Business executives and knowledge workers need access to high-quality, succinct information delivered at the time of decision-making, and that information must help solve business problems as well as take advantage of opportunities. Time is money; delays in assimilating information used in today's real-time corporate environments are perilous. Often, decisions must be made in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks. Regardless of where an organization is with its enterprise data initiatives, there are techniques one can use to streamline the exchange of information.
Have you been involved in a conversation about a basic business question that should be easily answerable, but in reality the answer takes 30 minutes to explain? What were total sales last week? How many new customers did we acquire last month? How many products do we have? Think of the subtleties of the correct answer to a question as easy as how to define a customer. For a retailer, is the customer the individual or the household? Is the answer the number of customers entered, even potential duplicates - and, at what level of potential - small, probable, none? Is one considered a customer if he or she only bought and returned product? What about attrited customers, and how do we define that!?
Simple questions aren't so simple unless they are posed in very specific ways or there is common agreement on corporate definitions. It reminds me of the game where 20 people gather in a circle and whisper a phrase from one to the next, trying in vain to maintain the integrity of the original phrase.
An enterprise data warehouse or a master data management (MDM) solution enables a corporation to change the culture to one with greater ability to deal with more detailed levels of information, allowing one to ask highly discrete questions. Knowing that "customers" really means individuals who have opened their first account in the last three months, who have a net-positive purchase record and are unlikely to be a duplicate record puts everyone on the same page.
Executives especially should take note. Executives often ask questions expecting quick, simple answers. Sometimes, the answer should be simple. If executives invest in information management, they should expect "3:34 p.m." as the answer to the proverbial question "What time is it?" - not a monologue on how to build a watch. Even with a robust information infrastructure with common definitions exposed and agreed upon, rambling can be a result of personal style.
However, many times, without a robust information infrastructure, the correct answer will be complex, with caveats. If you want a streamlined exchange of information, it is necessary to invest in communication skills to get to that "promised land." The remainder of this column is not a look at how to create that information architecture, but a look at techniques to encourage involved individuals to keep answers brief and to the point - with the assistance of the correct information at their fingertips. As a warning, do not escalate quickly through this list in your personal relationships!
Humor can be effective and perhaps a good first start. You can try to laugh it off. For those old enough to get the reference, you can ask for the Reader's Digest version. Or you can suggest a game in which an answer with x words or less means you'll bring their share at the next potluck (or grant more vacation days, depending on the relationship). These may be expensive — and foolish — options if you truly have to follow through, but hopefully you get the point across.
The interruption approach can also be gentle. By this, I mean a simple interruption of the efficiency-challenged with a recognition of the verbose responder as the expert, clearly possessing a wealth of facts, followed by the statement that what you need now is just those facts. You could perhaps challenge that the response be given in three sentences or less.
Finally, if those approaches don't work, ratchet it up with a series of more direct measures. A look at your watch, turning into a stare, can send the message of the importance of quickly getting to the answer you desire. Standing up and beginning to walk toward a door can accelerate anyone's stream of thought and force out the bottom line.
If those don't quite work for you, you need to invest in some gadgetry. A mini-hourglass, an egg timer or any other gadgets that last about 30 seconds can send a direct message along with a little indirect humor.
Use your imagination. You might be labeled a bit insensitive at first, but it can be worth it to get back some of that nonrenewable asset - time! To create a company culture that can answer simple and complex questions accurately and swiftly requires: 1) investment in information management, either data warehousing or MDM; 2) accurate and detailed allotment of the data to discrete, refined, agreed-to definitions; and 3) knowledge workers motivated to use the information to deliver answers in the desired manner.
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