IT / Technology
Managing Information Technology
To many managers, data management and processing is a mystical and highly technological activity. It has to do with difficult to understand computer hardware, software and the use of sophisticated manipulation programs (often using hard to learn programming languages that only computer specialists can use). But increasingly in the modern world, leaders are expected to not only use information technology but also to manage the data that it produces so that every individual can get the information that they need to do their job effectively.
To take a simple example of the challenge to all leaders, the figures 191214 are raw data. It is information, in code, that means something to the person who put it together or entered it into a system. ‘December 19th 2014’ equates to the same data when the figures have been partly processed. However, this is still relatively useless, unless the context is known—providing more meaning than in the raw form. Knowing that it is a key departmental contract anniversary on that date makes the picture complete. The information is now useful, relevant and meaningful to a given leader or team’s situation. There is a context and an individual can use the fully processed data to remind him or herself, or another person, to take certain actions.
The key words in the above very simple example, as it relates to the translation of data to information, are “relevant, useful and meaningful.” Put another way, there is typically so much data available to you as a manager today, that sorting out what will help to solve problems and make plans is the critical step and relevance, usefulness and meaningfulness are the criteria that we should use to take this step.
The process of turning data into information
Although information systems are sometimes very complex in their design, the way that data is stored (ultimately in a “database”) is worth every leader understanding to some degree. In basic terms, all computer systems store data as follows: Data in an electronic or computerized system needs to be stored in a particular way (and takes up server storage space measured in bits and bytes). The most basic of these is a character, which consists of a single alphabetical, numeric or other symbol. A higher level of data is a field (or sometimes called a data item). For example, a group of alphabetical characters in a person’s last name forms a Name field. Similarly a group of numeric characters might form a Revenue field. A data field represents a characteristic or quality (sometimes called an “attribute” by systems people) of an object, person, place or event in time. Hence, an annual salary is a collective piece of data that relates to a particular individual who is employed by the enterprise.
An even higher level of data is a Record. A record is typically a collection of attributes that describes an entity. A person’s payroll record for example may consist of several data fields including Name, Social Security Number, Rate of Pay, etc. A group of related records is a file (or sometimes a table). An entire employee file would therefore contain many records. This may be a payroll record, an expense record, a training record, an appraisal record, etc. Files are often classified in two ways. This is either as a transactional file or a history file (which is an obsolete transaction file used for later reference).
Finally, a database describes an integrated collection of related data elements or multiple files of a similar or related kind (a sort of “pool of data”). A customer database, for example, may contain many different but related files related to customer transactions of all kinds. This may be queries, invoices sent, complaints logged, payments made, etc.
Different kinds of databases
Although a database is pretty much top of the “data tree,” a medium or large sized enterprise is likely to have many databases (and these can run into hundreds and even thousands in some cases). Some of the different kinds of databases are as follows:
Local databases are often created and maintained by one individual or a team of people who use the information for immediate team or department purposes. The most common example of such a database is the Spreadsheet database or simple database (such as Windows Access or SQL for example). Although such databases will often record simple and basic operational data and transactions, in some companies they can be used for quite significant processes such as maintenance, payroll or even asset/resource management.
Operational Databases are often larger than spreadsheet based or simple databases and typically store more complex and detailed data (or a much greater quantity in volume of record terms). This might be a customer database, a human resource database or an operations database. In many current circumstances, such operational databases have Internet connectivity and include electronic commerce functionality. An organization’s website may be such an application, where the database records all visits and all transactions when a customer or prospective customer is online.
Many organizations copy and distribute database structures to so-called Network servers at many different sites or locations in the enterprise—hence the name distributed databases. These databases may reside on the in-house network, an intranet/extranet or even on the External Internet. Distributed databases can be copies of local, operational or hypermedia databases. Of course, the major challenge in these kinds of databases is data integration and collation. Ensuring that data is constantly and consistently updated needs careful planning at the design stage and typically very close attention on a day-to-day basis.
External Databases are made available by some organizations as an information service to anyone that is prepared to pay for the information provided. These days, such databases are typically rendered on the Internet but the data can also be made available for regular download to a local organizational intranet. The sort of information contained on such databases is extremely wide and varied but includes economic data, demographic information, market intelligence, lists, articles, books and many other statistical records.
Hypermedia Databases are those databases that sit behind many public access websites these days. These websites store information in a hypermedia database, which means that they are able to store and manage multiple file formats including text, graphics, photographs, audio clips and even video. They can therefore seamlessly help individuals to browse a site and intelligently record the process (for management or for later visits by the same individual perhaps).
In modern times, information technology is no longer the preserve of the specialist. Every leader needs to understand and manage his or her IT system to know what data it contains and how it can be accessed in order to turn it into information that aids understanding and ultimately assists decision-making.