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Decision analysis as a basis for more effective agricultural innovation

©2018 APE


Part 5: Paying for successful projects

by
Hector McNeill1

Summary

Successful agricultural innovation that translates into real economic growth and enhanced community standards of living depends upon the identification of feasible projects. While emphasis is put on the methods to complete a project cycle, the capabilities of service providers to remain abreast of information technology developments and their ability to turn these into appropriate support for users is of vital importance.

The delivery of information technology and communications technology solutions has undergone a major revolution which continues today.

Even today funding agencies and organization executives will often commit funds to renewing hardware and software on a regular basis. This process incurs a very high cost, it can disrupt operations and in many cases never keeps the receiving organization in a fully optimized operational state; it is a wasteful out-dated process.

The combination of advancing development of hardware, scripting techniques, data analysis and structures has created the potential for a downward spiral in costs of delivery of services while sustaining a constant evolution in increasing effectiveness, efficiency and economy. To achieve this, ingenuity and innovation must continue to characterize the teams that deliver information management services in domains they understand. In this way they can deliver a constant flow of service with increasing capacity and convenience while incurring no additional costs and with absolutely no disruption of service for the customer. The outcome is a continuing win-win and sustainable state of affairs for the service providers and their customers.

This article describes the Navatec System approach to achieving these ends.


A background our service strategy

After a considerable amount of analysis concerning information services company survival over the last 30 years, including pre-World Wide Web data, we have defined a specific service strategy for Navatec System.
Using centralized server side processing enables service providers themselves maintain a constant exposure to client evolving requirements and stimulate learning and the development of innovative solutions. Team members descend a leaning curve and develop a unique expertise in managing a process of information systems innovation based on a constant improvement in team capabilities.


The direct outcome for service provision developers is a sustained improvement in their capabilities based on tacit and explicit knowledge and therefore a sustained innovation in client service provisions that enhance user capabilities in a non-disruptive way.


The fundamental objective of The George Boole Foundation is to maintain an affordable and constantly improving service provision of leading edge utilities to support project cycle and portfolio management including project design, optimization, setup, implementation and sustainable operations and full oversight beyond any initial funding period. Aspects of the system have been described in the articles 1 through 4 in this series.

The Foundation ensures a very close association between SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab, a research unit, which will focus on all necessary developments identified by Navatec.com the services division that run the Navatec System service. This model is one where a flow of innovation in the services offered can support users to become increasingly capable of creating and managing successful projects.

The Navatec strategy

Navatec.com has undertaken to provide a fully comprehensive and low cost service that is accessible to low income country institutions and clients. The low cost operations are purely the result of the current and emerging state-of-the-art capabilities and associated costs of existing hardware, software, analytical and processing techniques. Navate.com will relay all new demands from customers which may require changes in processes or analysis to SEEL. SEEL maintains the scripts and code database for the Group and are responsible for advancing these by adding new capabilities according to demand.

This operational configuration has important impacts on the sustainability of the service quality to users as a result of learning on the part of the information service team. This relationship with time is depicted in the diagram on the top right.

Navatec System's configuration is based on a server side operation. This places all of the processing power, service programs and database in a single secure server with the users only requiring a browser on the client side to access and use all of the resources available through the service. Most browsers available are free of charge. No other software is required.

With this configuration any user device be they a mobile smart phone, tablet, lap top, pc or any other device that can run a browser can access and use the Navatec System resources. In addition the user devices can use any operating system supplied by Microsoft, Android or Apple and others. The only requirement is that they provide support for a browser that follows internationally agreed operational standards. The outcome of this configuration is that customers benefit from a service that is constantly improving and free from disruptions such as the need to download new upgrades. The service releases all upgrades from the central server so the next time a user enters the system they have immediate access to the new system. Any upgrade will remain compatible with datasets and records and any new components providing new functionality will be accompanied by online guidelines and technical support. Upgrades will be available worldwide the second they are rolled out. The working arrangement between SEEL and Navatec.com means innovation cycles that advance the capabilities of the service are shorter and customers receive a more rapid response to good practical ideas and requests in a win-win situation.

