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August 23, 2004

Data Flood

I did a little catching up on my reading over the past few days. I subscribe to a number of trade magazines (most of them free) and I don't always get the chance to read them as they arrive. So they pile up. And then I catch up. Then they pile up again. It's a vicious circle.

So, in honor of the most recent catch up, I bring to you my random thoughts on articles that are now "old news"...

There was a good article in eWeek from Jim Rapoza (Jun 7) -- "When less isn't more." He talks about web analysis tools and how most businesses purchase powerful tools, yet only use them to generate the most basic of reports. Then they base business decisions on those basic reports - which may or may not really display valid business information. He gives a really good hypothetical illustration that really drives the point home.

Really good article. What it doesn't point out (explicitly) is that this is the same thing that is preventing IT from really making a difference in the workplace. People won't learn it. They want the software to do it all for them. Software can't think. Computers can't think. People think. Yes, YOU are smarter than a computer.

Computers crunch the numbers. You figure out what those numbers mean. I find it ironic that Astrologers can get this, but Business people don't. For years, the woo-woo types have used software to compute various types of astro charts, and then used intuition and experience to interpret the results. Thus, they add 'value' to the computer-generated results -- by providing an interpretation that the client cannot provide for themselves without similar intuitive work, training and experience. If you could derive the same 'value' from the software, you would just purchase the software and run it yourself. Even if the software was originally expensive (as it was years ago), eventually software companies would compete and the software would become attainable by the average user. This is the goal of the software companies. The goal of astrologers is to convince the client of the added value of the customized interpretation. Now stop and think...do you see more or less astrologers as compared with 2, 5, or 10 years ago?

When was the last time you heard someone say that they were a true webmaster? You know...the type that not only runs the web server, but also has the responsibility to pore through the logs and interpret web traffic to maximize business goals? Or does the same person who keeps the web server running also tend to the mail server, domain controllers, user accounts and the overhead projector? Oh...that's right. Business decided that they needed to reduce costs. They didn't need all those geeks. If you just buy the right software, you can do all that yourself and save booodles of money. You'll be a hero! You would be...if you knew how to interpret the results.

But, you would have to learn quite a lot about what a web server does and how it does it in order to make sense of the data. You would have to know and understand statistics to know if the generic report really proves what you hope is actually happening. You would have to understand the expensive web stats software in order to know how to configure it properly to give you the information you want.

But, you bought this expensive software. Everyone else raves about it. The web page for the software claims that you don't have to know all that. This magical software does it all for you. Just have your sysadmin install it and you can just click the button and get your results. The results tell you what you want to hear. And you base a decision or two on those results and your understanding of them. The statistics that you don't understand continue to grow. It proves you're right.

Jim Raposa gives an excellent illustration of such a situation. He talks about a situation where you increase web traffic, but it's not the right type of web traffic. You want to increase useful web traffic, not just merely increase traffic for its own sake. Hmmm. That sounds familiar, doesn't it? Isn't that what IT geeks were accused of? Doing IT for the fun of it...for its own sake.

Perhaps it's our own fault. We didn't explain to the world how we could be useful. We enjoyed learning. Perhaps we didn't even understand how useful we were - or could be. Perhaps no one listened.

And I hear the echo of the words of Bill Gates: "The successful companies of the next decade will be the ones that use digital tools to reinvent the way they work." You can't effectively use tools that you don't understand.

Perhaps it's time to give IT another shot?

Posted by BlueWolf on August 23, 2004 11:58 PM