Poor Business Information Management – What Is It Costing Your Business?

Is your business drowning in information?

Are you buried under tons of paperwork and just don’t know where to start? Are you spending more time doing the paperwork than running the business?

Does you current business data management system provide ready access to your business data and perform the analysis necessary to make informed business decisions?

These may seem like simple, basic questions but in many small and medium-sized businesses they go unasked. What does this mean to the bottom line of your business?

Business data management is paramount to making your business profitable and successful. Making your information and data work as hard as you do, and turning it in to an asset rather than a liability, will give you the edge over your competitors. Effective business data management could be the key to the business success that you have been looking for.

The HOW TO of Business Data Management

All businesses today generate and need access to significant amounts of information and data, much of which is critical to the efficient and profitable operation of the business. Information like customer contact details and sales data, appointment scheduling, stock control or managing production flow and financial records is the life-blood of any business. It needs to be managed effectively to get the most out of it.

Just the process of collecting and recording business information can take a great deal of your staff’s time, and therefore your money. Just as important as collecting business data is HOW it is managed and used. Many hours can go into recording business data, and just as many of those hours can be wasted if the information is not stored in a way that provides ready access or analysis of the information it contains. Obviously, recording business information on random notes or even in structured text documents such as Word is better than nothing. But information stored this way is difficult to track and even more difficult to search. Performing any meaningful analysis on large amounts of data stored in this fashion is virtually impossible.

Using spreadsheets, such as Microsoft’s Excel program, will provide access to structured information as well as the ability to perform some effective business analysis over small subsets of data. However filling out spreadsheets and keeping them up-to-date can be a time consuming task. And what do you do when you have voluminous amounts of data that you want to analyse for trends, or business opportunities. Unlike databases, spreadsheets are limited in the number of records they can manipulate and rarely provided the correlation between disparate data holdings that is required to perform meaningful analysis.

Making the Most of your Business Information

I think we all can agree that proper business information management is an important aspect of effective business management and should be a core consideration in ensuring the success of your business.

As you have probably realised by now, using hand written notes, document files and even spreadsheets may not be the most efficient way for you to manage and make the most of your business information. In fact, when you take in to account the time and effort necessary to collect and store the information, collate it, and then try to make sense of what it all means, you have likely come to the conclusion that unstructured business data is costing your business not only tens of thousands of dollars in time and resources handling the information, but also many thousands of dollars in missed opportunities that proper analysis of that data could have identified.

For the efficient and effective management of business information you really need a database. Databases provide significant advantages over other forms of information capture, storage, retrieval and analysis. More importantly a database enables rapid access to any data held within the database through sophisticated, and yet in most cases easy to use, search functionality. Most database systems today handle virtually any size data-set, be it large or small, and have the ability to perform tasks as simple as ‘Customer Relationship’, ‘Inventory Management’ or ‘Asset Management’, right through to the more complex sales and/or trend analysis, across ten or even hundreds of thousands of individual records.

Perhaps equally as important is the ability of relational databases, such as the Microsoft Access database, to vastly decrease the time and effort required to collect the data. With functionality such as data import, default field values, lookup tables, drop-down lists and the ability to enter common data (which may be used often across 1000s of records) only once, they can significantly reduce the time and effort required to collect and store information.

Over time there have been many database applications available. Whilst all these database systems have provided the basic data storage and retrieve capability, more modern-day database applications such as Microsoft Access Database provide a graphical user interface, simplified querying and comprehensive internal reporting functionality which is capable of analysing and charting vast amounts of data in very short periods of time, often only seconds. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to incorporate all the modern features required by any business to effectively handle their information management and analysis needs. Microsoft Access Database comes packaged with the ‘Office’ (professional) suite of software tools, and its integration with those tools makes passing information and data between documents, spreadsheets and databases a simply process which greatly enhances and simplifies its data collection, analysis and reporting capabilities. Existing users of MS Access Database will also be aware that several of the sample databases that ship with the Access Database, whilst basic in design, already provide some good business information management tools.