These general benefits are depicted in the second diagram on the right.

Due diligence in service delivery

Besides applying the Open Quality Standards Initiative recommendations in all of the operational modules, Navatec.com seeks to avoid errors in processing arising from programmer implementations and client or user operations.

Programmer implementations

All coding and upgrade coding is subject to a due diligence procedure known as Objective-Dataset-Algorithm-Coherence (ODAC). This deploys a data reference model to ensure that the required dataset necessary to secure a specific type of information (objective) and the algorithm or process to be applied to the data are coherent. This is a regular process conducted by separate groups to ensure that when an upgrade is rolled out it is fully operational.

Client or user errors

Many project cycle management systems rely on a range of applications including email, word processors and spread sheets. A survey carried out by SEEL in 2000 showed that as datasets increase in size and the algorithms applied to data multiply, the number of errors introduced by manual operations increases significantly (see left). In some jurisdictions it is against the law to use spreadsheets for reporting on financial transactions because of the closed nature of formulae and the liability of the system to human error in data entry. Some large corporations now require detailed audits of spreadsheet data errors and formulae to avoid costly financial mistakes.

The lesson we have drawn from direct experience over the period 2000 to date has confirmed these findings demonstrating that the error-prone nature of spreadsheets has reached unacceptable levels because a large proportion of project cycle management records are kept in this form. These "documents" are transmitted via email or server downloads and although online capabilities exist there are problems associated with released versions and the need to update. As a result what should be a single centrally database maintained to high standards of integrity ends up as a distributed sometimes atomized dataset with users in different locations having access's to degraded datasets. The amounts of funding dedicated to projects makes this a more significant risk in financial terms than is often realized. There is a problem associated with the fact that the convenience of spreadsheets lowers the levels of perception of the dimensions of spreadsheet errors. The hidden nature of formulae also creates a "black box" with users assuming a higher level of due diligence in quality control than in fact exists.

Our approach to this significant issue has been to limit the ability of users to alter tables and formulae and to only alter these elements on request through the application of a strict due diligence, on the server side and subjected to ODAC procedures. As a result there only exists one coherent dataset in a single Plasma Database serving each project and these datasets make up the integrated dataset of the portfolio. As a result manual errors and data half-life effects are eliminated in the Navatec System. Although some users question this approach we have found that on balance, once understood, users prefer its convenience but, more importantly they welcome the assurance that any component of the operational system, including any upgrades, which do not affect the central dataset, have been validated since this also minimizes risks of significant financial corrections or even losses and liabilities on the side of donor agents, portfolio managers, executing agencies and contractors.
Navatec ODAC procedures submitted to OQSI

As a result of a demonstration of our Objective-Dataset-Algorithm-Coherence procedures the OQSI (Open Quality Standards Initiative) has initiated a review to study requirements so as to establish an assurance service for clients of service providers that have adopted the OQSI project cycle and portfolio management recommendations. Their draft recommendation and guidelines will be published in June 2018.

If these are accepted clients will have access to an assurance service that provides an independent audit to validate service components and thereby reduce financial risks and liabilities arising from data errors and miscalculations.


Expert Dialog Systems


Because there is no manual transcription between any data presentation mode and all algorithms are subject to ODAC procedures, the Navatec System has eliminated calculation errors arising from manual entry to the system. In order to avoid misunderstandings for users, Navatec System also uses Expert Dialog Systems (EDS) which is an AI-based automatic error trapping system to check that data input conforms to expectations or to previously input data that cross-relates to the current data input. This alerts users in real time of a potential error in input which advises the user on how to correct the input thereby minimizing delays or disruption.

Fee structure

In pursuit of minimizing costs of entry and operations, the financial model to be applied is based on a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SAS). The general sense and logic of this approach is that users do not require any additional software beyond a browser.

The George Boole Foundation is a non-profit organization that is able to apply a long term recuperation period for investments made to date in the Navatec System. The longer the term of recuperation the lower become the fees charged for the service. None of the investment used any form of loan or third party finance resulting in no financial overheads providing the opportunity to reduce fees.

