There was a time when managers spent much of their day searching for information, working out how to extract more data from their business. Those days are over.
Careers: The business of intelligence
There was a time when managers spent much of their day searching for information, working out how to extract more data from their business. Those days are over. Today data is abundant, flowing from information systems in an endless stream. Now the best managers know how to filter, to stand above a fast-flowing river and spot the flecks of gold. Good information systems will do this automatically, preparing reports that condense millions of lines of data into clear, useful statements. Some systems are smart enough to spot irregularities, inefficiencies and opportunities and present them to management. But for such systems to do their jobs, managers must do theirs. Business intelligence (BI) software, the flavour of the month in the corporate IT world, depends on the quality of its input and if it is fed rubbish it will produce the information equivalent of a cloud of methane. "It is not really a technology problem, it is a management one," says Rejeev Lawlani, a partner of the accounting and consultancy firm KPMG, which recently released a report on the effectiveness of BI systems. "You can have all the tools and technology you want, but they mean nothing if you are not solving business problems." He says BI has the potential to inform decision makers in a way that was never before possible, helping them make smarter choices than the competition. Such potential depends on the company taking information management seriously, focusing on the quality of the information going into the system and the proper training of people using it. "A failure of business intelligence," Mr Lawlani says, "is normally just a failure of the business." The KPMG report revealed that half of 50 UAE companies surveyed were either in the process of implementing a BI system or had already done so. But only 10 per cent considered the systems were living up to their expectations. One in five of the executives surveyed said they made decisions based on intuition alone, because the data they needed were not available. Fast decisions based on instinct and intuition - what the author Malcolm Gladwell calls "thin slicing" - have their part in every business. But the best thin slicers are informed by a rich stream of good information, letting quick decisions be made based on knowledge, not guesswork. To improve the quality of information available to management, look at the origin of your data. How many different details can be gathered at the point of sale, the warehouse, the factory floor or the service centre? And do the people and machines capable of gathering that data know that collecting and reporting it is part of their job? Once the information is making its way into the system, the challenge is to present it to managers in useful ways. Like the dashboard instruments on a car, electronic dashboards present important information in a visually intuitive way. A speedometer-style needle moves upwards as sales of a certain product increase, or the mercury of a virtual thermometer rises and falls with the volume of calls to a complaints line. Dashboards give a quick, easily understood snapshot of what is happening in the business. Physical desktop add-ons are also available, bringing an element of fun, but also practical value. One popular gadget for webmasters is a desktop windmill with blades that spin faster and faster as hits to a website increase. A sudden gust of wind to the face means a spike in popularity - perhaps due to a television advertisement, a mention on an influential website or a denial-of-service attack by hackers. Whatever the cause, it means the administrator needs to start paying attention to server loads and potential stress points. It is not just internal information that managers need to track. It is of increasing importance to be aware of what other people are saying about your company, in weblogs, on message boards, social networking sites and new message systems such as Twitter. Keeping track of these conversations and summarising them in useful ways gives management a valuablesight into how the actions of the company are being perceived in the community. Thanks to modern search engines and data mining technology, this process is easy and largely automated, but like so many other tasks at the knowledge end of the information technology world, it is amazing how few companies take it seriously. email@example.com