalizing on the information a company owns about its customers, suppliers, and partners is now the value proposition for sustainable long-term growth. Better information, then, transforms business. Better information also transforms the terms of collaboration between businesses.” – The Value Factor by Mark Hurd and Lars Nyberg

Finally, the roadmap to value through information is creating systems and processes for learning. Author Peter Senge popularized this concept in his book The Fifth Discipline – namely that we all need to become systems thinkers, having the ability to fit the pieces together. This entire process is commonly referred to as the Learning Organization. And this is a big factor behind creating value through information! And when coupled with the right people and the right technology (such as a data warehouse), information can add a lot of value for anyone touched by the information.

“The knowledge economy stands on three pillars. Knowledge has become what we buy, sell, and do. It is the most important factor of production. The second pillar is a mate, a corollary to the first: Knowledge assets – that is, intellectual capital – have become more important to companies than financial and physical assets. The third pillar is this: To prosper in this new economy and exploit these newly vital assets, we need new vocabularies, new management techniques, new technologies, and new strategies. On these three pillars rest all the new economy’s laws and its profits.” – The Wealth of Knowledge by Thomas A. Stewart

Improving Business Cash Flow

If you have a small to mid-size business, it is highly likely that you suffer from business cash flow concerns. A steady cash flow not only keeps your business solvent, but it also enables you to grow your business because you lack working capital. The most common factor in lack of working capital is offering payment terms to your customers.

One of the most frequent negotiating terms for new customers is the amount of time they have to pay you for your products or services. A small business owner will accept the payback terms of 30, 45, or even 60 days to get the business. However, you are expected to deliver your products or services immediately and wait for your payment for up to 60 days.

It doesn’t take long to have a great amount of your money tied up in unpaid invoices if you offer payment terms to your customers. It is very possible to have more money in accounts receivables than in cash in the bank. Eventually you will hit a wall. You won’t be able to offer any more product or services until your unpaid invoices are paid. You won’t be able to make payroll or pay your suppliers.

Your unpaid invoices can be an asset. How? They can be turned into needed funds through invoice factoring, also known as invoice financing and invoice discounting. What is invoice factoring?

For example, if one of you customers is a very reputable company such as BT and they owe you £10,000 in 45 days, are you pretty sure they’ll pay? That invoice is almost as good as having the £10,000 in your hands now. And if you have unpaid invoices from several reputable companies, the invoice factoring company will be glad to take those invoices off your hands in exchange for instant cash now.

You will not be in debt to the invoice factoring company because they do not loan money to you. Instead, they actually buy your invoices at a small discount. It is easy to qualify because they do not look at your business credit in order to buy your invoices. They look at the credit of the companies who owe you.

Now it is the factoring company who waits to be paid rather than you the small business owner. This plan works well for small businesses that have turned away new business because of a high percentage of unpaid invoices that hinders cash flow.

Factoring and invoice finance services are commonly used within the recruitment industry as well as many other industries that send out large numbers of invoices very frequently. If your business is suffering from cash flow problems and these are preventing you from operating efficiently or expanding then a factoring service may well help to relieve these problems. An invoice financier will be able to tell you the most suitable service and whether or not your business is suitable for this type of service, there are many factoring companies online that can provide these services.

What to Look for When Selling Your Invoices

If you are worried about your business’ cash flow spiraling down, then maybe it’s the right time to make a major decision to improve the situation. Low cash reserves are not indicative of your organization’s true financial health. Rather, it sometimes happens when a company is growing fast, and in the process, creates invoices for receiving payments from its customers. These invoiced payments are not always received immediately. Usually, there are invoice terms such as 15, 30, 45 days or more that are provided to the customers. Often, these payment terms are extended for the customers’ convenience. During this period, an urgent requirement for cash may crop up. Your business may need money to pay your employees’ salaries, to pay the rent or the electrical bill, or for buying new equipment and other expenses. In such a critical situation, conventional lending could be get difficult to get. For a solution, you can turn to professional invoice factoring companies that can fund your business with immediate cash after buying your receivables or invoices.

As a business owner you would surely want a company that will provide cash in quick time, pay personal attention to your financial needs, and deal with you in a professional and empathetic manner. Furthermore, you also want to be sure that the A/R factoring company is a principle funding company, and not a broker. Principle invoice factoring companies are financially strong and use their own capital for direct funding that makes the processing fast and efficient. The company will help you expedite funding arrangements by purchasing your invoices at a discounted rate. You will receive the required cash that is equivalent to the face value of the invoices you sell. You can factor single or multiple invoices as and when needed. So, this could be a great funding option for your business even amidst the gloomy economy and indifferent credit market.

