Information Overload And Why Your Car Doesn’t E-Mail You

Written by Todd L. Michaud
September 11th, 2010

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

Most of the data created, harvested and consumed in business is worthless. In fact, millions of dollars are wasted every year creating systems to deliver information to people who do absolutely nothing with it. Hundreds of reports have never been clicked, thousands of automated E-mails have never been read and millions of sheets of paper are (hopefully) recycled without even so much as a glance. The next time someone tells you he or she needs more data to do a job, ask that person point blank: “If you were given this additional data, what would you do with it?” In my opinion, people actually need less data.

I have spent a lot of time in recent months contemplating and designing an Information Architecture for Focus Brands. As a result, I think IT systems should be designed from the ground up with an understanding of the information supply chain, as in “What groups/people will need access to the data entered into or created by this system?” Through this process, I have come to realize that one precursor to an Information Architecture is an Action Framework. Basically, it’s not enough to think about who may need access to this data; rather, it’s critical to understand what, if anything, they intend to do with it.

Why is this distinction important? First, it’s not uncommon for people to want data because they believe it provides information that it actually doesn’t. It’s also important to understand how this information will be consumed. Will it be raw data fed into another system? Will it be displayed through an executive dashboard? Will it be referenced by someone in a functional role as part of an established business process? Will it be used strictly as reference for historical purposes?

As an example, let’s look at cars. For decades, production automobiles had a single light on their dashboards that said “Check Engine.” That single light was the “alert” interface between the driver and a complicated system called the internal combustion engine. If any one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of components had an issue, the light would illuminate to inform the driver that action was required. The problem could be something as small as low fluid to something as large as “this thing is about to spit a piston through the hood if you don’t turn it off.”

The simplicity of the interface was part of its elegance. To drive a car, you didn’t need to know how an engine worked. Instead, you simply had to find someone who did once that light came on.

Now imagine if your car E-mailed you a report on the performance of all its parts and sub-systems after each time you drove it. This information is critical to the engine’s operation, but it would be absolutely meaningless to you. Reports like these are created every second of every day in the business world.

In the business world, think of the gauge as a dashboard. The system is so complex it doesn’t make sense to expose its detailed information to a user. Rather, the system merely needs to indicate there is a problem to those who do not necessarily need to understand the details of that problem. In today’s world, we expose so much information to users that none of it is valuable.

(Editor’s Note: That car gauge is a pet peeve. How about replacing it with a series of lights showing severity, like the DEFCON indicators? Red for urgent; yellow for “soon, but it doesn’t have to be today”; orange for “within a month”; etc. That approach would still shield users from a lot of data they may not understand, but it would also let those users better decide what to do and when to do it.)

We recently deployed a new back-office inventory and labor management system in one of our brands. This is a complex system that ties our POS to inventory and labor management systems to better help operators manage their business. Literally hundreds of reports are available with this tool. It was one of the vendor’s selling points. The new system can show everything sold in the restaurant. It can show all the cases of food ordered from the distributors and how many hours each person worked and when. It can slice and dice the data in a million different ways.


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