Navatec System is a very comprehensive system combining many components which would normally be run as separate systems. What is offered to each customer will depend upon the specific requirements of each one. For this reason Navatec System offer a free return on investment (ROI) appraisal so as to determine what is required and to identify and quantify the specific benefits of an optimized configuration of Navatec System resources can bring to a specific potential customer. This information is prepared as a proposal of what services are suggested and how much these will cost on the basis of a monthly fee in which is included all future technical developments and upgrades at no additional cost. Because server resources will be used according to the number of users and number of projects in a portfolio, fairly low per head and per project charges will be made according to the numbers involved.

All requests from customers as well as technical support are responded to and any new systems development will be undertaken but all ownership of any technical developments concerning configurations and code remain with the George Boole Foundation. The impulses for appropriate change and innovation in the system will often come from the very practical challenges faced in the field by our customers, that is, our stakeholder community. We welcome this relationship as one that helps keep the Navatec System at the leading edge of project cycle and portfolio management systems capabilities.

The process of client engagement

In order to maximize transparency we follow a due diligence process of engagement with clients involving the following steps:

1. Navatec provide a free return on investment appraisal (ROI appraisal) with respect to the current and new operational objectives of the potential client

2. Navatec prepares an analysis and a proposal based on the ROI appraisal containing:
  • the expected gains in terms of capacity of operation and costs
  • quantifications of costs against savings
  • quantifications of changes in productivity
  • A fully costed proposal and contract details adapted to the specific needs of the potential client
This model provides any customer with full transparency as to the specific benefits to be gained in comparison with their current operations or as a new service. The next phase is the demonstration of the service provision based on the proposed services. As a result of the demonstration the potential customer can request modifications.

The provision of services is based on a low fixed monthly fee, paid in advance, the value of the fee is determined by the finally agreed service. Pro-rata additional fees are charged according to the number of users of the system and the number of projects supported in a portfolio. All technical support and upgrades of software and operational server component and operating system upgrades are included in the fees. The fee schedule will be posted regularly on the Navatec System website.

Some examples of typical fees


Although Navatec Systems provides a comprehensive cover of known potential customer requirements there are significant differences in usage according to the degree of development of current customer project management practice or perhaps specific requirements. Quite often, customers require complementary training in areas where there are quite often knowledge and experience gaps within project teams. For example with younger teams it is sometimes necessary to review survey and experimental methods or technical aspects related to crop and animal breeding in order to provide the correct data input to the system. Although there is ample explanation of optimization, simulation and other techniques, we have found that most teams lack adequate exposure to this field of analysis. In this case we can run instructional simulation courses on the system to bring teams up to speed on both the theory and hands-on experience. The return on investment appraisal work will identify any such requirements.

There are minor differences in one-off setup fees and in the fixed monthly license fees. The main variations in fees relate to communications and server resources utilization which relate directly to the number of projects in a portfolio and the number of users accessing each project. The system's global coverage means portfolios can combine projects being developed or being managed in any global location with W3 access. Each project has a dedicated Plasma database made up of an Accumulog and a Plasmacore. Plasmacores are completely scalable so projects of any complexity can be supported. The system has 24/7 oversight through Real Time Audit with on-demand analysis and reporting on any aspect of any project, covering the whole project cycle. Projects each have a documentation store including regular project reports issued and editing utilities are provided. Most report content can be generated automatically from the due diligence records to minimize time taken up on report preparation. In terms of design, procurement, setup and implementation all of the functions listed in the tables below are included. 24/7 technical support, free software and systems upgrades ensure sustainability of an cost-effective service and no customer service disruption.

Some recent examples of fees (updated 15th April 2018) include:

a donor system with 120 projects (distributed largely in South America) and some 25 users per project or 3,000 users. Setup fee (one off): £3,500, monthly fixed fee: £2,750

a consultancy organization with up to 50 projects (distributed largely in Central/Southern Europe & Asia) and some 15 users per project or 750 users. Setup fee (one off): £1,850, monthly fixed fee: £2,000

Navatec System provisions

CybaCity and SEEL have conducted a general survey of project cycle and portfolio management systems. The range of provisions and capabilities of such systems is large and sometime descriptions of functionality vague. However, broadly speaking most lack sound technical support for project design and optimization, there are no Accumulog functions and oversight systems vary from none at all to stated coverage. These circumstances make an objective head to head comparison difficult..