While choosing an A/R financing company, you can consider the following factors:

1.Quick Turnaround Time
During urgent cash requirement, even an additional day taken for processing can make or break a situation. So, the company’s services should be highly responsive to meet your instant financial needs. Ideally, an efficient company takes about 4 days to approve funds, and for subsequent applications, it can provide funding within 24 hours.

2.Reliable Service
The company you choose should be reliable so that your cash flow issue can be solved on an urgent basis. It should be able to complete the invoice verification process, credit approval, processing invoices, and remittance of funds quickly and efficiently.

3.Amount of Cash Advance
When you are desperately looking for funds to pay off your business’ short term obligations, you need maximum of cash as an advance. If you have a current and valid invoice, a good company can pay up to 90% of invoice value in advance.

4.Convenience Provided
You should feel comfortable dealing with your chosen company. Convenience provided by the company can lead to a long term business relationship. A good company provides flexibility considering your business situation, and that can save you from delays and the hassles of processing.

5.Simple Application Process
While factoring, the last thing you want is a long and complex application process. Make sure the company is not charging any fees or penalties, except the discount fee. Also, there should not be any long term contracts to bind you.

Before availing such services, you can check for online information related to factoring or call up a relevant company for more details. This will help you clear your doubts before making the final move.

Right to Information – A Gateway to Fight Corruption

INTRODUCTION: September 28 is celebrated internationally as right to know Day. In spite of the fact that India has won its battle of independence in 1947 making democracy its weapon, unfortunately, the truth was something else. The power was handed over to the politicians and democrats, not to the common man then. In India, following a nationwide campaign led by grassroots and civil society organizations, the Government passed a landmark Right To Information Act in 2005. It is an Act ” to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens “. RTI mandates timely response to citizens’ requests for Government information. It is a initiative taken by Department of Personnel and Training, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions to provide a RTI portal Gateway to citizens for quick search of information.

The idea that Government withhold information for the public has become outdated. During the last decade, many countries have enacted legislations on freedom of information. In India, the Official Secrets Act 1923 was enacted to protect the official secrets. The new law intend to disclose information replacing the ‘ culture of secrecy ‘. It will promote public accountability which will trim the malpractices, mismanagement, abuse of discretion and bribery etc.

OBJECTIVES: The object of RTI is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government. The Act is a big step towards making the citizens informed about the activities of the Government. Social Activist Aruna Roy has described India’s RTI as ” the most fundamental law this country has seen.”

EFFECT OF RIGHT TO INFORMATION: While the debate on corruption in the country rages on, the RTI Act is fast growing as an effective anti- corruption tool.

Jan Lok Pal Bill gained tremendous public support with citizens coming out on the streets of Delhi, Bangalore and other cities to voice their anger over corruption. Where RTI has been used by journalists and the media, the law has a broad base of users. Earlier right to freedom of speech and expression is granted under Article 19(1) of Constitution, but it requires fair and efficient procedure to make the freedom of information work. In the first three years, 2 million RTI requests were filed. The first and well known movement was by Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan for the access to village accounts. Case studies and media reports shows that RTI is being used to redress individual grievances, access entitlements such as Ration Cards and pension. The RTI has paved way for informed citizenry which would strengthen the democratic Government of India. With this Act, we can use our right to speech and expressions and control the Government activities effectively. The idea of open Government is becoming a reality with the implementation of RTI Act. The RTI can be called a success only if the bureaucracy accepts that they have constitutional to serve into.

PROVISIONS OF RTI: Section 3 says all citizens shall have right to information. The Act enforces a duty upon the public authorities to disclosed all information. In V.S.Lee V. State of Kerala.. the remedy provided by Parliament is that wherever there is substantial financial support, the People, have the right to know or information. Section 4(2) states that every public authority shall take constant steps to provide information suo moto to the public. Thus, the authorities have to give information voluntarily so that the public have minimum resort to use this Act. The public authorities also have to disseminate (making known or communicated the information to the public through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broad casts, internet and inspection of offices of public authority) information widely in any form which is easily accessible to the public. Information can be obtained by request in writing or through electronic means in English or Hindi or in official language of the area U/S 6. Here, the person has to give fees, and if request can’t be made in writing, the Central PIO and State PIO shall render all assistance to make request in writing form. If the information has been provided correctly or within time, it may be made available by appeal or complaint to the Information Commission U/S (8(a) 1). In The Registrar General V. K.U. Rajasekar, it was held that Section 8 of RTI specially deals with the cases of exemption from disclosure or information when such information affects prejudicially the sovereignty and security of India etc. Section 5 says every public authority shall within 100 days of enactment of the Act, designate as many as officers as the Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers.

