Acareo Ltd

Focusing on the main thing!

Keeping you focused

cropped-NewLogo_smlbg.jpgWith change inevitably comes uncertainty. Organisations are concerned about their finances, especially costs; staff about their jobs, customers about the quality and availability of services or products. Technological change is happening all around us; businesses see savings, opportunities for new markets and but are they geared up for the pace of change and the challenges that presents? Right now Acareo is all about improving efficiency and effectiveness in your organisation; understanding the needs of stakeholders and translating those into functional, user-friendly applications whilst sustaining (and, wherever possible, improving) service to the customer AND smoothing the path towards your goals. We focus on the main thing and trying to keep it the main thing; it’s not just about delivering products; it is about benefits – the best software ever is useless and therefore worthless if no one is using it and you didn’t stop the old ways of working. Our aim is to provide you with the capacity, tools and skills to help with the business change challenges that managing change present. Change can be scary but it needn’t be if it is managed properly.
Find out more about us then look at our services to find out how we can help you through the conundrum of improving delivery whilst simultaneously reducing costs.

Pastures New

We have had an amazing 12 months with Paymentshield helping them to migrate multiple closed books of insurance that were incompatible with their future strategy to another group company AND ensure that their remaining policy and quote admin systems are GDPR ready. Now, after a few weeks of down time, (like getting my daughter through her A-level results, driving test and ready and moved in to university is downtime!) it’s time to get the radar out and seek that next opportunity. I’m enjoying the time off client work and getting loads done around the home and catching up on company administration etc but, it can’t go on forever. Will the next client be legal, insurance, public sector or something totally new? Who knows – the joy of being a business analyst is it really doesn’t matter whether you have tons of sector based experience or not – business requirements are just that; and sometimes it helps just to be able to ask the daft questions of SMEs and managers because often they have never been asked before. Quite often a real golden nugget can be discovered such as plugging a £5 million hole in NHS Student Bursary finances back in 2014 which arose from simply asking “Do you reconcile student child-care allowance against actual expenditure?”

Property Insurance

4 weeks in to a new contract with a major NW based specialist property insurer and it is all go. Moulding together a new team is never easy but we are getting there with a great mix of in-house and contract staff shaping up to make a very capable transformation machine.

There are many challenges ahead, not least the ever present dilemma of timescales vs resource availability (cost) vs quality coupled with the seemingly ubiquitous Kit’s Not Ready Syndrome; the inability to get staff started on the same day or after their email and kit are set up! We can’t say much about the plans but suffice to say it will be an interesting, if challenging journey #NeverADullMomentAtAcareo

Time for change

Arguably in our line of business it is always time for change – without change we have no business!

After almost 6 months with a large insurance broker working on a complete Quote and Buy replacement across multiple products with multiple solution platforms our time is nearly done. Once we go live with the first phase the contract team will be gradually replaced by the in house PMs and BAs who will no longer be patching up the old system. It has been an amazing journey with plenty of barriers to change – all overcome.  We’ve looked at the requirements for web service, self service, the aggregator sites and their role, the insurer and add-on provider products and terms of business and their reporting and payment requirements, counter fraud and post sale verification, system configuration from users to accounting for sales, and the customer journey for web and phone.

Add to that internal MI requirements and the need to have full year visibility (thereby needing to match information from the old with the new) and co-writing training manuals it has been a very full in engagement. It’s all been topped off with the Business Readiness assessments.

Being based evenly between northern, southwest and home office has also presented its challenges but it has been a job well done.

The next challenge awaits!

New contract as Endsleigh commission Acareo

Well, thankfully that didn’t take long! Having finished a previous contract on 10th March, our MD, Andy Oddy, recently met with the core of an insurance company transformation team – the programme sponsor and the project manager. They were looking for a resource that can provide an experienced business analysis service, a “go get” self starter who was prepared to travel on a weekly basis to the south-west. After being shown around the contact centre and the IT team and, after a short discussion around experience, qualifications and competencies Andy left full of anticipation, yet as always, a degree of level-headedness that the “gig” was not in the bag until the proverbial singer rings. Well, the call came mid-afternoon and we are pleased to be able to say that Acareo are, subject to due diligence, due to provide business analysis services to a major insurance company for at least 6 months starting in April.