Therefore the table below indicates the operational resources within the due diligence design procedure (3DP) and administrative/oversight utilities within the Navatec System.

DESIGN PHASE

Operation
Description
Navatec System
Gaps and needs analysisProvides guidance of gaps and need analysis
Stakeholder identificationAs a natural consequence and essential part of gaps and needs analysis all stakeholders are identified
Constraints analysisProvides identification of types of information required for each type of constraint
Key locationsGPS locations on aerial maps of key objects, including stakeholders and markets
Key distancesGPS-based difference calculations to measure distances of interest within likely project/community areas including factor and produce markets and population clusters
Defined feasibility envelopeEstablishes the operational limits on solutions
Prioritised feasible objectivesBasic initial project design, activities, outputs, processes and inputs
Survey activities designProvides a dedicated dialogue/form to set out survey design information
Experimental activities designProvides a dedicated dialogue/form to set out experimental design information
Baseline designTime schedule of project activities and use of resources
Gantt chartScenario analysis through simulation of effects of changes in technology, technique, timing, costs, output quantities and qualities
Simulation for optimisationScenario analysis to quantify the sensitivity of project performance to specific inputs
Generating logical project options (LPOs)Incrementing databank (Accumulog) with project options analysis
Simulation for risk analysisScenario analysis to determine the sensitivity of project performance to variations in specific inputs
Simulation of impacts of changeScenario analysis to quantify the impacts on project performance of potential changes that could occur during implementation
Identification of the preferred project optionThe selection of the project satisfying established criteria most closely
Outputs per activityClear quantification and specification of outputs
Activity processesDescription and quantifications of process capacities in each activity
Variable inputs per activitySpecification and quantification of the variable inputs in each activity
Fixed capital itemsEquipment and infrastructural investments
Human resourcesHuman resource capacities and assignments
Project accounts and budgetProject costs, accounts and budget
Returns on investmentFinancial calculation on the expected project return on investment
Cash flow calculationsVarious financial analyses relating to project cash flow


ADMINISTRATIVE, REPORTING & WHOLE CYCLE OVERSIGHT FUNCTIONS


Operation
Description
Navatec System
Decision support under changing conditions Detailed guidance on optimized decisions to respond to change during implementation
All decisions and evidence, documentedThe system maintains a database of incremental reports on all developments and decisions that can be retrieved on demand
Output specificationsDetailed reports on per transform (activity) output quantities and specifications
Process specificationsDetailed reports on per transform (activity) technical process specifications and capacities
Input specificationsDetailed reports on per transform (activity) variable input quantities and specifications
Output specificationsDetailed reports on per transform (activity) output quantities and specifications
Fixed capital itemsDetailed reports on project investment requirements in terms of fixed equipment and capital items
Bills of ladingDetailed reports on project procurement requirements (specification, quantities, guide unit prices, totals)
Accounts & budgetsDetailed reports on project accounts and budget estimates (itemized and totals)
Financial projections & analysesAll OQSI recommended financial analyses, cash flow projections and estimated returns on investment reports
Sensitivity reportsAll OQSI recommended bases for sensitivity analysis reports
Optimization reportsAll OQSI recommended optimization reports
Resilience reportsAll OQSI recommended project resilience reports
All decisions and evidence, documentedThe system maintains a database of incremental reports on all developments and decisions that can be retrieved on demand
Log FramesAutomatic generation of specific Log Frame for any selected LPO
24/7 on-demand analysis and reportingAd hoc on-demand analysis and reporting for stakeholders, donors, investors, team members, team manager, institutional management and others
Regular reportsAutomated reporting according to user requirements (content can be set to specific requirements)
Stakeholder involvement Stakeholders remain in a participatory role either through direct involvement in activities or through oversight system




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