The last race in information technology revolved around corporate reengineering.
Now it has entered the realm of Internet, intranet, and extranet technologies.
In the previous phase, some organizations saw business process reengineering as a quick fix that could bring about big changes with little direction from management and minimal effort from employees. Others used it to institute downsizing or cost reduction programs.
Eventually, there were almost as many definitions of business process reengineering as there were companies using it.
While the debates went on, experimentation in the field gradually revealed a 50% or higher failure rate. The problem with business process reengineering was that it focused on the structure of the organization before identifying the work to be done.
Business process reengineering was not "efficiency." There is never a right way to do the wrong thing. Efficiency is all about doing things right. To be effective, an organization needs to do the right things, and the right things have always been defined in terms of customer needs.
Critics were quick to point out that no matter how much you improved the functional processes in an organization, the basic goal was still the same- to find and retain customers. Even in the midst of a technological explosion, the basic formula for finding and keeping customers has not changed.
In his book "In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies," Thomas Peters came to a stunningly simple conclusion: "In the private or public sector, in big business or small, we observe that there are only two ways to create and sustain superior performance over the long haul. First, take exceptional care of your customer via superior service and superior quality. Second, constantly innovate."
The poster child for innovation in this age of electronic commerce is Amazon.com. Like all the great innovators, it changed the game by thinking outside the box.
While Barnes & Noble and Borders Group Inc. were investing in the bricks and mortar of increasingly large, walk-in browsing emporiums, Amazon.com was busy constructing an Internet marketing and distribution center for books-without walls and without limits.
Amazon.com had a better idea: Go directly to the customer. What Amazon.com saw that no one before them saw was that the Internet was both the vehicle for selling to individual users and the most direct route to customer relationships and branding.
In response to this change in business, the design of most data warehouses and the management of all information will soon focus solely on the customer relationship. Those relationships, constructed from equal parts of loyalty and convenience, are the key to success.
Clearly, the adaptation of Internet technology by corporations around the world has changed ways of conducting business. It is a new game and the playing field now measures a whopping 7,927 miles in circumference and boasts approximately three billion players on a daily basis.
To further complicate the situation, even the best solutions to the toughest business problems often have a very short life span. Such is the fluidity of change and the dynamic effect of innovation.
What's more, the answer to tomorrow's questions can only be solved by anticipating tomorrow's problems, recognizing the opportunities, and managing the threats. To do that, you need more than just information-you need the right information. And the right information starts with the right technology.
Data warehousing and on-line analytical processing technologies are becoming less associated with data or features and more focused on enabling business solutions to be delivered as "content."
Though data warehouse and on-line analytical processing technologies become part of the Internet, intranet and extranet issues-data security, verification of content accuracy, user productivity, and scalability-are increasingly important technical considerations.
With the right data warehouse and information management systems, the methods previously used for accessing data may no longer have great value in an organization.
The production of statistical reports and the quantification of marketing trends will no longer be viewed as a competitive approach. In the future, when organizations develop an information management strategy, the focus will be on delivering complete business intelligence offerings that meet the broad spectrum of users' information needs.
Internet technology has simplified the delivery system and refocused efforts on informational content. Hence, organizations no longer confuse data for information that can be acted upon. Data becomes useful information only after it has been identified, analyzed, organized, and deployed.
What we call "actionable information" is definitely more than the latest trend in information management. Federal Express bets its $11 billion future on the content value of actionable information that can be culled from multiple data warehouses and data marts. The sole purpose of its bold move was to eliminate the barriers to widespread information dissemination throughout the company.
By creating an information super-hub, the company has done what no other transportation and delivery company to date has been able to do-integrate information about the shipping habits of customers with demographic information from information brokers such as Dun & Bradstreet.
The business opportunities that are destined to come from the creative use of this customer information are unlimited. Even more impressive is the fact that with a terabyte of data and an unprecedented level of technical integration, FedEx has developed an architecture capable of involving thousands of users in the decision-support process.
For FedEx chairman Fred Smith, the direction for the future has never been clearer. He offers this succinct opinion in the annual report: "To remain successful, providing outstanding service while managing our cost, we'll continue using technology to move bytes and boxes with optimum speed, precision, and efficiency."
FedEx is not alone in betting big on technology. It's now a given that information is the message and the vehicle for growth in a worldwide market. Intelligent organizations are investing heavily in the necessary technology.
The first step for any organization interested in managing its intellectual assets is to understand its own information culture.
It does not matter whether it is data warehouses and data marts or information management systems and operations/technology. What it all comes down to is people. That is, data warehouses and data marts are built and maintained by people. Management systems and operations are run by people. Without their cooperation and support, even a world-class information system will fail.
Consequently, the linchpin of any winning strategy is the collective intelligence of the organization-the information culture.
"Decision process reengineering" is nothing more than the inspection of that information culture. It is a chance to review the culture and define a strategy for becoming a better competitor or potentially a new industry leader.
We have entered into a new era, facing a new global economy. The competition is fierce and bound to get more so. The rules have changed.
Fortunately, the tools, techniques, and technology needed to respond are available.
Whether it is outstanding customer service, superior quality, or outside-the-box innovation, the only way to gain a competitive advantage will be to carefully manage the intellectual capital of the enterprise. The rest is beyond reengineering. Mr. Tanler is the founder and chairman of Information Advantage, a Minneapolis-based company specializing in analytical data technologies.