Acareo MD Andy Oddy said:

“This is great news and will build on our previous successes in insurance work, contact centres and management reporting alongside wider business intelligence.”

User Stories and/or Use Cases?

There is often confusion in the mind of the business analyst about the need for or application of user stories and Use Cases, especially if the organisation hasn’t been exposed to these tools and techniques in the past.

User stories (syntax: as a <who>, I need to <what>, so that <why>) are useful to define the boundary of a functionality such that the required functionality can be designed, developed, tested and deployed. A good user story can improve tractability when properly aligned with the wider business requirements. Developing user stories is not difficult but, all too often, is done badly or, worse, is not done at all! The business analyst could set up a workshop with the project team to chalk out the bare bones of a few stories from the requirements such that each one of these is a small piece of functionality in itself that can be delivered independently. The idea is similar to divide and rule. Instead of putting the whole cake in the mouth, we cut it to small pieces that can be chewed

User stories are different to use cases – there are dozens of Use Case templates available using a Google search. As long as the business analyst understands the logic and purpose of the Use Case templates the concepts are not too difficult to grasp. A Use Case may be or relate to a collection of user stories and will describe the triggers, actors, preconditions, flow of events (primary, alternate and exception) and the post-conditions (or outcomes). A good user story moves the focus from writing about features to discussing them.

Frequently the business analyst (or even other stakeholders) may be writing use cases or user stories right now and unaware that they are doing so. At the end of the day, user stories and Use Cases do not have a structure the first time you write them down (even if they do, they will rarely be right first time). That’s where the conversation comes in.

When looking for user stories and Use Cases the business analyst must consider the whole organisation as an open and adaptable system. The environment interacts with the organisation and to best understand that interaction Use Cases and user stories are the best tool for communication of requirements to stakeholders.

Being a good business analyst is much more than any way of documenting the requirement. If you are able to express why a certain change is needed and what’s the desired business outcome and then collaborate with business users and the development team to come up with the right solution, then learning a new way of presenting the requirements is not a necessary solution. Where these two techniques/tools come into their own is when you are struggling to communicate the business requirement to stakeholders, be they the business or the developers or testers. In my experience use cases can end up being more solution central (especially if “the system” is portrayed as an actor) whereas user stories accompanied with acceptance criteria are a neat way of expressing solution neutral requirements.

Crucially, as long as the systems analyst can understand what is needed and the business is happy with the outcome, then the how is not really important. Don’t agonise over methodologies and forget the no 1 thing – listen to and understand what your customer wants (of course strictly speaking that’s a no 1 and a no 2 thing to ensure that the requirement is binary!). If in doubt, try it, see if it adds value and move on.

Taxation, austerity and small business – life or death?

So, with effect from 1st April the flat rate VAT Scheme is changing.It seems our business is now caught by what HMRC term as a “limited costs business”.  Essentially, because our costs of goods is less than 2% of turnover we will have to pay an additional 2% VAT. This coupled up with a reduction in the dividend tax threshold from £5000 to £2000 and increases in national insurance contributions alongside changes to IR35 in public service contracts compounds the onslaught by the government on contractors and interims. The workforce of the UK is changing, of that there can be no denial; there is a huge swing from PAYE single job employment to self employment/single director companies and that this has had an adverse impact on the total tax take. However, to punish those who are entrepreneurial enough to take the risks associated with branching out alone whilst allowing the big beasts and the wealthiest to avoid tax or negate liability whilst never increasing their share of the pie is taking the biscuit!

