Riddle: when is an IT manager like a retailer? If you think it's when, instead of chucking IT at a bunch of ungrateful users, we now call them "valued customers", that isn't the answer.
Or rather, it's only part of the answer. Of course IT should regard its users as customers, but in order to give the customers what they want you have to be able to deliver it.
Just as, for a retailer, it's not enough to have exactly the goods the punters want - you have to be able to get them into the outlets for the customers to buy, and in the quantity and quality they want.
The name of the game, therefore, is supply chain management, and the job in retail is merchandising.
"Merchandising is all about getting the right stock to the right place at the right time," says John Horner, management information systems manager at sports and leisure wear retailer Blacks. "They need to know who's buying what at what stores - we have to do exactly the same thing with information. They're very similar jobs."
The analogy is apt. Just as retail distribution has to aim for a perfect flow of products from factory to customer, without over or under stocking, or bottlenecks or delivery lorries backing up on the motorway because they can't unload at a crowded warehouse, or customers being told they can't have it until next Wednesday, so IT has to ensure that customers, the business users, are never without the data they need, when they need it, in the right quantity and quality.
Telling a business manager he can't have the management information he wants until the system can deliver it on Monday week represents as good customer service as telling a shopper you're right out of the one thing they want to buy.
And it's just as dangerous. The bottom line of the analogy between IT and retail is customers of both varieties won't hang around for the next delivery if they can get what they want elsewhere, as the outsourcing industry knows to its profit.
Find out more about Blacks' use of data warehousing to ensure its customers are never sent away without the goods they came for in next week's issue of Computer Weekly.
This was first published in October 2000