As we looked at in the previous article, information islands are easily created, but linking them leads to improved work processes and customer service. The first step to becoming an information-conscious business and connecting your islands is to understand what islands you have. Below are some typical ones from service businesses, but product-based companies will have a similar list, with the addition of stock and logistics but less in the way of scheduling and planning. Often, each of these headings will hold its own islands!
Customer/contact information (CRM)
Names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, websites, Twitter names, blog URLs, sector and demographic information, contact history, sales pipeline.
Plans, designs, documentation, client reports. These are almost certainly documents or drawings of some sort, unless you’re a software company. Also linked to this is your portfolio.
Inbound and outbound calls, whether from your mobile or your landline, should be logged in your CRM. Are they?
Website, blogs, case studies, brochures, business card designs, mailshots (linked to CRM), portfolio (linked to client deliverables).
Planning and scheduling
Project plans, task estimations, team availability, allocation. How does this connect with your sales pipeline to ensure you have the resource to deliver your upcoming work?
Time and materials, other billable items, contracts, sales orders. If you bill by the hour or day, how do you get from your schedule to an invoice?
Price lists, catalogues, contracts. If you need to purchase items for customers, how do you link this with your sales pipeline to ensure you’re estimating the real profit from your upcoming work?
Invoices, purchase orders, expenses, banking, tax, payroll. This is the actual financials of the company: billing information is the information you have which enables you to make an entry in the financials. There is a subtle difference.
Employment contracts, holiday entitlements, reviews/appraisals, skill profiles. Is the latter tied in with your scheduling?
Email and mobile
Ah, email. Our kids might not use it, but it’s been amazingly resilient for a technology developed in the 70s that is inherently cumbersome and not very secure compared to modern proprietary messaging tools like WhatsApp. Email is an island of information in its own right that crosses all functional areas (it often separates your contact history from your carefully crafted CRM system). It is fundamentally unstructured, with often just a name, a free-form subject and a date: no categorisation, no central access to all the attachments emails contain, just some free text you can search on, and unless you’re very disciplined and organise your email into lots and lots of really specific folders, you can often find yourself scrolling through ambiguous subject lines looking for that vital piece of information.
Not only that, but when people start sending different versions of documents to each other by email it can become the worst document storage system in the world. It’s also a personal medium: imagine an example business, where client relationship managers Mark and Helen work together closely but have their own mailboxes. One day Mark is called away to a client and Helen has to pick up on a project he was working on, only she struggles because all the client communication is locked away in Mark’s email, he’s stuck in meetings all day and she can’t get hold of him. Sound familiar?
Connected smartphones can create a personal information island. Primarily this is around contacts – does your mobile sync with your main company contact store? And if so, how do you make sure personal contacts are kept that way and business contacts are available both in your desktop email and on your phone? For small businesses, just getting the synchronisation in place is the big thing; for medium-sized businesses, ensuring the right business contacts go to the right people is the next challenge. To be information conscious, you need to be thinking about synchronising phone and email contacts with the client database so that everyone has access to all customer contact details and every customer interaction can be tracked.
Identifying your islands is the first step to becoming information conscious. We’ve set up a bunch of exercises to help you, starting with the actual identification in Exercise 1. The next article will take you further along the process.