Section 6 permits person to obtain information in English or Hindi or in the official language of the area from the designated officers. The person need not to give any reason for the request. Section 7 requires the request to be disposed of within 30 days provided where information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within 48 hours. Section 7(7) before taking any decision for furnishing the information, the designated officer shall take into consideration the representation made by the third party U/S 11. Section 7(9) exempts granting information where it would divert the

Resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety and preservation of the record in record. U/S 8,it is important to note that the Act specifies that intelligence and security organisations are exempted from the application of the Act. However, it is provided that in case the demand for information pertains to allegation of corruption and human rights violations, the Act shall apply even to such institutions.

RIGHT TO INFORMATION AS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT: The RTI is a fundamental right as in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is now a well settled proposition. It has been discussed by Supreme Court in Number of cases, it has been read into Article 14.(Right to equality), 19(1)(a) freedom of speech and expression and Article 21 (Right to life) through cases such as Bennet Coleman V. Union Of India, Tata Press Ltd. V. Maharashtra Telephone Nigam Ltd. Etc. The same Articles were also interpreted in Kharak Singh V. State of U.P., Govind V. State of M.P. ETC. to include within their scope a right to privacy.

A plain reading of Section 11 suggests that for the section to apply the following three conditions must be satisfied (I) if the PIO is considering disclosing the information (ii) the information relates to the third party (iii) the third party treated the information to be confidential, the third party to be consulted and a notice to be sent to that party. Section 19 provides two tier system of appeals- First appeal and Second appeal. Any person who is aggrieved by the decision of the Central PIO and State PIO within 30 days can prefer First appeal before the First Appellate Authority. This authority shall be an officer who is senior in rank to the Central PIO and State PIO. An appeal can also be made by third party. The Second appeal lies before the State or Central Information Commission against the decision of the First Appellate Authority. It has to be filed within 90 days. As per Section 19(7), decision of Central or State Information Commission is final. The Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media and governance. In Nirmal Singh Dhiman V. Financial Commissioner Revenue, Section 23 says that no court shall entertain any suit, application or other proceeding in respect of any order and no order shall be called in question, otherwise than by way of an appeal. In case, the complainant was aggrieved against the non-supply of information by the Public Information Officer.

CRITICISM: The Act has been criticized on several grounds. It provides for information on demand, but does not sufficiently stress information on matters related to food, water, environment and other survival needs. It does not emphasize active intervention in educating people about their rights to access information. Another thing is allowing for file notings except those related to social and development projects to be exempted. File notings are very important when it comes to the policy making of the Government.

CONCLUSION: By enacting the RTI, India has moved from opaque and arbitrary system of Government to the beginning of an era where there will be greater transparency and to a system where the citizen will be empowered. The real Swaraj will come not by the acquition of authority by a few but by the acquition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused.

“KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, INFORMATION IS POWER, THE SECRETING OF INFORMATION MAY BE AN ACT OF TYRANNY CAMOUFLAGED AS HUMILITY.”

Information Management in Construction From a Lean Perspective

Lean thinkers have referred to “ensuring that relevant customer requirements are available in all phases of production, and that they are not lost when progressively transformed into design solutions, production plans and products.” Customer requirements are however only part of the information flow in design.

