SNw 015 Content is Critical Created by James on 6/13/2013 1:10:03 PM
As I work with clients seeking to achieve maximum value from their investment in business information systems I am constantly confronted with situations where the content is deficient and yet the organization blames technology for sub-optimal outcomes – this article discusses a critical factor in delivering value from I.T. investments.
Computers are dumb adding machines.
They simply do what they are told.
All that the computer knows about the software, operating system and, indeed, your hard work, is a stream of binary code – 0’s and 1’s.
Everything on your screen as you read this is a complex pattern of 0’s and 1’s that the computer interprets in order to switch between various internal electronic devices and set switches in those devices.
The text of this message comprises a stream of 0’s and 1’s interpreted by human beings in terms of colours, alpha numeric letters and numbers.
You interpret text and images, the computer interprets binary strings.
Spell checking software works by assigning a numeric value to every letter of the alphabet and then computing the numeric value of a word. The software then matches this number with the numbers stored in its list of numeric values for words and interprets the result in terms of how well the two values and resulting patterns match.
Human beings are reliant on meaningful patterns of letters forming words, sentences and text fragments in order to make effective use of most computer software, the computer only “understands”, in a very crude and rudimentary way, the binary pattern that represents this text.
Most people who use computers are not aware of these basic facts and therefore experience computers to a greater or lesser extent as magical and mystical, they do things that are not easily explained and therefore they seem to take on a power of their own.
Accordingly, when something goes wrong, it is easy to blame “the system”, yet the system is entirely a manifestation of what people have done with the technology.
I regularly conduct what I term “Pulse Measurements”, concise diagnostic investigations of the current state of a business information system or information technology business unit. Frequently these investigations are undertaken because of frustration with the results being produced by “the system”, or in response to a tentative requirement to replace the system.
In the majority of cases I find that what I term the “data engineering” -- the logic and structure of the content -- is deficient at some level, frequently at a level that makes the software at least partly dysfunctional.
In many cases, revising and restructuring the validation codes and cleaning up the master data is one of the critical actions that is required in order to achieve a high value outcome.
In the sections that follow I will outline some points that are vital to understanding how to use computers effectively.
I hope that you will find this information useful.
1. Content is the SAME, no matter what Software or Microprocessor you are using
My name, “James Robertson”, is the same in any computer system that has any value to human beings. It does not matter what software you are using nor what microprocessor (computer) the software is running on.
Your street address is the same.
The name of your products is the same, and of your staff, and your customers and your suppliers, and...
If someone spells your name wrong, or enters the incorrect street number for your address or makes any other typing or other error in entering your data, the computer will faithfully reproduce that error and has no way of knowing there is an error UNLESS there is other information which provides a pattern that a programmer can apply in a set of instructions to validate the data.
If such errors are made, the same person can be recorded in the same computer system multiple times and the computer will be oblivious to this.
If someone makes an error in entering your postal address, items addressed by the computer will either be delivered by the postal service to the address that the computer prints on the envelope or label or returned to sender if the address is entirely invalid.
Under such circumstances few people would blame the computer for the non-delivery of the postal item, or would they?
If someone sets up the software with an incorrect General Ledger account allocation (address) the computer will faithfully put the data where it is told to put it and the human being who made the typing error will find it difficult to locate the data without a systematic, informed, investigation.
“The system keeps losing data” is a common complaint, someone made a typing or logic error is the common answer.
Yet companies are willing to scrap investments of millions of Rands to replace systems as a consequence of such errors.
And, as you might expect, in the absence of formal disciplines and accountability and informed diagnosis, the new system that replaces the old system WILL experience the same problems.
After all, your address is the same, no matter what the technology you are using.
2. The Microprocessor does not know the software application, operating system or development environment that is processing the data
Because the computer processor itself operates in terms of binary 0’s and 1’s, it has NO knowledge of what computer software it is running, it has no knowledge of what operating system is running and it has no knowledge of what development language was used to create the application.
All of these things exist in order to assist human beings to communicate with the computer.
Accordingly, blaming the software for doing things that a human beings somewhere, some time, told it to do is counter productive.
Replacing software that is running satisfactorily with other software will frequently NOT add value but will destroy the value that human beings have invested in learning how to apply the old software. Doing this because data content is defective is fruitless.
Following fashion is also not helpful.
3. Computers exist to process content, the technology is secondary
The ONLY reason that you use a computer is for the sake of the content that it supplies to you or you supply to it for others -- whether that content is text, numbers, pictures, sound or some other output such as mechanical motion, smell, etc.
In the same way, it really does not make a difference what motor vehicle you use to get to work as long as it works and gets you there, the issues of comfort, ego, etc are psychological. You may have a personal preference for a particular make and model and receive gratification from using that technology, yet it is the content, YOU in the vehicle that is critical to achieving your objective of getting from A to B.