UK Tax take 2016-17 per the Office of Budget Responsibility

UK Tax take 2016-17 per the Office of Budget Responsibility


That tax need to be raised is not denied and willingness to pay doesn’t come in to it – without adequate taxation we have no public services – but if only the government were prepared to raise the tax threshold more in other areas of the economy (and indeed increase the total tax take in order to limit the impact on public services). Instead, their strategy seems to be to pick off small groups – the self employed (although that has now been back-tracked), the disabled (recent changes to PIPs criteria will ensure that thousands of otherwise eligible claimants will no longer receive their mobility or care allowance elements of PIPS (formerly DLA). Why always prepared to take on the little guy but never the multi-nationals? Maybe because we are easier meat, less likely to resist in a coherent fashion, fewer allies in the media etc etc. Whilst the unemployed and disabled can be labelled scroungers, contractors can always be labelled tax dodgers and neither group have a loud enough collective voice to argue to the contrary. But what is really disconcerting is that whilst the government is struggling to provide basic public services to the elderly, the infirm, the ill and to our children we never seem to fail to raise the finds necessary for fighting wars. I don’t recall cost being an issue with wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – government just found the money. Likewise, with the continuous bombing of Syria costing us billions whilst our public services wither on the vine. Why is this possible? Why is it that we can always find the money to take life but never to save life or improve the quality of life of those least able to help themselves in our society.

As a small business we don’t begrudge paying our taxes – but we do begrudge the government wasting it on wars we should have no truck with and wasting it on inefficient services. But equally we are aghast at the government not spreading the load more directly across the corporate world so that the burden is more on the bigger businesses, especially those who take their income from the public sector. How is it ever right that a shareholder dividend for a large business can be made from public service contracts (i.e. HP, CapGemini, BT, G4S, Capita, Virgin Healthcare and many, many more taking billions of pounds of tax revenue as profit – HP alone took £1.9bn out of the UK treasury in just one year in 2014!) but a single director company providing services to a public sector body now has to be treated as an employee for tax purposes because we are somehow considered to be fiddling the system? Whilst no formal analysis has been done I’d wager that the top 3 or 4 companies by value of public contracts make far more in profit than all of the single director company contractors in the sector combined.

Downtime – the bit between contracts

We’ve just finished a great 6 months with a mid-size legal practice in Manchester and are now looking for the next contract. Every time a contract comes to an end there is a period of uneasiness coupled with expectation:

  • Uneasiness because
    • you don’t know when the next contract will start (or where) and you still have bills to pay – the reserves hopefully built up for such a “rainy day” will only last so long after all. We’ve had gaps varying between “next day start” and 4 months. Our ideal is somewhere in-between but nearer the “next day start” than the 4 months!
    • if the phone isn’t ringing regularly then self doubt creeps in – are we still cutting it? Does our vast experience in the BA world must count for something?
  • Expectation because
    • theres the thrill of the chase – where will that next role be?
    • will it be in the comfort zone of a favoured/seasoned sector or will it be in a whole new world where a client sees your potential and gives you the opportunity to prove yourself with a short lead contract?

Our MD, Andy Oddy, says that he will never get used to the uneasiness:

I miss working and the need for income to provide for my family will always be there. The worry about what comes next is only natural but the down time presents opportunities, lots of them. It is not a time for sitting round doing nothing, thats for sure and the expectation builds and more than makes up for any downside.

So, what happens at Acareo when a contract comes to an end? Andy summarises that “downtime” as anything but:

First off is brushing down the CV and posting it widely on recruitment sites alongside scouring the job/industry sites for those new opportunities. Ideally this will have been done a month before the end of the previous contract but I am constantly tweaking mine for roles that arise. Equally I take the time to refresh this site – it is my front window after all. Then I make a few calls to agencies who have used me before – I have made some of them a lot of money over the years so I like them to know I am available and looking. Next is hooking up with former clients via LinkedIn or email – there’ll be a select few who are now friends on Facebook but not many as I like to keep work an pleasure separate). All of these are leads to whatever might come next.

