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Secret CIO: Information Alone Isn't Business Intelligence

The golden ring goes to those who present Just what is needed.
If you didn't make it to the InformationWeek Fall Conference on business agility last month in Tucson, Ariz., you missed a valuable event. Not only was the food excellent and the weather great (prerequisites for any meaningful professional meeting), but the program was outstanding, too. Particularly popular were the sessions on business ethics and radio-frequency product tracking. The first was a panel on CIOs' responsibility for financial information accuracy and what they should do if game-playing is going on. The second was a fascinating exposition on a new technology that one of the commentators said (probably correctly) "would change how society functions."

What really struck me, though, was the recurrent emphasis that speakers placed on having rapid and complete information. It was as if speed in information availability were synonymous with enabling business agility. As I listened, I became more and more uncomfortable. "Necessary, but not sufficient," I thought. "Technology comes last, not first."

I've always had a lot more trouble figuring out what metrics have to be captured to help someone make a good decision than I've had in speeding up the flow of information. Real-time numbers are great and very necessary in many cases--for example, stock outages or the location of airplanes. But technology alone has rarely been the answer when trying to figure out how to get the edge on the competition. Without a thorough contemplation of what information is needed to improve decision-making in your business or mine, we have no knowledge, just a collection of data.

We've all been in the frustrating situation in which a colleague is certain he knows what information he needs to make massive improvements and asks us to provide a system that, it turns out, generates reams of statistics that are inadequate or inappropriate for the intended purpose. The result is painful: data, data, everywhere, just none of it of any particular value. Or, even if the right information is there, it's buried in a clutter of numbers because the analyst who designed the system and the person who uses it didn't think sufficiently about what's needed to make rapid-fire decisions. In fact, the more information you have, the harder it may be to sort out what's important. Ever see novice users with a screen full of data from SAP applications? They're paralyzed into inaction.

Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado said, "Let the punishment fit the crime." In our industry, a more prosaic but appropriate lyric would be, "Let the information fit the purpose." You need to know what metrics you will need to know. Getting information that turns out to be irrelevant is frustrating and a distracting waste of time. Imagine a doctor finding that she's been handed all sorts of blood tests for someone who has a broken foot. Although the tests were run precisely and rapidly, the odds are they won't help the patient a lot.

Computerization is seductive; it allows us to do wonderful things. The golden ring, however, goes to those who simplify their systems by presenting just what's needed, no more and no less. To make real use of our powerful technology, I hope that our first questions will always be, "What information will help me make a better decision?" and "What decisions will I make differently if I have faster or more complete information?"

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at [email protected].

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