Readers’ letters

The smart way to improve skills

Your article on e-learning (The virtual classroom, Information Age, May 2003) was a timely piece in terms of the current rhetoric being voiced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His plans to shake-up the attitude of UK employers to skills training are a well-meaning initiative but, as your article pin-pointed, employers should be encouraged to incorporate e-learning as a key method for staff development.

Legislation now dictates a minimum training certification before staff in many industries can perform their roles, and in some cases companies leave themselves open to serious fines if under-qualified staff are exposed. Despite threat of prosecution and claims from Gordon Brown that inadequate training has made the UK workforce inflexible, fewer than one in three companies currently use any form of e-learning system – the most effective and cost-efficient training method.

Despite some mud slinging that’s seen e-learning vendors accused of failing to capture organisations’ imaginations, there is a good case for asking UK Plc to wake up to online learning tools. When Oracle delivered an internal ethics course and test to its 42,000 global employees, staff completed both parts within 30 minutes. Because they were desk-based there was minimum disruption to the working day, the training was rolled out at a fraction of the cost and time of a classroom-based course, and critically, HR staff were able to track the results of the test in real time, and watch out for any serious knowledge gaps.

The chancellor’s words are music to my ears, but I’d like to see them coupled with a nudge in the direction of Internet-based learning.

Richard Lowther
Human Resources Director, UK &South Africa

Reliably informed

Your article on web failures (The 10 worst web application failures, Information Age, May 2003) highlights the pressures that companies are under to speed their web offerings to market, and rightly states the importance of conducting adequate testing procedures prior to ‘going live’. The execution of a well thought out test plan will reduce the risk of customers’ discovering system faults before the service provider.

There is also a need for companies to communicate better internally and to coordinate business processes more effectively. Marketing departments should listen to IT personnel if they are advised that it is too soon to launch. After all, greater damage can be done to the brand by launching too soon and failing, rather than waiting to ensure everything will function as intended. On the other hand, whilst admittedly not an easy task, marketing departments should aim to anticipate demand more accurately. There is a balancing act to be performed here – overestimate demand and the IT bill is excessively high, under estimate and one can be left with disaster.

The need for a contingency is paramount. Even the simplest of measures can go a long way to placating customer dissatisfaction. A pop up screen directing users to the call centre will at least provide customers with a point of contact. If bandwidth is under pressure, a low graphics version of the site will still give users the information they need whilst preventing a complete outage.

Best practice should also focus on keeping things simple. The web site doesn’t have to do all that it was ever planned for, immediately. Many believe that it takes around one year of operation for a major site to achieve the necessary consistency of reliability. Continuous testing throughout this period will ensure reliability issues are dealt with before adding to its complexity. The bottom line is that customers expect web systems to work and reliability issues should always be put ahead of any other consideration.

Neil Gardner
Marketing Manager – Systems Integrity and Test Solutions
ERA Technology Ltd

Counting on ROI

I read your article on ROI (Perception and deception, Information Age, May 2003) with interest. There was a time when companies could get the capital investment needed for a new IT system signed off in one quick flourish of the chairman’s fountain pen, but now they face a tougher challenge trying to get the board to approve their next system replacement.

IT vendors must shoulder much of the blame for the lack of technology enthusiasm found amongst board directors. More often than not, they are still too wrapped up in their need to exploit the latest buzzwords, when they should be focusing on the real needs and justifications of their customers. ROI must be seen as the primary weapon to secure board approval for a major IT change. By quantifying the ROI and the benefits for end users, vendors can deliver the message that there are hard and fast reasons to make the most of technology.

This approach will allow the recipient organisation to realise quantifiable benefits, from cutting the costs of transactions to maximising the productivity of their employees and giving greater employee satisfaction. Businesses must realise that ROI calculations are the only feasible way to satisfy the board’s need for justification in spending the company’s money.

Richard Pierce
Managing Director
PS Financials plc

Sharing the risk

As your excellent article (Perception and deception, Information Age, May 2003) pointed out, ROI is an extremely challenging exercise for all companies. More and more companies are, therefore, asking for software suppliers to support similar risk/reward terms to those that they have come to expect from services companies.

At Computer Associates we have made some significant changes to our commercial model, which has enabled us to introduce ‘FlexSelect’ – a revolutionary approach to commercial licensing. If a solution requires an expensive initial investment, this often defers, and sometimes unnecessary delays, a project from starting and the company from realising the benefits of the proposed solution. Instead of much effort being expended to ensure that the ROI is clear and achievable within a relatively short timeframe, CA is able to de-risk the whole situation by using FlexSelect.

With no long-term financial commitment, our clients are able to immediately use and start benefiting from the technology solution, and always have the option to cancel the monthly license at any time (no lock in, no penalty). In addition, with the monthly costs being so low, it is much easier to gain business benefit without a long and sometimes laborious process to justify the ROI, which is absolutely required for the large-scale upfront investments that other suppliers often require. If at any stage in the future our clients no longer achieve the business value they were originally receiving, they can simply stop their license without penalty.

