24 OCTOBER 2001

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A vertical philosophy

Dakar Software, during the nine years in which it has been operating, has contracted its comprehensive business solution to some 85% of Malta’s largest companies, and has expanded overseas to cater for major enterprises. David Lindsay speaks to Dakar’s David Schranz about the software house’s formula for success, which rests largely on the vertical philosophy of concentrating the company’s efforts on one area of development

One of Dakar Softwares’s first contracts was with a major Maltese company that also owns a software house offering products similar to that of Dakar. The fact that that company had chosen Dakar’s solution over that of its own company was at once encouraging and prestigious. However, that was only the beginning and the company continued to mushroom over the following decade.

As David Schranz explains, "From there we started moving into payroll solutions and in incorporating pay roll tools with human resources. We had come to understand that we had so many clients using our pay roll systems that there was ample room for expansion within that sphere.

"The word is called people management – human resources, payroll, personnel, time attendance systems, swipe cards and hand readers”.

Dakar began looking at the market and became agents for Peter Broughs software in the UK, a partnership which lasted for some four years and which gave the company a good measure of experience in human resource systems, which was Dakar’s missing link.

Mr Schranz explains, "With the expertise we derived from this experience, we thought to ourselves that we could develop a system along these lines ourselves and we set about designing our own HR system, which took some three years to develop.

"Once we had a retail package prepared, we saw that we could go for the large local companies. We already had large companies such as Maltacom, Enemalta, WSC, Drydocks and HSBC so we had a diverse and large portfolio at hand. In fact, some 80-90 per cent of the large local companies are our clients.

"Once we had a pay roll system functioning within these companies, we set about pushing the HR package within these same companies and we also started attracting others such as the Corinthia Group and Air Malta. As a result, the package became very popular as companies came to appreciate that they needed a whole solution, not just a pay roll system. They needed something that a manager could use to retrieve information. For example, people could swipe-in in the morning and until they get paid at the end of the month, everything is computer controlled and managed by the system. That was some two and a half years ago.

"We then came to a decision that the market in Malta was too small. We had grown to some 12 employees by that point and although we had these large enterprises on board, the company was aching to grow. We knew that our systems were applicable for overseas companies as well, so we started looking at North Africa.

"We went there, surveyed the market and realised that there was a need our kind of system. However, we had a problem because of the language, as they wanted the system in Arabic. We translated the package, which took us a year and a half and the result is that we have now have a multilingual system.

“Once we had that system in place, we started penetrating the market. We were awarded a large contract with Agip Oil, which was for a full system with pay roll and personnel. They’ve been working with it now for a good year and a half.

The system was so successful that Dakar was recently approached by a very large company that had seen the system working at Agip and were duly impressed. The company has offered to market, support and sell the Dakar solution themselves, through their international presence in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Cyprus, Dubai, Egypt, Jeddah, Kuwait, and other key areas in the region.

Discussions in this sphere are currently underway a contract is expected to be signed within the next two months.

Mr Schranz explains, "This is a very big step for us, because at the moment with Libya we need to support the system ourselves and we have had to employ people just for the Libyan Agip contract."

Despite its success, the company, steered by Mr Schranz, maintains a proactive approach. "What we’re doing now is we are re-evaluating our software to see how we can upgrade it. We’ve just web-enabled the software meaning you can hook it up on the Internet. In this respect, we have systems with which employees can log in from home, book their leave, monitor the calendar of leave and view their pay slips. We haven’t installed it yet locally because the large corporations are still too scared to implement it. They are very security conscience, especially when you introduce a new idea such as the Internet."

Dakar also recently obtained contracts from Radisson and APS, which involved the entire solution for payroll, time and attendance and human resources.

The allure of Dakar’s software for such companies is that the HR solution is anything but a run of the mill solution. According to Mr Schranz, "Most people have the mentality that an HR system is just a database holding all the personal details of employees. We’ve applied a completely different aspect to this type of system, by offering a system that actually automates the procedure. You can set up event tasks, which allow the system to carry out tasks automatically when triggered by certain events. For example, the director of a large group of companies wants to be informed immediately when an employee is hired or terminated. An event task can be created to send an e-mail to the director each time such an event occurs, or it can issue an ETC letter, or a welcome note to the new employee. A card can be issued and addressed when an employee has a birthday. These things will be automatically done once the event is created. CVs are commonly submitted in different formats, which becomes confusing when leafing through multiple job applications. The system can group each CV that is received in such a way so as to notice immediately if that candidate doesn’t have a maths O level, for example. People think of the system as a database, but in reality, it does much much more.

"The complete solution has to be seen as one ideal for large companies employing 2,000-3,000 people such as the Drydocks. Once the system is in place, the work saved on is phenomenal.

