As we all know, the demand for information access and reporting is increasing. On the supply side, companies like IBM and Accenture are betting on great growth in information management services in support of ideas such as the "Now Economy," a phrase offered presciently in the 1990s by editors at The Economist. A writer for The Economist later described how GE CIO Gary Reiner was the first at his company to have his own software "dashboard" to leverage fleeting information - way back in early 2001. As Ludwig Siegele wrote in the January, 2002 issue:
"GE 's aim is to monitor everything in real time, Mr. Reiner explains, calling up a special Web page on his PC: a 'digital dashboard.' From a distance it looks like a Mondrian canvas in green, yellow and red. A closer look reveals that the colours signal the status of software applications critical to GE 's business. If one of the programs stays red or even yellow for too long, Mr. Reiner gets the system to e-mail the people in charge. He can also see when he had to intervene the last time, or how individual applications - such as programs to manage book-keeping or orders - have performed."
Even in the 21st Century, Siegele's well-oiled prose had a sci-fi ring to it as he described a futuristic set of controls to streamline and automate decision-making. It also sounds a little dumbed-down, though we should remember that four years ago there were many more computing illiterates than experienced users, still more among The Economist readership. And just as we've all learned about dashboards and have come to take them for granted, we know now that GE wasn't trying to monitor "everything." It was monitoring the status quo of a closed environment, which hopefully offered Reiner reactive productivity that would allow him to spend less time running the business and more time growing the business. That's the remaining challenge: The big demand side of information consumption is part productivity, part filtering, sorting, analysis, collaboration and action. That is the way people have always worked in the human environment. In the technology environment, demand for change is coming fast while the supply side of information is acting old school and lagging miserably in most corporate settings. It could be argued that major productivity gains are coming more from end users as back-door databases and spreadsheets proliferate to the dismay of IT. A less scrupulous example of an information end around this week forced no one less than Patricia Dunn to step down from her role as chairwoman at HP.
But all you really have to do to see the exponentially accelerating curve of information demand is to look at the way young generations creatively consume information right now. Mere adolescents store and file music, message friends, manage contacts and files intuitively; they navigate expertly and source the best deals on products in a matter of seconds. It shouldn't be considered a playground, though by example, Sanjay Poonen of SAP has described watching his eight-year-old nephew playing SimCity and tells me he finds it "amazing." "You wonder how a child could navigate through all this but there he is, negotiating with a city planner, taking action when a fire sprouts up, building rules into the planning of his city and making very sophisticated choices." No doubt, a corporation is not a video game; the example says more about the capacity of human intellect versus the idea of IT as both the facilitator and gatekeeper of the corporate information vault.
As database legend Ralph Kimball reminded me not long ago, his generation (and mine and most of the one that followed) didn't carry computers to classrooms. The only computer we had access to in college was the size of an apartment building and spit out perforated tape. Yet Kimball's generation and mine have more to do with keeping the lid on information - for better and worse - than literate young consumers. By way of contrast, my own nephew caught onto computers in his teens and entered the workforce computer literate in ways many older workers are not. He was not impressed by what he found and remains disappointed that he must navigate his job duties fractionally as well as he navigates his personal life.
It is a complex technical challenge. We are only nearing execution on concepts such as Forrester Research's "Information Workplace," a process-oriented conglomeration of portals, content, collaboration and office productivity resources. That this is a framework and a defined structure contributes a major problem of its own: as we try to improve role-based access to information, we come to describe individuals as a series of round and square pegs and holes. With a nod to compliance, regulation and proprietary information, the corporate notion of information access pigeonholes humans in unrealistic ways.
Consultant Neil Raden of Hired Brains will go off on the subject of "granting" information access to individuals in the corporate setting. "A grant is a technical term in a database we use loosely to mean, based on your role as an analyst, a report reader, whatever, you're granted certain privileges in access to data." These rights are broad categories Raden likens to an old pyramid model. "Part of the problem with roles is that nobody actually lives in one role. Everything you do is level-based; you're an expert in one thing and a beginner in another."
As the former editor of a magazine dedicated to enterprise portals, I've always been interested in the way people will interface with technology in the future. It's true that portals have moved from rigid templates toward more flexible middleware that realistically offers role-based customization as the information "push," and personalization to allow information "pull." As data integration and management mature within organizations, the situation will certainly get better.
But while frameworks and integration are related, we should not see them as a guideline for consumption. "You can look at next generation apps more or less with the technology you have now, it's just a different approach," Raden says. "We've been focused on ease of use and trying to dumb things down so that people who are afraid of technology can start to use it. But when kids want to download a piece of music or learn MySpace, they're not worried if they can figure it out or not, they just figure it out." Chalk one up for the next generation that is creating the future of information consumption. We should be listening.
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