Any company, from the largest multinational down to the smallest one-man band has lots of different sorts of information that it collects. These are often grouped around different business functions, such as sales, project planning, finance and so on. All these different sorts of information are qualitatively different, and although they may share certain characteristics (an invoice and a proposal will both have a client name, for example), they are in no way linked. The system for accessing each one might (or might not) be very efficient and streamlined in itself, but combining them can be a nightmare.
Information islands appear as a growing business adopts tactical solutions to fix individual problems. These separate clusters of information mean that trying to get an overview of a particular client, for instance, can feel like paddling against a current from island to island.
Your carpentry business specialises in custom-built fitted furniture for the home. A year ago, you did a project for Mr Jones. He was very pleased with your service and referred you to a lot of his friends and contacts. Now, he’s started working from home and wants his office fitted out, and calls your company. You’ve recently hired a new assistant (let’s call him Jimmy), who’s never heard of Mr Jones. Jimmy takes the call. What does Jimmy say?
A. “Mr Jones, OK, have we done any work for you before? Ah, OK, I see. An office in a similar style you say? So what was it we did in your bedroom? Right, I’ll need to talk to the boss about that, can I call you back this afternoon?”
B. “Mr Jones, let me just find you in our system… Yes, so we built a full length set of units in beech wasn’t it? That’s right I’m new, I’ve only been here a couple of months. Looks great from the photos, how are you finding it? That’s great news. By the way thanks for the referrals, looks like we’ve done work for half your street! So, your office. I see we have some measurements here for your other rooms that the guys took because you said you might want a few things doing in future, is it the one on the ground floor that’s about three metres square? Great, let me take some more details about what you want… OK, well obviously I’ll need to get the boss to give you a call to finalise things and cost the job up, are you free this afternoon? I’ll put a to-do in his diary then. Just looking at the schedule as well – we’ve got an opening in a couple of weeks time that we might be able to fit you into, shall I pencil you in, subject to agreement of course? Great, thanks, is there anything else I can help you with?”
Scenario A is a classic example of a business having information islands that it can’t pull together to present a slick experience to the client, and to aid Jimmy, who through lack of information is unable to be of any real assistance. I think you’ll agree that it probably won’t leave Mr Jones feeling very special or particularly enthusiastic about your business. When you call him back that afternoon you’ll probably make the sale, but he’ll go away and tell people: “Those guys who did my bedroom, they do a great job but they’re a bit disorganised and that new lad they’ve got in the office is useless”.
Scenario B shows a business that is information conscious. Jimmy has never heard of Mr Jones, but a quick check of the records tells him that this is a valuable customer and to treat him accordingly. Jimmy’s able to utilise some information that you thought to collect last time you were there, to get a really good description of what Mr Jones wants. Because of this, you’re now able to call the customer with a rough price in your head – and the call will be a lot quicker and more pleasant. The fact that Jimmy’s able to pencil in the work helps close the sale and is also great for the customer, who will now tell his friends: “I called those guys who did my bedroom to have a look at my home office – they’re growing, they’ve got a really bright lad in the office there now and they’re a really slick operation.”
Which way would you rather be described? Which way would your staff rather be described?
To make things worse, in a Scenario A business many of the islands are only populated by certain individuals within the business who, sometimes through no fault of their own and sometimes out of a misplaced belief that it will protect their position, are the only ones capable or adept at making sense of their own information. I’ve even seen this happen in very small teams.
For example, let’s imagine a field service company with an office administrator called Emma. When Emma was hired there was a problem tracking time billed against actual time, so she built a spreadsheet that she’s extended and extended as more needs came up and now she’s the only one who really knows how it operates. That’s obviously a massive risk to the business if anything happens to Emma, she leaves or goes on holiday. But it’s also a massive strain on the whole team who have to ask Emma (who’s already got more to do than she has time for) whenever they need to know something about time billed. Multiply up from individuals to whole teams and departments in larger organisations and you can see the problems this can cause.
Information islands are one of the key operational problems that can prevent businesses growing.
Clearly, one of our goals in becoming an information-conscious business is to build bridges between the islands, and ultimately get rid of the sea in between altogether. But to do that, we first need to understand what islands we have. Read the next article to find out how.