Information-Driven Business
How to Manage Data and Information for Maximum Advantage

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Behind the scenes
by Robert Hillard

Before the advances of twentieth century medicines, doctors were often deliberately opaque. They were well known for proscribing remedies for patients that were for little more than placebos. To encourage a patient’s confidence, much of what they wrote was intentionally unintelligible. As medicine has advanced, even as it has gotten more complicated, outcomes for patients are enhanced by increasing their understanding.

In fact, the public love to understand the services and products that they use. Diners love it when restaurants make their kitchens open to view. Not only is it entertaining, it also provides confidence in what’s happening behind the scenes.

As buildings have become smarter and more complex, far from needing to hide the workings, architects have gone in the opposite direction with an increasing number of buildings making their technology a feature. It is popular, and practical, to leave structural supports, plumbing and vents all exposed.

This is a far cry from the world of the 1960s and 1970s when cladding companies tried to make cheap buildings look like they were made of brick or other expensive materials. Today we want more than packaging, we want the genuine article underneath. We want honest architecture, machinery and services that we can understand.

I find it fascinating that so many people choose to wear expensive watches that keep time through mechanical mechanisms when the same function can be achieved through a great looking ten dollar digital watch. I think people are prepared to pay thousands when they believe in the elegance and function of what sits inside the case. Many of these watches actually hint at some of those mechanics with small windows or gaps where you can see spinning cogs.

The turnaround of Apple seemed to start with the iMac, a beautiful machine that had a coloured but transparent case, exposing to the world the workings inside.

Transparent business

So it is with business where there are cheap ways of achieving many goals. New products and services can be inserted into already cluttered offerings and it can all be papered over by a thin veneer of customer service and digital interfaces that try to hide the complexity. These are the equivalent of the ten dollar watch.

I had a recent experience of a business that was not transparent. After six months, I noticed a strange charge had been appearing on my telephone bill. The company listing the charges claimed that somewhere we had agreed to their “special offer”. They could not tell us how we had done it and were happy to refund the charges. The real question, of course, is how many thousands of people never notice and never claim the charges back?

Whether it is government, utilities, banking or retail, our interactions with those that provide us products and services are getting more complex. We can either hide the complexity by putting artificial facades over the top (such as websites with many interfaces) or embrace the complexity through better design. I have previously argued that cognitive analytics, in the form of artificial intelligence would reduce the workforce employed to manage complexity (see Your insight might protect your job) but this will do nothing to improve the customer experience.

Far from making people feel that business is simpler, the use of data through analytics in this way can actually make them feel that they have lost even more control. Increasingly they choose the simpler option such as being a guest on a single purpose website rather than embracing a full service provider that they do not understand.

Good governance

Target in the US had this experience when their data analytics went beyond the expectations of what was acceptable to their customers (see The Incredible Story Of How Target Exposed A Teen Girl’s Pregnancy)

In this age of Big Data, good data governance is an integral part of the customer experience. We are surrounded by more and more things happening that go beyond our expectation. These things can seem to happen as if by magic and lead us to a feeling of losing control in our interactions with businesses.

Just as there is a trend to open factories to the public to see how things are made, we should do the same in our intellectual pursuits. As experts in our respective fields, we need to be able to not only achieve an outcome but also demonstrate how we got there.

I explained last month how frustrating it is when customer data isn’t used (see Don’t seek to know everything about your customer). Good governance should seek to simplify and explain how both business processes and the associated data work and are applied.

The pressure for “forget me” legislation and better handling of data breaches will be alleviated by transparency. Even better, customers will enjoy using services that they understand.

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