"The training module is another aspect that has been widely welcomed by users. One can actually define the prerequisites for certain jobs and the system can tell you what training an employee needs and it will automatically assign employees to a certain training course. The manager can then monitor how the training is progressing and view appraisals.”

One of Dakar’s keys to success is the fact that it works vertically, concentrating on one area of development, as opposed to accepting any business that comes its way.

Mr Schranz elaborates, "We support one package, unlike other software houses where one finds different programs and customisations for each and every client. If the client wants something new, we include it in the standard package and attach a switch, which can be either enabled or disabled. Then it becomes available for all the clients when an upgrade is issued.

"We’ve also created a multi-site HR system, which is quite useful. Most local installations generally require the system to be located at a single site.

"When we stepped into the overseas arena, suddenly we were talking about multi-site installations. Not only multi in terms of users, but the system would be located at different physical sites. When talking about the Agip Group, for example, the main installation is at the head office but then they have other installations all over Africa. Data and information can be entered from any of these sites, not in real time, but through a synchronisation process. Once a distant user logs off, information will end up at head office so head office is seeing everything – it’s as though it is one system. Accordingly, when one site logs off, any adjustments made that are different to the main system’s database are transferred over.”

Dakar is the only software house in Malta that has specialised in this area of HR systems, a strategy that has enabled the company to focus its efforts and to produce a groundbreaking product. Mr Schranz comments, "We’ve been approached by several companies to write different types of packages catering, for example, for accounting or stock control but we decline. This is very rare in this industry, but we’ve decided to specialise in this one area. We’ve been working at it for nine years, and we are doing it well. However, the area is vast and because we have developed this expertise, everyone at Dakar is on the same wavelength because everyone is supporting the same system. This is opposed to the philosophy of other software houses, in which they are developing different systems every week. Even support-wise, it becomes difficult.

"Teamwork is the most important thing," Mr Schranz explains, "We have a support department and a development department and they have to talk to each other because everything comes in from the customer support department – whether there are problems, enhancements or suggestions, they are all passed on to the development department. Once a week we hold a brainstorming session and once a month we have what we call a ‘new ideas’ session for our suite of applications, in which ideas for new tools, features and system enhancements are discussed."

Lately, Dakar has created a package called Dakar Intelligence. Mr Schranz elaborates on the package, "The problem is that with most HR packages, the information is all there, but it is so difficult to get out. This package provides the managers with the tools to extract the information. The module provides all the information the manager needs in a graphic format. It can show, for example, the head count and cost of overtime per department or the percentage of people eligible for retirement in any given year, in a pie chart format.

"Another problem that companies experience is that they have a very good HR package, the information is all there but they don’t know how to get it out. To tackle the problem, we’ve designed seven report writers in the package, which are so easy to use that the user can define a report or screens without any programming skills within seconds.

"We give them the tools to be able to do it themselves after a one day training session. With most systems, companies have to change their ways to suit the software, whereas ours can be adapted to suit the way that the company works."

Dakar’s plans for the future are primarily to go international, expanding into North Africa now and they are also targeting many large companies including some in England and Italy."

Mr Schranz contends that most local companies don’t specialise in one area, which is a disadvantage to themselves and to the market.

"If everyone had to choose an area in which to specialise, there would be enough work for everyone. Unfortunately, everyone tries to take everyone else’s business. As soon as you come out with an idea, it is copied.

"If we all had to work vertically, with the software world being so vast, everyone could concentrate their creative efforts on one sphere. I feel that just in the market we specialise in there is so much work, and when you do specialise, you find so many aspects in which delve deeper.

"When you start accepting everything under the sun, there is no time for specialisation. In fact, the biggest problem with software houses is that they write the package and they neglect to keep updating it because they would then be busy with new developments.

"Another problem stemming from this attitude is in support. Support personnel would know a bit of everything but they would not have a defined knowledge of any single package. Then when the developer of a package leaves, the company could easily run into problems.

"I think that our clients appreciate the specialisation and the complete solution from the hardware – hand readers, etc - to the software.

"Since we’ve implemented the same system many times before, it would be an exception to come across any problems that we haven’t come across before.

"We issue at least four to six upgrades a year. Every time there is a new idea and the package in enhanced, all our clients get a free upgrade.

Mr Schranz is adamant that Dakar is in the service industry and 90 per cent of their work is in support, which is something taken for granted in many other houses. He explains, "Our business doesn’t finish when we sign the contract, it is only beginning, we are in for the long haul and we want to create long-term relationships with our clients."

However, Dakar’s client list speaks- totalling some 500 companies - for itself, with names not already mentioned above such as Simonds Farsons Cisk, MITTS, University of Malta, Maltapost, Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, ST Microelectronics, the Mizzi Group and the Malta Development Corporation amongst its ranks.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt