A raft of new legislative and regulatory demands are causing companies to store massive amounts of data without due regard as to whether they actually need it.
Directors are understandably flummoxed by conflicting directives, and though the tendency is to err on the side of caution, there are distinct disadvantages to keeping every document, letter, email – not least in the amount of money required to keep purchasing servers to store electronic data.
Records should only be kept for a certain amount of time, and in an increasingly litigious society it could be potentially damaging to keep them for any longer than absolutely necessary.
The problem is deciding what to destroy: Is the information relevant to current business functions; do staff need access to this information; is it going to help the business if it is stored electronically; what happens if it isn't stored electronically; and do we legally need to retain this information for a defined period of time?
It's essential that directors remain committed to achieving core objectives, such as increasing revenues, decreasing costs and improving customer service. However, they must also take compliance issues seriously.
It's dangerous to keep everything, but it's also impractical to keep everything in an electronic format. Effective information management will ensure that servers are not clogged up with useless information, help prepare the business for the inevitable exponential increase in data volumes in the future and ensure the business is safe from litigation.
Managing director, Hummingbird UK
Absence of intelligence
Why are so many businesses happy to shell out £100,000 or more for an ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution, yet begrudge £950 for a single business intelligence (BI) software license – and shudder in horror at the idea of a training course? Particularly when so many ERP applications have been purchased because organisations were struggling to attain good business information?
Yes, today's solutions deliver far better standard reports. But BI is not just about good reporting. It is about leveraging a single source of information to attain real business insight – insight that can add further cost benefits and, critically, enable a business to respond faster to change.
ERP benefits don't have to stop once automation has been achieved; the systems hold a wealth of data that can transform the business. Once the process of automating the input of purchase invoices has been achieved, a business has the opportunity to use BI to analyse supplier performance, for example, to achieve further commercial advantage.
But BI's value is hard to quantify; it is intangible. Will an investment in BI enable a company to reduce its payroll, drive harder deals with suppliers or improve customer understanding? Most probably yes, but the deliverables are harder to predict and hence tougher to justify. How much easier is it to employ a new sales person or add new machinery to the shop floor? Business intelligence encompasses reporting, dashboards to give management a rapid indication of key performance indicators, and analytics to support proactive assessment of business trends and ‘what ifs?'.
For many organisations, happy with the improved reporting delivered by their new generation ERP solutions, the additional value that BI can deliver seems too insubstantial.
And yet, in a business environment where ERP is the norm, BI provides one of the few opportunities to attain competitive differentiation and hence advantage.
Without BI, how can you guarantee product delivery without incurring massive manual costs? Without automated alerts or real-time monitoring of order status, the cost of business critical service guarantees is untenable. So how can organisations grudge the purchase of business advantage?
Sales director, CPiO Ltd
Recent warnings that most UK businesses are missing out on tax breaks by failing to participate in the Government's Home Computing Initiative (HCI) should clearly not be ignored. However, although receiving a generous tax break is a good reason to get involved, it is by no means the only reason. By participating in the scheme, businesses will broaden the IT skills of their workforces and thereby fulfil the main objective of the scheme when it was first introduced five years ago, which was to improve computer literacy within Britain's workforce.
Awareness of the scheme is continuing to grow enormously within the human resources community, but many UK companies still appear to be reluctant to sign up. In fact, according to the British Chamber of Commerce, only 2% of UK companies have actually signed up to an HCI scheme.
This still surprises me, as there is no good reason why every business in the UK shouldn't consider implementing an HCI scheme – and many companies find that implementing one is not nearly as complex as it once was. HCI is an excellent employee benefit, an effective way of helping to improve staff motivation and retention, and more importantly a way for employees to develop skills that can be incorporated into their day-to-day work.
Director of learning, Futuremedia
It is a truth universally acknowledged that businesses want reliable, low cost, scalable IT solutions. However it is ironic that an innate fear of technology has sent thousands of companies hurtling into the arms of an IT vendor that has some of the most complex, resource hungry and insecure server technology on the market: Microsoft.