Insofar as computers used in business are utilitarian devices that get a job of work done, in the same way as desks, chairs, lights, etc the primary reason to select a product from vendor A versus a similar product from vendor Z relate to comfort, ego and psychological factors much more than specific technical considerations.
Yes, different technology from different vendors can be more effective, however the outcome is gauged by the content. If you write enrolling, clear, well laid out emails that recipients easily understand, interpret and act on it matters little what software you use and, if you write hostile, obscure, badly laid out emails full of spelling, grammatical and typing errors it makes no difference which software you are using.
Yes, elaborate real time spell and grammar checking MAY improve your accuracy, however if you are functionally illiterate those facilities will make no difference.
So, literary skills are MORE important than computer technology – create valuable content using the technology and concentrate on the content if you want to add value.
4. Fifty years ago the question was whether you could find the technology to do the task – today the issue is whether you can effectively use the technology that is available
Even twenty years ago, “can the computer do this” was a valid question with regard to the run-of-the-mill activities of the average business staffer. Today, the answer to the routine questions is almost certainly “YES”, however, there is another, more taxing, question – “are YOU able to use the tool effectively?”.
If you are reading this newsletter on your computer, the probability is that you know less than 5% of the functionality that the software you are using offers and you probably use about 1% on a routine basis.
Thirty years ago word processing was something new and challenging, twenty years ago it was routine and today we take it for granted. Yet the basics of typing a document have not changed fundamentally and many people type with a couple of fingers at a limited speed rather than at full speed with all ten fingers on the keyboard. Touch typing at 60 words per minute with 99.99% accuracy is MUCH more important than which software you are using.
Business information systems, frequently labeled “Enterprise Resource Planning” systems or “E.R.P.” for short are in general use in most organizations, again, the issue today is not whether your business can be supported by these tools but whether your business can use the tool effectively.
If you are getting bad results, the probability is high that this is a manifestation of the way your staff are using the software and the content that they are entering, it is relatively improbable that the issue is one of technology.
In fact, in my experience, technology is less than 5% of what causes I.T. investments to under-perform or fail outright AND technology is less than 5% of what is required for a successful outcome.
Content is at least 10% of what causes failure AND 10% of what is required for a successful outcome.
5. What you write, NOT what you use
If you find a nail driven into a piece of wood you do NOT consider what brand and style of hammer was used, you consider the end result – is it functional and fit for purpose? Is it precise or is the nail bent and twisted? If it is you form an opinion of the person who held the hammer and NOT the hammer.
So it should be with the content of a computerized system – is it functional and fit for purpose? Are the names and addresses precise enough for deliveries to succeed? Are the expenses allocated to the correct General Ledger account and is the General Ledger Chart of Accounts well designed and well structured? Does it support effective management inquiry and decision making?
If it is NOT many times people blame “the system” or “…” brand name of software not realizing that in the process they are blaming themselves.
“A bad workman blames his tools” is an old saying that is very true of computerized systems today. Yet it is common place for executives to accept excuses for non-performance based on the tools.
6. How you formulate the image, NOT the camera
Increasing use is made of graphics in electronic documents, websites and the like.
Once more the content is critical, an accomplished photographer can produce images of startling beauty or which convey humorous or sober messages, the content is what counts.
Yes, a sophisticated camera can help but an expert will produce excellent results with a basic camera while an unskilled user will produce images that generally have no appeal.
It can take years of experience and thousands of photographs to develop a photographer that produces really noteworthy images, in the same way, it takes considerable experience to develop a computer user who is really dexterous and effective in the documents and images they produce.
In fact, it takes time and discipline to produce any form of content that others experience as valuable and useful.
7. Structured codes are the principal way that intelligence is captured in business information systems so that computers can do something with the data that APPEARS intelligent
Structured codes linked to meaningful, structured, plain language text are the primary way that computerized systems acquire information with which they perform computations and processes that users experience as valuable.
The General Ledger Chart of Accounts is an example, product, customer, supplier and other classifications are other examples.
If the codes for these classifications are unstructured and do not reflect a strategic management perspective of the organization, you will be hard pressed to extract strategic management information from the data.
Interestingly, IF you design well structured codes operators will find it easier to post accurately.
This aspect is difficult to describe in writing, I have a presentation which addresses various aspects of this in some detail together with various white papers which discuss some case histories where substantial value was unlocked. If you would like copies of these documents please email me at James@JamesARobertson.com and I will send them to you.
Conclusion – Content is Critical
The essence of why computers exist in business database and other applications is the content.
Where the quality of validation data and master data is poor this can cripple even the most powerful software.
In such cases, even though it may appear that system replacement is the answer, remediation of content is likely to give a substantial benefit at a fraction of the cost using software your staff already know.
Part of the saving can beneficially be applied to improved training, be it in basic document composition and writing skills, touch typing or more advanced development.
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