Focus on quality of information
With all the talk of 'digital' - a somewhat confusing title for a ragbag of technologies from data analytics to mobile computing - it is easy to forget the original meaning of IT: technology to manage information. Similarly, the CIO - Chief Information Officer - has ceased to mean the person responsible for managing an organisation's information and has often become shorthand for the person who buys and operates computing hardware and software. This focus on tools at the expense of the underlying information encourages a mindset that sees the tools themselves as the assets. In an era where executives must take increasingly rapid decisions to keep ahead of competitors, (and so rely more than ever on accurate and timely information at their fingertips) this mindset is dangerous. Have organisations forgotten the focus and real meaning of IT?
The recent proliferation of so-called BI (Business Intelligence) and CPM (Corporate Performance Management) software products often encourages this focus on ‘tool’ at the expense of information. Flashy user interfaces with bold colours and big buttons are claimed to be tailored for the Facebook generation, yet often present less useful information than well-written excel spreadsheet models - which at least tend to have the merit that they are created from the ground up with the sole aim of decision-support, not fancy graphics.
Who is the information for?
What is needed is a much greater focus on information - who needs it, for what and when. Each time my team is asked to help an organisation implement a new finance, ERP or CRM system, the term ‘better management information’ is invariably somewhere in the business case. But seldom has it been really thought through and the 'BI layer' becomes an afterthought, just something to stick on at the end of the project. To change this, we have to ask some basic questions at the outset. What decisions will need to be made using this information? And who is the information for? In what format and from which data source are we gathering this information? And, often forgotten - do the people concerned have the skills to use the information and take decisions based on it?
Prioritising 'IT system' over 'information' has sadly become the norm in IT strategy. There was a time when a data flow diagram, not a systems map, was the primary analytical tool for designing an IT strategy. The skills of an information architect were valued as highly as a technical architect. To create truly effective IT strategies that support business growth- we need to once again learn to prioritise the first word in 'IT' over the second.
Get the balance right
In practice this means structuring IT strategies around the jobs that IT end users actually do and the information they require to do them effectively. A sales executive doesn't need a CRM tool, they need accurate information about customers’ sales and payment history. A warehouse manager doesn't need a WMS system, they need up-to-date information about stock volumes and pick/pack efficiency. And an IT department needs technical architects and systems specialists, but it also needs information architects and data analysts who continually engage with the business and its decision-support needs. An IT strategy that is only an IT tools strategy is likely to lead to a proliferation of systems while users and executives become increasingly frustrated that they can't access the information they need. IT strategy is information strategy and anyone who tells you otherwise probably wants to sell you some software.