Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What the Big Companies Know about Loosing Information Context

Computing is power.  For businesses and other organizations, computing power can help turn data into information, and information into meaning.

Computing power must be focused.  This means focus on serving, illuminating, and supporting the core processes—the fundamental, goal-oriented work of an organization.  Actual deployment of computers, however, has been quite different for many small and medium-sized operations on the one hand, and for big organizations on the other.  The reasons for this difference lie in what big companies know about organizing analytic resources for process action and impact.  Since before the days of electronic computing, these companies have been forced by size and complexity to maintain a formal, continually monitored focus on process.  As computers have become available and widespread, large companies have consistently applied to computer use their insights about process, and have achieved success by doing so.
By the time of the 1970s and 1980s almost all large corporations had adopted the large-capacity “mainframe” computer.  Mainframes were and are operated within a firm as a centralized resource.  Data records are routed to them and processed by them, and reports on the data are disbursed from them.  Beginning to be widespread in the 1960s, mainframes have been a successful and powerful tool to record and to process data, and to generate reports for control and decision-making.  They provide readings that update metrics for basic processes, and that inform about the status of competition and other outside forces affecting the organization. 

The leaders and managers of corporations using mainframes looked with considerable ambivalence at the advent of the personal computer.  Certainly, the new machines’ compact, flexible power was impressive.  Their capacities for direct data entry, and for uploading to other machines, obviated entire rooms full of older technology, such as card punches and card readers, and reduced the numbers of staff required.  But the very name, “personal computer”, warned of disruption and disorder.  The mainframe-using organizations depended vitally on formal control of process and interpretation. Personal information management threatened the capability of the organization to be operated in agreed-upon ways for agreed-upon goals. 

The large corporations dealt with this situation by embracing the computing power of PCs, while they networked the new machines and used them as special purpose terminals and workstations, with centralized data storage on existing mainframes or on servers.  These adjustments were largely successful, and are still being followed:

Despite such adjustments, however, PC capabilities meant that originals or copies of many data resource elements could be stored and used in decentralized and even independent fashion.  PCs presented business hazards, therefore, and the situation was not helped as individual employees did work outside the office on their own machines or on office portables, and as they sometimes uploaded, sometimes stored locally the analysis they produced. 

Thus there was a sigh of relief among large companies when in 1995 IBM acquired the leading personal computer groupware product, Lotus Notes.  Now, IBM was announcing effectively that information which had been moved to the peripheries of a corporation could be re-centralized.

Moreover, a powerful but economical solution was being provided.  Companies could benefit from the flexible but process-defining and workgroup-oriented character of Notes, while they avoided the costs of commissioning expensive, special purpose workgroup systems.   Finally, they could benefit from IBM’s own experience with centralizing the storage, the security, and the analysis of data resources. 

Small and medium-sized companies, by contrast, often continued to lack a PC strategy for data regularity and integrity. Situations became common in which the only unifying applications were the PC operating system, the PC office suite, and email.  In the absence of central control and of systematic software updating and security reinforcement, organizations were exposed to risk from hacking damage, through their PC operating systems and through PC office software, both designed originally for open communication. 

As for email:  it has come to be used in many smaller organizations as a defacto workgroup tool, but this adaptation of email has not provided the focus, the unified vision, and the security that formal workgroup systems have provided to their adopters.  Email communication is vulnerable to individuals’ diffuse and varying ideas about process structure and needs.  Finally, in an internet world in particular, common standards of email management offer especially low security while allowing for the introduction of incompatible material from downloaded programs and data. 
Knowledge Energies stands ready to help small- and medium-sized organizations take the crucial first step by identifying organizational processes.  Process needs for data and document storage and analysis can be identified, simultaneously with process identification and description. 

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