Whilst Microsoft’s Access database is easy to use, allowing basic databases to be easily built by the novice, it also contains advanced functionality and features that can be used to build more powerful, integrated business information management systems. Consequently, a number of ‘business to business’ companies specialising in the development of custom, business specific, Access Database applications have emerged. Where you have a need to build a database to meet a specific requirement within your business, but just don’t have the time or someone with the advanced training and knowledge required to build the database in-house, then using a specialist Access Database developer may be the answer. As there are many such companies offering this service the development rates are usually very affordable, and you will find that the time required to have a functioning, customized database, up and running will be significantly reduced.

Share Our Business Information With Who?

Business information has traditionally been kept hush-hush. Typically it is only trusted to upper management and the finance department. Sharing such information was once an unspeakable sin. Today, things are quite different in the workplace. With authority and decision making being redistributed across the organization, employees at all levels find themselves deeply involved in the day-today running of the business. This increased involvement creates a need for more information.

Teams need good information in order to function effectively. A key role of today’s management is to make sure the team gets adequate business information in order to function effectively. Getting business information to the team that is timely, credible, relevant, and understandable presents a number of challenges. These challenges maybe internal to the team or external to the team. The benefits outweigh the challenges. Many organizations now have a practice of regularly sharing business information with all of their employees. Advantages include:

– Sharing business information will help employees to understand business fundamentals.

– Sharing business information helps employees see how their work contributes to the goals and objectives of the organization.

– Employees are better able to think beyond their job, department, or division.

The numbers can have a dramatic impact on the employees feeling of ownership.

These advantages help improve the teams’ problem-solving and decision-making skills. Managing the information needs of the team is a critical function of the team leader..

Sharing business information with an entire team requires asking some difficult, self-reflective questions. Taking the time to answer those questions will create the proper environment for the team. Successful team leaders know how to make the information meaningful for their team. They give meaning to the numbers so the team can answer the question, “How does this affect us?” Team leaders must think very carefully about what they want to do and why. They should consult some of the many books, articles, seminars, that are available on the topic of sharing business information.

The team leader must decide precisely what should be shared with the team. Team involvement is critical at this point. Take the time to introduce the topic at a meeting and explain why it is important. Allow people the opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns. Next, ask the team members what kinds of business information they need. Be prepared for a lot of silence at this point. Since few team members may have had access to business information in the past, they may not know how to answer the right questions.

As a minimum, most teams need the type of business information that allows them to monitor and adjust how they are performing. These teams also need information on the goals of the larger organization so that they will be in sync with the company’s strategies. Above all, the team must have information that will help it understand the business in order to make good day-to-day decisions. If receiving business information is new to the team, the team leader must start with basic information and slowly work up to a broader understanding of the numbers. This is an educational process and the intention must be to create a foundation of business literacy within the team.

Only when the foundation has been created, can the team leader help the team think about its ongoing business information needs. Quality, cost, delivery,safety, and employee morale, are examples of typical indicators. – What are the primary indicators of how the team’s business is performing?

– What type of information will help the team track these indicators?

– What is the source of the information?

– How often should the team receive this information to be timely in its decisions?

– Who is responsible for obtaining this information?

It is simply not enough to bring business information to the team. The team leader must also understand the principles that underly the effective management of business information so that it feeds good team performance.

Planning about how to sustain the business information effort is just as important as implementation. Without continued attention to maintaining adequate business information on the day-to-day operations, the effort will simply fade away and become another “Flavor of the Month”. It is crucial to design a business information system that will function independently of the team leader. This is especially important if the organization is not totally committed to sharing the business information or if there is a turnover in team leadership. In these instances, it is best to leave behind a sustainable system.

The road to sharing business information with the team has a number of ups and downs. The team leader must be persistent. It is essential to not allow the team to get discouraged by a few setbacks. Obtaining the type of information that creates energy and drives excellence take work. Remember, you must maintain a reasonable pace. It may require a little time for team members begin to trust the numbers, let alone use them!

