Managed data can offer benefits beyond compliance
We like to think we have moved on from a preoccupation with technology to being providers of business-focused systems for our organisations. But in doing so there is a danger we may forget about the importance of the information which populates our systems. The old maxim "garbage in, garbage out" warns us that if we do not pay attention to the quality of our data, we will not get anything useful from our systems.
Businesses and public sector organisations are subject to a variety of regulations which impinge on data collection, storage and deletion, including the Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Act and a raft of regulations for the financial services sector. All this adds cost but little business benefit.
For information governed by the Data Protection Act there is a statutory requirement to ensure the security, quality and relevance of information and to delete it when it is no longer required. Although there are some sectors whose approach to data protection issues is to do the minimum required, for those industries reliant on the confidence of their stakeholders, ensuring their data is not compromised is of extreme importance.
In the public sector the Freedom of Information Act has caused organisations to expend considerable resources putting their records in order to facilitate access, although cynics have remarked that much of that effort has gone into obliterating embarrassing documents.
Spending on compliance
In the regulated industries there is a substantial requirement for record keeping, and it has been said that up to 50% of the IT-related spend in the financial sector is currently devoted to issues related to compliance.
Naturally, businesses will ensure they have the necessary data to pay their employees and suppliers and to invoice clients, but apart from this core of essential information, except where there is a statutory requirement, other data holdings are likely to be less rigorously maintained.
Often data is collected but not subsequently maintained. An annual review is needed for client and prospect contact data. If the data is not updated, then after a couple of years it will be nearly worthless. Therefore, a complete data cleaning operation will be required.
So what opportunities can be enabled through good information management and is it really worth the effort? One area which promises much is customer relationship management. Like other "magic bullets", the lure of CRM has been a classic IT story: expensive software enthusiastically sold by suppliers and embraced by users who saw an end to their problems, but resulting in disillusionment when the promised benefits were not realised.
In touch with customers
Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that such all-embracing systems require considerable organisational change, but the burden of information maintenance must take some of the blame. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that clean records enable us to keep us in touch with customers.
Another area of potential, particularly for information-based industries, is to make available the collective knowledge of an organisation. The challenge is to make this valuable information available across the organisation with minimal extra work - off-the-shelf document management and portal technology has much to offer in this area.
A further benefit from consistent information is in the linking of systems. For instance, a client will be recorded in the financial system for billing purposes, in the CRM system for client contact, and in the document store where previous work is held. Links between these systems can be made explicitly, but this is labour-intensive. However, if data has been recorded consistently, links can be made automatically. IT needs to take advice from the information scientists, whose concerns are with classification and data structures rather than the technology that supports the systems.
The business benefit of clean data and good information management goes far beyond satisfying regulators and can be fundamental to winning and retaining clients and delivering products and services. To help us do this, we should enlist the expertise of information scientists.
Ben Booth is chairman of the BCS Elite group and chief information officer at research group Mori.