Information Technology (IT). Information Systems (IS). Chief Information Officer (CIO). Not so long ago supporting computers, servers and other technology revolved around a keyword – Information.
Wikipedia defines Information Technology as “the application of computers and internet to store, retrieve, transmit and manipulate data or information.” Put another way, IT is defined by its ability to manage, communicate and provide information.
The past decade has seen an enormous growth in computing power. Faster processors, more RAM, bigger screens, solid state hard drives, better battery life, thinner and lighter designs, virtualization of servers, storage area networks, T1 lines, MPLS, fiber connections…
Somewhere along the way, though, the focus in IT became more about the Technology than the Information. We became obsessed with faster, lighter, longer, better and forgot to ask why we need all of those shiny new technological marvels.
We lost sight of the fact that we were processing information faster. Our lighter and thinner laptops meant taking our computers anywhere we wanted to go. Longer battery life meant we could have our information even when we were traveling away from the office and better internet connections meant we could access our information sources from anywhere in the world.
Even today, some of the most important projects, like moving systems to the cloud, aren’t always focused on the largest benefits. Sure, it will be nice to lower the maintenance load and not have to worry so much about upgrades and patches. But the real benefits of moving to the cloud are all focused on that keyword – information.
Benefits of Cloud Based Information Systems:
- Connected – To turn data into information, it must not be sitting in a siloed environment. It has to be able to “talk” to other systems, preferably through an automated API (Application Programing Interface).
- Accessible – 24/7 access to the data that’s needed when it’s needed. This means that people don’t have to wait to have specific reports run or designed for them.
- Scalable – Growth is enabled by instant access to more storage space or additional memory or processing instead of having to order and install new resources.
- Recoverable – Automated backups and/or version controls ensure that business is not disrupted by outages, emergencies, corrupted data or data loss.
- Secure – Often data in the cloud is MORE secure than in an office or even a datacenter.
Invest in Business Intelligence
To turn the data that your firm has already collected into something useful – “Actionable Information” – Business Intelligence must become a focal point, and existing IT teams are often uniquely suited to develop your data into a strategic asset. Dashboards, Real Time Reporting, and Power BI are all tools to which most IT teams already have been exposed. Investing in additional training for people with basic skills, aptitude and enthusiasm can provide big dividends for firms.
Another focus should be making sure that raw data is available to people as meaningful and useful information. The most important first step is to ensure that you are able to pull information from all of the meaningful sources across the firm – Tax, Audit, Advisory, Marketing, Finance, HR, Office Management, Technology, Legal and Practice Management all use various systems to run their respective areas of a firm. How many places does your data reside in? If each department and business area has their own systems, you may be able to piece data together from a few or even several of them, but the information available from that data will likely be incomplete. To build a full picture, all of the systems must be accessible and relational to each other.
Data quality must be actively maintained to ensure it is up to date and accurate before it can be analyzed. It can be just as frustrating for a data set to have too much unimportant data as it can for it to not have enough data. And if the data you are pulling isn’t correct, complete or useful, people will quickly lose confidence in it and the information it produces.
Analysis of Data
Once the data is gathered and cleaned there are many tools available for transforming the data into information. One basic analysis option is already owned by most firms – Microsoft Excel. Pivot Tables, Charts, Basic Reporting and even an Analysis Toolpak are available as an add-in. Microsoft Power BI is another affordable option that adds extra features. There are many more feature-rich, enterprise class analysis systems available as well. For example: Tableau is a well-known example for enterprises, Spotfire is a graphic data visualization package, and Fathom is a specialized accounting intelligence tool.
Protecting and Securing Data
The most critical role a technology team or vendor has is protecting the information of the firm. There should never be an occasion where data is “lost” by being inaccessible, deleted or corrupted. Ransomware, viruses and malware are all very real threats to information systems. Make sure to take some time to ask your IT team or vendor about how your data is being guarded.
Ask about backups, retention policies, disaster recovery plans and business continuity. How often are they tested?
How much storage space is there? Is there room for the projected growth of the firm?
How many databases do we have?
Can they communicate with each other?
Have we done penetration testing?
Are our firewalls and other defenses up to date?
Is our strategy prevention or reaction to threats?
Do our password policies meet AICPA or NIST Standards?
Do we have any security training available for our staff?
Making Informed Decisions
Once you have successfully managed to gather data and turn it into actionable information it can add enormous insight, and foresight, into your decision making process. Trends will be clearer; it will be easier to distinguish “shiny” expenditures that are wanted from meaningful ones that are needed. With analysis you may learn that some of the problems your firm thinks it has may not be the actual issues at all and can be skipped over to focus on larger concerns.
This can be a definite competitive advantage for your firm compared to firms who are not leveraging their own data. The hardest part will always be trusting the information you have created and having the courage to use it.
“People … operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage.” – Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
To get the most from your systems, your firm and your IT team have to work together to actively put the Information before the Technology.
By Marc Staut
Principal & Consultant
Boomer Consulting, Inc.