Information Waste

In Lean there are 7 classic wastes:

 

  • Over-production Producing more than is needed right now
  • Transportation Movement of product that does not add value
  • Motion Movement of people that does not add value
  • Waiting Idle time created when material, information, people, or equipment is not ready
  • Processing Effort that creates no value from the customer’s viewpoint
  • Inventory More materials, parts, or products on hand than is needed right now
  • Defects Work that contains errors, rework, mistakes or lacks something necessary

 

Some Lean thinkers add additional wastes:-

Making Do – Drawings, documents and information required to complete the task are not available and the task is started despite these not being available, or the task is continued when supply ceases

Unused Creativity – Effort available to the team but not used to create value

From these wastes the following information related wastes can be identified

 

  • Waiting – unable to do work because information is not available or time is spent trying to identify information that needs to flow
  • Over Processing – excessive steps to produce the output caused by resources or activities necessary to overcome a lack of information
  • Making Do – continuing with production in the absence of required information
  • Defects – drawings and design requiring rework and resources and activities used to correct or verify information
  • Unused Creativity – team members making do due to lack of information when they could be employed creating value

Information Flow

In design the “flow” is information to each workstation so that the output in the form of information for the next step in line (which could be further design or construction) can be completed on time and to budget with minimum waste.

A scenario can occur in a design office where an absence or shortage of knowledge and information threatens to halt production (of deliverables). The pressure of deadlines (push planning) requires work to continue and assumptions are made to fill in for the missing knowledge or information. This builds in the necessity to make corrections of the assumption later, or contingencies are made that the assumption may be incorrect and the design is “over-dimensioned.” The result is unplanned work.

Making do has been described as an “art” in the construction industry and that the response to lack of input availability is making do on a “massive scale”.

The conclusion is that the reduction of making do in design requires control and optimisation of the flow of information and knowledge in the design team and between teams.

Information Sources

Typical types of information include emails, letters, meeting notes, call records, drawings, electronic data and photographs. A distinction may be drawn between “data” and “information”:-

Data – Individual facts, statistics, or items of information.

Information – Knowledge communicated or received concerning a particular fact or circumstance or Knowledge gained through study, communication, research, instruction, etc.

In the project environment typically a large mass of data will exist which continually grows in size. Information that adds value to an output is a subset of the total data.

Management activity should therefore focus on Information as it is this which forms the value stream in the design process. An 80/20 rule may apply whereby only 20% of the data collected is used in creating value.

Applying lean 5S to information management produces:-

 

  • Sift (shine) – Ensure information is accurate and up to date
  • Sort – Structure information so it can be easily navigated and found
  • Set in Order – Store information in a single location that is available to all working on the project
  • Sustain – Make sure teams use the system and continuously improve
  • Standardise – Set protocols for information management

 

With the volumes of information within organisations increasing exponentially increasing attention is being paid to the challenges it produces, and the risks it creates.

In the absence of information management there is lack of certainty as to where information is, who has relevant information, and limited certainty as to its availability and currency. One consequence is that time is spent in search of essential information with which to continue production.

Smoothing the Design Workflow

To smooth the design workflow there must be a means of delivering the required information to the workface at the time it is required. It is however difficult in design to fix with certainty the time when information is required and in consequence information is delivered by “push”.

The concept of “pull” should be applied so that designers acquire information when they are ready to use it without the overload caused by “push”. There is then a likelihood that the information to be used in design will be current, correct and the best available.

Users need to be confident that they will find the information they are looking for and that it is current and up to date. All team members must use the system consistently and for all information.

Key principles of a strategy for managing project information within a Lean production (design) environment become:-

 

  • Identify valuable information as distinct from data and manage it
  • Users will only use a system if it has direct value to them or they understand the indirect value for another team
  • Information should be available in real time as soon as it is acquired
  • Minimise duplication of information
  • Minimise out of date information
  • Minimise duplication of effort
  • Information should only be delivered as it is demanded by users (pull)

 

Information Management Strategy

To achieve 5S in an industry which is heavily dependent on the flow of information and knowledge requires a system that can provide:-

Single source of all Information to:

 

  • Minimise duplication
  • Minimise out of date or superseded information
  • Provide Information on demand as it is needed

 

Be accessible to all project users at any time and be user friendly to:

 

  • Provide direct value to users
  • Enable users to supply information to others working on the project
  • Provide real time access with notification of changes and additions

 

Conclusions

Reducing making do generated by lack of information can be attained by the adoption of relatively simple strategies.

Managing Information Better In Construction

In a conventional highway design model, the data consist of points and lines that define the outline of the planned works. Other information critical to successful completion such as design data and specifications is disassociated. In typical engineering application data is not only stored in different locations, it is often linked via a human or paper intermediary. This segregation of data occurs because, in the common file based data management environment, there is no direct link between a drawing and a document. Changes in one may not be reflected in the other. This state of affairs is accepted historically as the design process has evolved to produce a final paper output with documents and drawings as separate entities. This is the focus of established design processes that have evolved over the years.