Expect that you will face obstacles as you plan and implement the business information sharing strategy within the team. Some of the obstacles will be external to the team while others will come from within the team. The assumption in sharing business information is that authority is redistributed within the team. Rather than the organization sharing information on a need-to-know basis, it is treating employees more like partners. The team leader no longer holds information as a form of power, he/she is responsible for sharing the knowledge and training the team about the business.

This gives the employees a chance to gain more control over the day-to-day business by understanding business fundamentals. This will enhance employability and give a sense of pride and ownership that stems from being more actively involved in the business

Business Best Practice and the Power of Business Information

Do nothing and you get to stay as you are.

Best practice is the goal of each individual business and will probably be described as looking after matters of ethics and integrity, good customer relations, supporting staff and maintaining good standards of service, accountability and fiscal compliance. Or the description might include positive management styles, high productivity and good economic strategies.

Most would agree that best practice is leadership, goal setting, teamwork, maintaining a culture of compliance, supervision, discipline, support, training, accountability and responsibility.

What if all of these were the focus of a new way of managing business information that provided everything that was needed to manage the business for success and peace of mind?

What if your most precious asset is your business information and what if the success of your business is affected by a lack of order and control over what happens on your business computer network? When you have no control over your business information you have no control over best practice and you might as well forget about it being in control of the business.

Best practice is available through an intelligent network that uses Business Information Organization (BIO) to create the kind of framework that allows for everyone in the business to have access to what they need to achieve the outcomes the business needs. You won’t have best outcomes unless you have best practice. You won’t have best practice if your business information is in a mess.

This is not about the way that your computers and peripherals communicate and it is not about any software. It is not about having the newest and the best equipment. It is not about hiring smart consultants and contractors to take over what should be the role of the business. It is about the power of content and the context of that content.

To explain this approach to best practice there is the example of a new office goods company. They had purchased a new warehouse and were planning to sell their goods online and in a large new showroom at the business end of town. They hired a new business management consultant with links to software companies who advised that they have two ways of managing their stock. Option 1 was to leave everything on pallets and use barcodes to locate the right pallet to get the stock to fill an order. Option 2 was to unload the pallets and store all of the same items together. Both options would be supported by software and equipment.

They chose Option 1 because they could unload the trucks faster and by having a pallet friendly storage system, get a more even distribution of bulk throughout the warehouse. It went well for a short while but they suddenly found that they had to hire more people to work in the warehouse running around to different stacks to fill a single order of multiple stock of the same item and when the computer that managed the warehouse was hit with a virus, everything stopped.

You would be highly unlikely to have chosen Option 1 but the point is that business information is like stock and you may be unwittingly using that scatter option for your business information. The more information is scattered and the more the content is hidden, the less it is available for the business. If that business information includes policy, training, resources and business knowledge the business can be in dire straits or just not doing what it should be doing.

So what if the most important stock of the business was its information content and what if it was no longer hidden and available to achieve the best practice you so desperately want to achieve? Look at your information now. How much do you know about the way it is managed? Where is your policy? How accessible is it and who created it? How often is it reviewed and updated and who does that review?

Look at your own information. Do you organize it at all or is everything bundled in my documents, my pictures, my albums? Is everything haphazard or loosely organized because you tell yourself you are the only person who needs to know what is there and where it is? If you create new folders do you think hard about how they are named and sited? Are there times when you can’t find anything? Is there time when you waste time and money looking for it?

The bad news is that the way that you don’t organize your information is exactly the same way that you everyone on your staff can’t and won’t organize the information they collect or create and store as they work. And the even worse news is that they are quite sure that they are the only ones who should know where it is and what it is. And even worse than that, they think it belongs to them and will delete it without asking anyone whether the business wants to keep it. So how does Option 2 which is about sorting and control sound when it comes to business information and protecting what belongs to the business in a place where it can be seen?

Training and Retraining Senior Managers in Business Information Best Practice

There is an urgent need for business information management to be a crucial aspect of management training for executives in any kind of business or any size and in any location. This is a largely ignored aspect of management training with everyone leaving it to IT or information management professionals to deal with what the business needs, what it needs to spend and what it can expect. This will always result in outcomes being attached to output, in this case financial. But there is a fundamental component that is missing and it is time that it was noticed and replaced.