Once all of the seeds are sewn I turn to reflect on our last role. What have we learned, what could we have done differently – invariably it hinges around SME engagement – you simply cannot get enough exposure to subject matter experts – but how they will react/engage with you varies enormously depending upon whether you’re there as the “hatchet-man” or the “saviour”:

  • The hatchet man role is where there is a lot of time and therefore cost to be saved, efficiencies mean job cuts in most stakeholder eyes even though this isn’t strictly true.
  • The saviour role is where the business is expanding and there is new work/new products or new customers and the organisation needs to change rapidly in order to meet demand/expectations.

Then of course there is continuous professional development. The time between contracts is the time for going back to school. I always try and get in at least one course to brush up on some aspect of the business analyst toolbox/skill-set (and there are so many!)

For me I also take time to invest in my local schools where I am Chair of Governors at one (an  outstanding primary school) and a parent governor at another (an outstanding high school/academy). Education is my passion.

Lastly (but by no means least) there is the family – it’s time to make up for all of those late nights/days away and spend some quality time with the people that matter the most. A holiday isn’t always possible (if only contract end was always aligned with the school holidays eh?) but there are other ways of making a difference. Lunch out with my better half, Taxi service for my daughter – I used to help with homework but now it’s A-Level Chemistry/Biology and Maths that’s a bit beyond me other than moral support. Indeed the taxi service used to be local but nowadays it seems to be wider afield for gigs in the big cities! Then of course there is catching up on all those jobs that just seem to appear out of nowhere – the garden, decorating, odd-jobs…

All in all there is no such thing as downtime between contracts – different roles and activities, yes, different value streams most definitely but downtime it is not!

Localism – democracy and the dangers of referenda

With the Localism Bill to be published imminently there is already talk of it being a “Nimby Charter”; a world where the vote of the majority on a single issue is the only vote that matters, no matter how un-informed or self-interested the electorate might be. The pro-localism lobby are citing the likely introduction of neighbourhood referenda to decide planning and other decisions as being a means of restoring decision-making powers in the people, giving people power to determine the key decisions that affect where they live. Those who advocate the use of referenda argue typically that referenda:

  • restore democracy to the people
  • allow the people to tell the “establishment” to be responsive
  • restore “the people’s will” to the democratic decision-making process