With a clear focus on ensuring that our clients gain maximum flexibility, this revolutionary approach from CA is one that other suppliers will need to follow to meet the commercial requirements of companies today.

Chris Miller
Country Sales Manager – Information Management
Computer Associates

Making more of CRM

I write in response to the article CRM Paradox (Information Unit, Information Age, April 2003 ) I think that there are a number of fundamental issues that cause both the lack of CRM licence roll out after purchase as well as lack of use after implementation. Often it is due to a combination of vendor overselling, which I can understand, and poor consultancy advice, which I can’t.

Also I agree with Jennifer Kirkby of Gartner that not enough attention is paid to the “human” needs during (and after) these implementations. The attitude and operations of people are essential to ensure success and this applies to all business life, not just to CRM.

CRM is fundamental to the business operations of all companies and should be a central theme. The addition of a software system, which will make things even better, should be built on an existing framework of customer-focused relationships, management involvement, clear and concise communication and efficient processes.

Unfortunately this is not always the case, as CRM systems get installed to solve management issues within the business rather than to enhance and improve the way business is done. From my experience there are some relatively simple and logical ways to make CRM work: Understand the exact (detailed) requirements of the business and agree processes with people in the field; get software vendors to demonstrate with sample client data how their application will provide the solution; don’t assume that one application can be configured to do everything; ensure management support, use and encouragement; have clearly defined and communicated policies, processes and benefits; train users on the simplest functionality as well as process using the “what’s in it for me approach”; have data rules that define data ownership, mandatory requirements, consistent terminology and ensure on-going data monitoring and cleansing.

Mike Driver

The thorny challenge of records management

A great deal has been written recently about a range of archival storage technologies, but very little is being said about how these technologies should be properly integrated into a long-term data storage strategy.

Many people consider archival storage as an issue confined purely to the IT department, but it reaches far beyond. Indeed, there are considerable legal and business implications to the retention of important corporate and governmental records. As a result, government agencies, industry regulators and corporations have recently introduced a flood of new regulations and guidelines controlling the storage and management of records.

For example, financial institutions are now required to keep mortgage loan files for up to 10 years after the loan has been repaid. Some medical records must be stored throughout the life of the patient and government institutions are now required to keep certain records for up to 50 years and some are even to be made permanent in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Regulations typically specify retention times and require that records be authentic, unaltered, readily accessible, dated and in a readable format. Some regulations also mandate a duplicate copy of all originals to be saved in a different geographical location to protect the data from catastrophic site failure.

Businesses are expected to comply with these new laws and regulations, but this is no small task. Not only must they physically store the records, but many regulations demand that a full history or audit trail be maintained to clearly document where changes have been made. When called upon, they must also be able to map out a ‘corporate memory’ of activities and events that have been important to the history of the company (such as contracts, agreements, customer records, design specifications, emails), have affected past decisions and continue to influence the running of the organisation into the future. The over-riding requirement is that vital records satisfy the legal definition of authenticity and can be deemed accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

The introduction of these new rules have led to very costly penalties and, in some instances, have resulted in high visibility court cases that have seriously damaged corporate reputations. Five international brokerage houses were recently fined $8.25 million for inadequate email archive procedures and a major corporation was fined $1million for destroying court ordered records.

These examples demonstrate just how disruptive and expensive the mismanagement or loss of vital records can be. How can companies ensure that the archiving of electronic records meets the requirements of their industry and keeps their company on the right side of the law?

The key to addressing these demands lies in the development of a proactive archive strategy. Archive storage is often overlooked until a crisis is looming, at which stage many IT Managers respond by adding more magnetic disk or by purchasing another tape drive. This approach will not meet the requirement for a long-term, trustworthy archive and puts the company at risk of prosecution if vital data cannot be produced when required. An archive strategy consisting of hardware, software and process accountability should be planned carefully to make sure the information being saved is well within any legal or corporate guidelines.

The initial stage of the planning process is to identify exactly what needs to be done to ensure that records are authentic when stored and retrieved. It’s no good being able to store information if you can’t access it in five to10 years when the organisation is called upon to deliver important historical information. Equally, it is no use to anyone if the records can be retrieved, but the integrity of these records cannot clearly be established. Either of these failures can result in serious legal and business consequences.

One key element in establishing archival storage trustworthiness is to select the correct storage medium for the task at hand. Since there are dramatically different site requirements, no one storage technology will fit all archive environments. Optical, tape and even magnetic disk storage has a place in the archive equation. However, it is critical for companies to consider the demands of their business before listening to hardware vendors that may be trying to force-fit their technology into the archive space. The wrong choice could prove very costly indeed.

Steve Tongish
Marketing Director (EMEA)
Plasmon Data

Editor’s reply: We agree that the issue of records management is becoming increasingly complex. As a result, Infoconomy, the publisher of Information Age, is launching a new magazine in September, mID – Managing Information and Documents. For more information, or to register to receive the magazine, please email Jessica Twentyman, editor of mID at

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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