data directions: Let the Users Go!

No, I don’t mean fire them. It’s time to give them the chance to get their own data.

I was with a client last week, and we were talking about their coming upgrade to the RISC box (with the new 700 series), and the discussion migrated to the discussion of performance and users with queries. "No way would I give the users query access - if they want data - they have to come to me," was one IS opinion.

OK, I know that we are no longer called DP because we no longer just do data processing. Now it’s IT, or IS, or some of the things the users call us when we are not around. Our jobs have changed from just keeping the programs and data in line to that of keeping the information infrastructure in line.

That is a much more daunting task. Moreover, it is more important to our companies. Why then, can’t we let our users assist us some? Most of them don’t think we give them what they need anyway. We do not have the time we used to give them for their reports and queries. Heck, some of them are a lot more data literate than we are with the advent of spreadsheets and PC database programs today.

Wait, I know that one well placed query, joining six files together, can being your system to its knees. But that is not the fault of the users. I know a number of programmers who would write an RPG report with OPNQRYF that would do the same thing. What we need is a way for the users to be able to get their own data over selected data sets that we set up for them and we manage from a performance standpoint.

Look at the changes in OS/400 over the last couple of years. We now get a new operating system release every six to nine months. It used to be every 18 to 24 months.

We need to spend our time keeping up, not creating reports that the user might create better themselves. Realistically, who knows the data better, them or us. Don’t worry, no one is looking. It’s OK to say they do.

It seems to me that what is needed is an understanding (and maybe realization) that the users are a little smarter than we give them credit for. That with a little training, they may actually be able to create the reports that we have avoided creating for them. That maybe, by giving them some leeway, we may actually be helping ourselves. Hmmm. Is all this possible?

Yes, I understand there are performance impacts involved. But I also understand there are personnel costs and resource costs and business opportunity loss costs. All of these are part of the overall equation. But guess what? There are also answers to these problems.

Let’s take the AS/400 and Query. We know Query is not a great performer. But you have it, the cost is right, and it is not too difficult for users to learn. Yes, I know you have hundreds of files in your system. How many do the users really need? They need the customer master, item master, sales detail or summary, and some code description tables. If you created a list of tables and field descriptions (something they would understand) and show them how to use the tool, you might be surprised as to what they can accomplish.

Don’t worry, I am not suggesting that every user you have is capable of this. Many have trouble using the right keys at the right time. However, there are those who can, like the ones who are using Excel or Access to create reports and queries. Whether or not you admit it, they are doing it.

They may be keying in the data to these reports, but they are creating some pretty sophisticated reports. Why not let them do it on the data we know is correct?

If you really do not like Query/400, then take a look at some of the other tools out there. They are well worth the cost if they free up your time and give your users more of the information that they want rather than standard reports they really do not use.

You can easily (relatively) create a database specifically for them to report on. The key is to spend a little time up front, spend a little time mentoring them, and spend a little time tuning the system (or restricting the system) so that the performance of the system is not compromised. There have been a number of changes in query performance and optimization to assist you without you doing anything. With a little additional effort you can create an environment that users can build and report with, leaving you to keep track of the new things that really demand your time and give your company the best payback for your efforts.

After all, we are service organizations, not profit centers. Our job is to make the other departments more effective, profitable, and productive, not make money off of them. Let’s give the users a chance to screw up just like we had. Who knows, we may actually find that they can do some things we could not!

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