In a typical large highways project under the Early Contractor Involvement model, systems such as Business Collaborator (BC) share information among the parties. However in a typical application the data set held on BC is incomplete. BC is often used to issue information to team members rather than as an information or knowledge repository. The effect of this approach is to create duplication between data stored in the collaboration system and data held internally on file servers. This duplication may further increase inside the design organisation as different teams or groups maintain their own file systems. Multiple asynchronous copies of information may be held (and relied upon) that are not subject to a consistent update policy.

The lack of compatibility means that it is not possible to go to a “single source of truth” for project information it is necessary in many cases to know first what is being looked for and where it may be stored. This increases the workload to locate information and introduces a risk that it may not be found or when found may be (dangerously) out of date. A user cannot be totally confident that he has discovered the true and complete information needed to complete his task. The secondary effect of this is that often it will be easier for a person to go direct to the source of the information and the result is uncontrolled information. Additional workload is created within teams from making and responding to these requests. Multiple requests may be made over time for essentially the same information.

Should information need updating it is not possible to be confident that all versions on the system have been updated, and team members, as a result, have low confidence that information on the system is up to date. The output may, therefore, be subject to additional and unnecessary validation and control stages. Authors may hold back information in which they have little confidence, but is still useful information. This creates additional inefficiencies.

Where out of date information is held on the system this may result in rework when new information comes to light or it is corrected. A culture of making do emerges where tasks are commenced even though faith in the information is reduced, or it is known that input data will be subject to change. To enable work to advance assumptions are made to avoid future correction that in themselves may require correction at a later date. Hidden contingency is built in to cover these assumptions increasing base costs and extending project time.

Within many organisations the culture of “design iteration” remains embedded as it is implicitly accepted that information will change through the design cycle and that the design will be changed several times in response to this changing information. Supported by better information and better management of that information it should be possible to deliver better designs, earlier and cheaper, by eliminating wasteful iteration, risk and rework.

To adopt new ways of working and managing information, we must first recognise that deliverable and document focused systems are based on a paper model. In such a model information is collated into paper based documents such as reports and drawings. Information based methodologies eclipse paper and focus on delivering the right information to the right person at the right time. How information is delivered, and consumed can be variable, depending on the receiver. It is not necessary, therefore, to maintain information in different forms just because the consumer of that information has different needs. Information kept in different forms may result in omissions when updated if one of the forms is overlooked.

Much current technology for managing and indexing information is based on the assumption that information arrives in paper form or a paper analogue (e.g. email). In fact, what is essential is that the information can be found by those needing to know it. Such information is better found, not from the paper mindset of looking through all likely documents, but through search.

Traditional filing systems are based on a paper methodology with information collated into folders (files) browsed as a file analogue. The division into files can be arbitrary and at odds with how information is sought by the user. Within a traditional filing system, vertical navigation is straightforward, but horizontal navigation between folders is more difficult. The analogy would be that to move from the east wing of a 40 floor building to the west wing it was necessary to take a lift first to the lobby. If the constraint of the paper is broken, and the appropriate technology adopted, it becomes possible to obtain information by whatever method (for example full text search) is best and most effective.

It is clear, therefore, that paper based approaches to information management in a world in which almost all project information is either electronic or convertible to electronic form creates an unnecessary overhead. Search based approaches will locate information more thoroughly and more efficiently. We are used now to the internet and Google, would we gladly give up Google to use a library instead? By continuing to use deliverable and document focused systems, as opposed to information focused, this is in effect what we force teams to do.

An effective information system must provide assurance as to the quality of the information being delivered. The current position of document controller on a project will change to information manager in order that the system is properly managed and controlled.

Want Your Employees to Get the Right Information Security Awareness

There are many great websites that provide generic best practice information security tips for the workplace. However, employers need to be aware of two major risks of asking employees to rely on them for their security awareness.

The first risk is making sure that your employees visit one of the good websites, rather than fall foul of one of the ‘lesser’ sources. Simple enough to solve – send your staff an email of the information security websites that you approve of. Job done!

The second risk isn’t so simple to address. Your organisation is unique, with its own specific processes, procedures and information types. It may even draw unique cyber threats that other industries and organisations don’t have to contend with. Unfortunately, any best practice that your employees draw from generic security websites is unlikely to be fully applicable to these unique aspects of your organisation.