Without doubt, Microsoft has the desktop market sewn up. However, let's get this straight: if you are using Microsoft desktop software, you do not have to use Microsoft server software! It is not a prerequisite, whatever the marketing messages may imply. There are other options – including Linux – that can deliver low-cost, highly reliable solutions that integrate and work just as well, if not better, with Microsoft desktop technology, and cause no noticeable disruption to users, who can continue to work with the familiar Windows layout and functionality.
Making the break from the crowd requires a simple understanding of the facts. Most organisations perceive that Microsoft server software is simply a big brother to the familiar desktop package and, as such, they should be familiar enough with the technology to manage any problems. But this is simply not the case. The veneer may be familiar but underneath all is very different.
And despite the ‘too technical' perception, packaged Linux solutions have been tailored to meet the specific business requirements of firms wanting secure Internet access, reliable email and file sharing. So now there's no need to let prejudice get in the way of your IT decisions.
Thank you for doing such a great job with your article ‘IT for free' (Information Age, November 2004). It covered many of the important, though less discussed, aspects of open source software in the enterprise and presented the argument in a very objective way.
I was also especially impressed with your side-bar, ‘The free enterprise stack'. It was very comprehensive and gave some [open source development] projects the publicity that I feel they deserve. Keep up the great work!
Matthew L Daniel
Still Current Development
On the face of it, the increase in subscriber numbers amongst the UK's mobile operators in the run up to Christmas is a sign of success. Virgin Mobile's growth to five million customers is just the latest example.
However, such figures hide the real truth – that customer churn in this highly competitive market is still on the up and average revenue per user (ARPU) is falling. Instead of focusing on attracting new subscribers, mobile operators must address customer churn head on. Customer retention is all about understanding customer behaviour and tailoring offerings to individual customer needs.
After all, you can sign up as many new customers as you like, but if at the same time they're leaving in droves, you're just running to stand still.
Marketing director, SPSS UK
The garbage archive
Email compliance issues [see ‘Letting go of email', Information Age, November 2004] may well be receiving a great deal of attention from UK Plc, yet recent events such as the suspension of officers at Merseyside Police and the conviction of investment banker Frank Quattrone based on email evidence alone, only serve to highlight that the majority of organisations still do not fully understand what email compliance entails, or how to approach it.
This lack of understanding is further compounded by many technology vendors, who are all too happy to sell solutions claiming to bring ’email compliance' which do little more than archive data.
Fundamentally, email compliance is not just about retention, but about usage. Organisations need to know how their employees are using email, rather than simply find a large enough bucket in which to store all of it.
A true email management system will enable companies to attain a fine-grained level of detail of both internal and external email traffic, allowing them to properly develop, monitor and report on effective email usage policies, and ensure adherence to those policies.
Without an understanding of how email is being used, UK Plc is at risk of breaching regulations here and abroad. With email compliance such a high priority for ensuring ongoing business trading, companies can no longer afford to archive rubbish.
Chief operating officer, Netstore
Through a glass darkly
IT budgets may be expected to rise this year [see ‘Fund raising', Information Age, November 2004], but board level expectations of IT projects are still tempered with a pragmatism and mistrust born of experience. CEOs often operate in a vacuum when it comes to business-critical IT projects and IT directors are sick and tired of being on the wrong end of complaints about projects that are over time and over budget, but the truth is their department is often an information black hole. No other part of the business gets away with the level of obfuscation IT deems acceptable.
The main problem is that the IT director is also often in the dark as to the real implications of new projects for the existing workload. With information on people, skills and projects scattered across the department in numerous spreadsheets, attaining a credible picture of today's position is enough of a challenge: predicting long term implications for time, resources and cost is impossible.
Quite frankly, this is not good enough. And with outsourcing on the agenda of every large organisation, the internal IT department finds itself under threat. A CEO looking to gain control over costs and use IT to deliver real value needs to demand information on which to base these business critical decisions.
In fact, the CEO should not be making outsourcing decisions without this information – without understanding the IT cost/benefit ratio it is hard to see how any organisation can make a valid decision to outsource.
However, more often than not, it just seems to be an easier option. Unless IT starts to demonstrate both the value it delivers and provides real insight into the business implications of new regulations or areas of business change, such knee-jerk outsourcing decisions will continue to be made.
Managing director, Innate Management Systems