data directions: The Good, the Bad and the Costly

OK, OK I give. Over the last couple of years, more than once I have talked about smaller companies using AS/400 query, or some PC-based query tool to have users get their data in place of expensive data warehouses. A few people wrote me with comments like, "You think users can do anything with query, but they can’t!" This was followed by some other remarks that took me back at first. Then, after some e-mails back and forth with some of these people, I started to understand that my message was not exactly what I intended. (I hope my editor doesn't read this!)

In all of the companies I visit, all use data in various ways. All rely on the data they have to make decisions. Two things strike me as true at almost all of these companies. First, some are terrible at using available technology to help them look at data and some are using very simple tools (query or spreadsheets) to do some very sophisticated things without all the expensive tools. These responses from readers made me take a look back and try to figure out why.

I think the answer is pretty clear. People – not technology make it work. The technology that most of us deal with can help tremendously with a little imagination, or hurt if not used correctly. It is the imagination part that separates the successful ones from the ones that are not so successful. When I write about a company getting super results from a simple tool, it is not to mean that expensive, more powerful tools are not worth their value. It means that there are many ways to get good results from good data.

I am a huge believer in well used technology, I just see a lot of it misused, or poorly implemented, or worse yet, partially implemented to the point where the users get less results with more work than they did before. I would venture to say that the ones using the right tool with the right investment are definitely receiving a competitive advantage in their market space.

Recent history has shown that organizations that know how to use the data they have as a real asset can react more quickly and effectively than those just reacting to events. It allows them to be proactive in decisions rather than completely reactive.

On top of that, these newer tools give us the ability to think differently. Of course for some of us this is difficult at best. However, being able to see our data in different ways with different relationships can give us tremendous advantage. The trick though, is that someone figured out how to take advantage of the technology (back to that people thing!). It is not the technology that made this happen, it is the technology that gave them new ideas, new concepts, and new views of that data. It was not the tool that made decisions, communicated that to the work force, or made decisions as to how to plan or react. It was someone who built it, understood enough about it to take advantage of it, and how to get people in the organization to understand it.

Many times I have worked with a client on a particular business problem where we have designed a program or screen that someone will use, and as it progresses we get all excited about it. Lots of work goes into it and then when we are ready other people get involved and it soon shows up that we have a problem with some of our thinking. This happens even if we have the users involved in the process at a high level.

Why does this happen? Different people have different thoughts and sometimes you don’t see the probelms until it becomes real and people have to use an application for real. Then the ideas start to flow, and the application starts to become a benefit, or a burden. How many times have you gone to a user in a new company and asked why someone was doing something and the answer was "Oh, we always have done that.". Then try to change it, and you get lots of resistance. This is a natural event, and to be expected. We must also come up with ways to get the primary users (that’s those people again) involved in the process to the point where they accept ownership of the application. That is the trick with any system going on line, but even more important with expensive new technologies that potentially change the way someone does their job.

So what does all this mean? People with limited budgets and simple tools can get tremendous results with a little imagination. However, they will not be able to compete with an organization that makes the prudent investment in a data warehouse tool, trains on it, designs it well, implements it well, has good users involved, and sprinkles some of that most important factor---imagination on it. This company will beat its competitors, and probably have more fun in the process. It costs more, but the returns can be substantial.

John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.

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