For example, generic websites can talk about the dangers of phishing, but they can’t talk about the specific dangers of spear phishing attacks that are unique to your industry or organisation. Generic sites can talk about how ‘sensitive information’ should be encrypted when copied onto storage media or transported on laptops, but they can’t define what ‘sensitive information’ means in the context of your organisation.

Benefits of the specific source

Many organisations are addressing this second risk by bringing the source of security best practice in-house. This ensures that employees have fast access to a comprehensive portal that covers the breadth of required information security awareness. In most cases this is achieved by way of a distinct information security micro-site held within their existing intranet framework.

This delivers the immediate benefit of allowing you to tailor all information security best practice to your organisation, making it fit for purpose for the work your employees do and the way that they do it. The types of information can be discussed within the context of the organisation’s own information classification system. All handling procedures can refer specifically to organisation processes. The unique risks of the industry or organisation can also be addressed, with relevant real life case studies providing additional weight.

Compiling an in-house resource also provides many other advantages. The content can be re-tasked for your employee information security awareness training sessions. It can also become the central information hub from which organisation-wide information security communications campaigns are run. No matter how campaign messages are conveyed to employees – whether by posters, presentations, plasma screen animations or quick-guides – the information security micro-site is always cited as the first port of call for further information.

Building an information security portal

Naturally there are many factors that contribute to a successful information security portal. Two key priorities are to plan a clear information hierarchy and aim for maximum build flexibility.

Getting the information hierarchy right plays a huge role in dictating the success of the project. If users have trouble finding what they want to know, you run the risk that they’ll try and find it on a web search, which takes them outside your control. Information security is a complex topic, and a clear information hierarchy not only makes it easy to find topics, it can also help employees to see how all the various topics inter-relate. This can make the entire subject seem much more mentally accessible and therefore easier to employ.

Build flexibility gives your site the longest possible shelf-life and makes it a highly versatile communications tool. Like any website, users are encouraged to return if they feel it is a dynamic source of valuable information. For example, home page flexibility in particular can allow you to tailor it to specific information security awareness campaigns. You should also ensure that the clear information hierarchy takes into account that the site will grow over time. For example, as new threats emerge or as new processes are introduced to the organisation.

Before embarking on a portal project, it’s a good idea to ask a cross-section of your employees what they would like to see and what would help them most. Although many will almost certainly provide generic answers, look closely at the way they are responding. This is an excellent opportunity to test the temperature of your organisation’s attitude to information security. If a large proportion of your staff members have no opinion, it could indicate that they aren’t that interested in handling their work securely – something that certainly needs to be addressed.

Gathering of Information: The Silent Spies in the Internet and in Telecommunications

Anyone who is regularly online will have seen it more than once, if they’re really interested in Social Media Networking, they’ll have seen it tens of times over the last few years: Big Brother. Stories, articles, essays and a whole mess of scaremongering about what happens each and every time a person logs onto the Internet. Someone, somewhere is watching over them, peeking over their shoulder and following each and every move whilst they are surfing. They know what has been purchased on Amazon, what is searched for on Google, each status update on Facebook and Twitter. The curtains may have been drawn and the door locked, but no one is ever alone on the Internet.

In Europe and the United States there is a great deal of legal pressure on politicians, not so much pressure from the public because they know better, but from civil rights organizations and the like, to limit the ability of some web sites to gather information. Much has been written about Facebook and Google gathering information, and there have been many diverging opinions: the information is entered voluntarily, so be it! It is, however, much more than that.

The Internet is the biggest potential marketplace ever. The discussions might be about markets such as China and the United States, about emerging markets and First and Third World markets but they have nothing compared to the potential of the Internet, because the Internet brings every single country together, almost into one melting pot, and has all the possibilities at anyone’s fingertips for exploitation. Not necessarily in a bad way, not all exploitation is bad, but in a way which could define how the market evolves, what offers are made and how web sites and online stores are designed and geared up for the customer of the future.

In short, someone out there is gathering information on you and your habits.

Most of the information being gathered is harmless. It is information individuals have entered themselves – such as by Facebook – and it is information on what is needed, desired or enjoyed – such as by Google, Yahoo, Bing and any other search engine one might care to mention. It is information about what has bought – where else can Amazon get its recommendations from other than from individual buying habits?

And the rest of the information?

The rest is a gathering of individual surfing habits. Which web sites have been visited and how long has the visitor stayed there? Where did they come from and where did they go? Which page did they land on and which search words did they use to get there?

What would happen if a single person or a company could use all this technology at their fingertips to see what each person does on other sites? What if they could set up a little bit of spying software on another site and see whether someone visits when that site has no other connection to them?

This has happened here from the moment a link was made to this site. Not in a bad way, but everyone visiting this page has been checked by others. They’ve been checked by Google (Google Analytics), by Alexa, by Facebook. Even if the visitor doesn’t have a Facebook account, they’ve been checked and the visit logged.

Why and how?

Why. Facebook is a site which gathers all manner of information to advance its own advertising strategy. A person doesn’t need to be registered for Facebook to want to know what interests them, to be able to build up a global picture of what is popular and what is on the way out. Each time there is a Facebook symbol on a web site, even if no one presses Like, they’ve been seen, their visit has been noted. The page has loaded in a browser and the Like button has been loaded direct from Facebook.

How do webmasters know when others are hot linking to their photographs and images? The visit, on another web site, has been logged and, eventually, evaluated.

And when a person thinks that they’ve only been surfing safe sites? Think again.

A few days ago I installed a new tracking checker on my personal system. It tells me how many other companies are watching my every move, how many spies there are out there. I went through my normal surfing routine, a little bit of Twitter, a touch of Facebook, some StumbleUpon, a hint of Google+ and a few sites with adult content. The result after only two days, that is perhaps seven or eight hours of actual surfing from one web site to another, was seven hundred and sixty-eight hits by Facebook alone.

Let’s get one thing right out of the way: in the majority of cases Facebook, and all the others tracking, do not know who an individual is. They can’t put a name to their activities, or a face. That is, unless they happen to be logged in to Facebook while surfing elsewhere. Unless they happen to still have the Facebook cookie saved in their computer cache. Facebook and others can see where a person is on the Internet, where they’ve been, which country they are in and, probably, also which area from the IP address, but they don’t know who an individual is.

Is this a bad thing, this gathering of information for marketing purposes?

Perhaps there will indeed come a time when Minority Report – the film with Tom Cruise – is not just a threat but a reality. A time when a person’s features can be recognized from afar and advertising is adapted to their needs, their interests. At the moment it is all limited to offers made when someone log into the web sites of their choice and based upon the information they’ve given up voluntarily. But some of that information is already being used to influence other people in their buying choices.

Who hasn’t seen the little addition on Amazon: people who bought this book also bought…

This is the thin edge of the wedge, this is just the beginning. This is the information other people have put in to a web site being used to influence you, the visitor. It’s one thing to say that an item might interest you based on what you’ve purchased before, but quite another to have information based on what other people have looked at or bought.

And it is also a simple fact of life which cannot be avoided. I may well have been able to block over three thousand tracking attempts during my few hours of surfing, but did they catch all of them? More to the point, aside from Facebook, who is tracking me? The Big Bad Wolf is not an advertising company checking on who has been looking at their banners or pop-ups. The Big Bad Wolf is those tracking companies who gather information, press it all together and then sell it to others. The anonymous, faceless people we have nothing to do with. Are they just marketing companies, or is the government, any government, hiding behind them? Has the CIA found me, or you and decided to track our movements because a web site visited published a photo of someone, or MI6 because there is a comment posted about Kate Middleton’s figure?

Enough of the scaremongering. To be honest and there is not a great deal about this gathering of information that’s all that bad. Information has always been gathered, evaluated, passed on and it always will be. Every single time someone goes shopping in the Real World their purchases are recorded: the credit or debit card company; the store; the wholesaler; the manufacturer. No names in most instances, but the information has been gathered. A tin of peas has been purchased, restock the shelves and order a new tin.

Are there any benefits to this mass gathering of information?

If a product isn’t popular it gets removed from sale. If a whole range of products suddenly go viral, more are produced. If a web site suddenly falls in the ratings, it gets improved or it vanishes. If an advert gets no clicks at all, it needs to be re-evaluated and a new marketing strategy pounded out.

The people who are surfing through the Internet are changing its features with each click of their mouse. Their surfing activity is the basis for what follows. A visitor to any web site doesn’t have to press Like to show appreciation, it is enough that the records show they stayed on a site for five minutes, read through an article, even if they didn’t comment or purchase. The visit alone is showing the manufacturers, the advertisers, the service industry where interest lie with the result that they are going to have to tailor what they have on offer to meet our (silent) demands. We, the Internet users, are shaping the future, just by being here. And that can only be a good thing.

Even so, nearly eight hundred blocks on Facebook alone in so few hours?

I have written so far about the marketing strategies of various Internet web sites, of advertising and the collection of data from individual visits to web sites while surfing through the Internet. Now I wish to take it one step further following an announcement by the German telecommunications company O2, a daughter firm of the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica.

The collection of information through Internet sites, as illustrated above, is simple, cheap and effective. An Internet user surfs to a web site of interest and his or her movements through the web are logged, collected and evaluated by a whole range of different tracking devices, from spy software through cookies, links to social media networks and search engines or analytical tools. But what about the general movements of a person during their daily lives? Is it possible to follow a specific person, or a group of people, as they move through a city? Is it possible to collate the information gained from these movements and come up with an overall picture which might be useful to marketing companies, to advertisers, to the marketplace in general?

It is a well known and accepted fact that people who use modern smart phones, as well as older versions, can be tracked. The mobile telephone needs to be in constant contact with a transmission device, a node or similar, so that it is available should the user wish to telephone out or to receive calls from other people. As long as the mobile device is switched on it sends and receives a signal which places it within a certain area, within reach of a communications point to retain this high level of connectivity. A person moving through the streets of Berlin, New York, London, Paris or any other modern city as well as all minor cities, smaller towns, villages and the countryside with a mobile device is constantly followed by these connection signals as long as their device is switched on. Information on their position may, with the right technology, quickly be collected and, in the case of an emergency for example, directed to the appropriate authorities, even without the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS).

The German telecommunications company O2 is investigating the possibilities of using this information on the movement of individuals for marketing purposes. Being able to watch the movements of an individual or a group as they travel from one shop to another within a major city, or from one position to another on longer journeys, can give information about where the most interest in a town lies, where the shops and stores have the best pull and even, with finer tuning, how long a person remains in one position, in one shop or store.

Not, in and of itself, too much of a problem until you take it to the next step in the process.

Couple the information on a person’s movements with further information, such as age and gender, and it is possible to build up a very accurate picture of the movements and interests of a group of people within a certain age group – such as young women aged between 18 and 24. The necessary information is already there, voluntarily given by the customer during the process of buying or renting a mobile telephone. Date of birth, address, gender and, in some cases, income and educational levels are all included in the basic application process for a contract between telecommunications company and customer.

Here, because of the sudden lack of anonymity, we come into a gray area as far as data protection is concerned, and a potential earner for the telecommunications industry. Combine the information with actual sales, with positioning in an entertainment area of a city or the main shopping street, and it is possible to build up an individual picture of each and every person using a mobile device at any time of the day or night. Here we are verging on the private sphere, the gathering of information which can be narrowed down to a specific person.

What is the difference between an individual person using the Internet and being tracked and an individual using a mobile device?

With Internet tracking there may well be several hundred people using a connection point into the Internet, an IP address linked to an Internet Service Provider, at any one time. With mobile device tracking the link is direct to a specific mobile phone, to a specific person who has purchased or rented this device. It is possible to link directly to a name and an address without needing to go any further along the chain, without needing to find out who was using a specific IP at a certain time and then checking their communications protocol or whereabouts at the time of connection. It is possible to track movements without the person being tracked actually being active, without them having logged into the Internet or even making a telephone call.

With further innovations in the smart phone market, such as video devices, payment for services through a smart chip, it is possible to trace their every movement right down to the items they may purchase in any given store, even a parking ticket purchased through an appropriate application on their mobile phone. It is possible to see how long they remain in one area, where they move to and how much they have spent.

For the gathering of information with marketing potential, this is an absolute goldmine. For the individual, the mobile device owner, it is an incursion into their private sphere, into their daily lives.

This form of market information gathering is not music for the future; the first steps have already been taken by O2 in Germany. Information is already available and is constantly being added to each time a person switches their mobile device on. It is only a matter of time before the true potential of this information source is recognized and, data protection laws allowing, becomes common practice.

This form of gathering, of tracking is, according to many professional and civil rights organizations, one step too far. As long as the information gathered comes from a large group and cannot be traced back to an individual it is relatively harmless. With the mobile device potential, the move towards a Minority Report style society is far closer than anyone would wish to believe and, in all probability, far closer than anyone is prepared to accept.