Messy, unstructured computer networks do nothing to support productivity and economic viability or encourage success for the average small, medium and large business. They are also a potential source of business degradation for large companies and government. Messy, unstructured information renders the business unsafe and unmanageable and messy unstructured information masked by document management systems and clever search functions are putting the business at risk, reducing its effectiveness and leaving it without the means to exploit the power of policy, training, resources and business knowledge.

Most business owners and managers are capable of setting out the rules by which their business information is managed but are unaware of both the need to do this and its relationship to their management role. They know they are capable of understanding the needs of the business but are not aware of the benefits of information structure and control. There are limits to their view of what is really available to them by controlling their precious but undervalued business information.

It is this lack of awareness that ensures that they are not in charge. Others are in charge. Those others do not have the interests of the business at heart because it is not their business but they have been given responsibility for all business information only because owners and managers have not been made aware of any other way to manage this precious asset.

Information management technology is usually viewed as simply a tool for creating, collecting, storing and using business information where the technology, having produced the information, is then used to try to create a context for the content. Systems currently used to manage business information will generally focus on creating context at the point at which the information becomes storable and not at the point in which it is determined as being usable. They do this by applying search terminology to enable the business to look back at what has been used. This application of terminology or key words is totally reliant on the person who is undertaking this work and it may or may not be in the best interests of the business.

Business Information Organization (BIO) is a methodology that maintains the context throughout the life cycle of all business information. That context is firmly seated within the operational profile of the business. This simply means that the information is structured to suit the business and not the operator. Any computer or network structure that moves away from ‘my documents’ and represents what the business is and what it is doing is using the power of BIO.

BIO as a methodology on an intelligent network does not rely on the artificial application of keywords and search terms to point to location of the information and return to it at some later date, but relies totally on the context of location of the information from the moment of generation or collection. On a BIO structured network nothing is generated or collected unless it is controlled by a business based location and this means it will be in context. This means that the location is predetermined and controlled by carefully organized folder structures.

The computer and the business computer network has evolved into a default setup that could never be recognized as the tool for location. Many individuals know to do this for themselves and they create order and control in where and how they store the business information for which they are responsible but most businesses are not aware of both the potential and the power of organization as a business-wide strategy.

Much of the current management training focuses on making use of existing systems and software. What if business executives were shown the basics of business information organization (BIO), the power of the intelligent network and how information best practice is one of the options for managing the business?

These are high stakes. The future of the business is being left in the hands of people who may be here today and gone tomorrow. Every business deserves to be told the truth about information management and what they should expect in the way of best practice. What might be the difference if a business could confidently say:

o We have complete confidence in content management on our computers and networks.
o All policy and compliance is in place where and when it is needed.
o Resources to aid productivity are logged and accessible in context of the work being done.
o Training is accessed continually in context of the work being done.
o Every new project is supported with policy, training and resources.
o Attachments are no longer necessary in in-house communications and duplicates are not tolerated.
o Less paper is produced and more information is digitized to maintain a strong knowledge base.
o Backups and security procedures are context based.
o The network is well managed with file naming protocols in place and folder management practices working across the whole organization.
o There are important economic benefits and greater productivity across the whole of the business.

For more information on BIO visit the website at [http://www.renovateabusiness.com.au] and see the new book ‘How to renovate your business: the information best practice makeover that really works’. The website also contains a number of articles and tools that can aid in retraining senior management in information management best practice.

There is no equipment or software to buy, nobody to hire and nothing to spend to create a BIO based business you can be proud of. But you might as well forget about success unless your senior managers are committed to making this happen. The good news is that business owners and managers get to say how it should go. They have the power to make changes and make sure that best practice is in place. There are questions to ask about current practices in the business and to ask how what you are doing now matches up with the points above. The rest is only ever going to up to you, what you see is important to your business and the kind of training you can provide for your senior staff.

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