These supposed benefits – which perhaps can be summarised as the seduction of the masses – are falsehoods based upon major misconceptions. The arguments put forward in the case for referenda stem from a series of unfounded assumptions.
The people’s view is all that matters
In a modern and complex society such as those found in the western democracies just who are “the people”? The term implies “all of us” or maybe it is all of us who are not elected to office or maybe the term should also exclude public officials or volunteers or anyone who is capable of making a decision that will impact on “the people”. The fact is there are millions of us from multiple different backgrounds each with different motivations, values and beliefs. Each of us exercises our own judgement in how we wish to participate (or not) in our democratic processes; be it with a club or society or in the mainstream electoral process or just in our daily lives. We vary in the degree to which we choose to stay in ignorance or as to how and when we get information that helps to inform us. How is it possible that such wide variation can be squeezed into a single shoebox labelled “the people”?
For the purposes of mainstream democracy we associate into groups that more readily reflect our own ideas and beliefs, behind leaders that we feel can deliver a vision of a future that we aspire to. That association may only be a X on a ballot paper to entrust our opinion by way of a mandate in another person or group or it may be that we are so passionate in our belief that we participate more actively – or it may be that we are so disillusioned or disinterested that we do not participate at all. Whatever our level of participation, it is our individual choice. In some circumstances we may be so disillusioned that we protest. Such protest may be through a good moan or may be a protest such as has been seen waged by students of late or, in extreme situations we may actually rise up in revolution.
So how can a referendum help democracy given such widespread diversity amongst the plebiscite? To vote “yay or nay” on a single issue cannot be any more than an expression of popularity only slightly more democratic than the awful closed shop voting systems of reality TV. Referenda may, on occasion, have a purpose in sorting out a complete blockage on opinion where opinion is totally polarised between two viewpoints, such as in determining the democratic process itself; devolution or centralised government; first past the post or proportionate representation. But can it be right for popularism to be the fundamental lynchpin of democracy?
Referenda make decisions simple
Since when was life simple or the decisions required for better governance of our lives simple either? If they were so simple we would not need the mass of bureaucracy that goes hand in hand with democracy. Complex issues cannot be simplified just by making the vote one of “for or against” – decisions need to be made from an informed position with an understanding and insight into all of the arguments, the benefits and dis-benefits, who will benefit and who will suffer, what will the consequences of the decision be? Democracy is about weighing up all of the available evidence and making a decision based upon what is in the best interests of key stakeholders. Would slavery have ever been abolished on the back of a “slave owners only” referenda? In addition, making the vote a simple “yay or nay” dumbs down the voters by conning us into thinking any decision is so clear-cut. We elect people to do most of the detailed understanding for us; through scrutiny in committees and reports our elected representatives get into a level of detailed debate, informed by subject matter experts, that the rest of us cannot hope to achieve through a referendum. When it comes to them making a decision it is usually on a basket of measures that provide balance and their decisions are, hopefully (although not always) made based upon an informed judgement.
The view of the masses is the only relevant view
In years gone by we had mob rule, witches were hunted down and burned at the stake; a posse could string up the accused without fair trial, homophobic attacks are still incited by the arguments of he who shouts loudest, regardless of the validity of the argument. Over the years the growth of a civil and fair society has diminished the role of the mob; it can be argued that our democratic processes exist primarily to avoid the rule of the mob. I find myself looking to history again – the birth of our democracy at Runnymede in 1215 was down to the representatives of the masses stating quite unequivocally to the King that his form of legitimised mob-rule was no longer acceptable and that if he wished to stay upon the throne he had to make certain concessions. John needed the patronage of the barons more than anything and recognised the need, albeit begrudgingly, to limit his arbitrary powers. Lord Denning, when head of the judiciary, described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. Everyone wants the decision-making process to be easy but regretfully, an understanding of the complexity of the issues comes with the territory of being empowered to decide upon those issues. The old adage “act in haste, repent at leisure” could very reasonably be extended to cover ill-informed electorates deciding matters via referenda. In a like manner, referenda can suppress public speech and smother pressure groups or lobbyists since only the voice of the majority matters. Minority groups would be left without a say, and potentially even without a hope. In a democracy the views of all are listened to and the needs of all are catered for. By their very nature referenda are the instruments of the will of the majority and eliminate the minority view in their wake.
Referenda give empowerment to the voter
On face value this statement could be accepted as a fact. However, whilst people may vote for a proposition, they will not be accountable for its consequences. Those who vote not to have a new low-cost housing development in their community do not have to address the homelessness problem in the borough; those who don’t want a half way house in their street do not have to concern themselves with reducing repeat offending in the district. Those who axe social services budgets may not see the consequences until it is too late for a victim of abuse or a vulnerable adult. Similarly ad-hoc coalitions can arise where a common enemy is perceived with the outcome being that fear and hate may join together such as happened in the Lisbon Treaty vote in Ireland. There the catholic right (including the press) and the euro-sceptical left-wing minority parties joined forces to vote against the two main political parties, both of whom advocated supporting the treaty. The irony of such events is that the ad hoc coalition need not be bothered with the responsibility of the consequences of such single focus decisions – those elected and in power have to sort that out.
In Summary
Referenda have their place – but I submit it should be a limited place with strong checks and balances against perverse decisions. The risk of unintended consequences cannot be overlooked and must be mitigated against in the forthcoming bill. We cannot be forced down an alley whereby the role of the “nay” voter is made simple merely by the application of strict conservative principles of “if in doubt, say no”. This would leave the pro-change lobby with the untenable task of having a higher burden of proof ; a stricter and more compelling evidence base. Remember, “no campaigns” are here today, gone tomorrow; they evaporate when the vote is won. Those who want change have to stick around, implement it and be accountable for the consequences. If not implemented with these caveats in mind the government risk intensifying the democratic gulf between the “engaged and informed” and the “disenchanted and ignorant”. The role of government is to govern and serve all of us, not just a select few who happen to be able to voice and mobilise their opinion.

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