There is a lot of truth in the phrase ‘knowledge is power’ and nowhere is this more applicable than in our field of work. On a daily basis, business solutions built on relational databases are allowing SMBs around the UK to tap into the full potential of the data they hold and helping them become agile, responsive and geared for growth. This is fantastic for those organisations that have taken control over their databases, but what about those that have become stuck in a rut and can’t see there is a more efficient way of doing things?
Then it occurred to me the other day, while working on preparing our FileMaker Experience Day, we are actually sitting on our own powerful, intuitive body of knowledge, our FileMaker developers.
Developing a plan
The FileMaker developer community, and the way in which it has grown, is indicative of how the FileMaker solution works itself. Driven by a desire to tap potential and share knowledge, FileMaker experts have been able to develop databases that save small businesses hours and sometimes days every month, giving them a platform for growth and helping them to pursue an innovative approach in their respective fields. In the same way that the FileMaker platform allows companies to open up the vast resources locked in their database, the developer community can share its knowledge and experiences with other SMBs.
The event at UTC Reading will be a chance to see the developer community in full swing. When we think of developers we often conjure up images of technical geniuses (read geeks) formed from years of study- and it is true that our developers are skilled in their field – but the FileMaker developer community is much more accessible and a big reason for this fact is that many of our developers did not start off their career in IT or programming. Anyone who has used FileMaker to build a solution suited to their business can potentially become a developer. It is based on the premise of the sharing of knowledge. Sharing knowledge allows businesses to share the depth of knowledge that resides in their database to help themselves and their clients progress. Many of our developers have grown with us from the start, adapting to changing business pressures alongside our technology and constantly pushing the envelope for exciting SMBs.
The Experience Day is a chance to share this knowledge with a new swathe of innovative, positive SMBs, just waiting for their latent potential to be unleashed. On the day FileMaker experts will be able to take you through the process of creating a relational database, tailored to your business’ needs, using the humble spreadsheet as a starting point.
Time and time again history has shown that those working at the coal face often know their industry best. Our developers are the people dealing with the FileMaker solution on a daily basis, constantly tweaking and adapting to overcome new problems posed by fresh business pressures. By giving this knowledge and experience a place to thrive, we can make sure that we pass on the understanding that data is just the plain facts. When data is processed, organized, structured or presented in a given (timely) context so as to make them useful, it is called Information. It’s quite simple really: to provide the best information, we need to harness the data of those who work with us day in day out. Knowledge is power and we are lucky enough to have it in plentiful supply; let’s make sure we apply it.
Productivity is a word often bandied about in business, but what do we really mean by it? Why do we work the way we do and are we really using IT to its fullest potential or is it holding us back? These were the questions we were putting to the SMBs we spoke to at our latest event at the Look Mum No Hands! Coffee shop on Silicon Roundabout, where we sought to free innovative SMBs from the shackles of the spreadsheet!
Look Mum No Hands!
Start-ups and small companies are the most fertile breeding grounds for innovation and exciting ideas, but they are often held back by IT that is not tailored to a company’s specific needs. At its best, IT can enable employees and businesses to grow at a phenomenal rate and achieve great things, yet it has the tendency to blinker people and stop them thinking ‘I could do this better’. This is the issue that we wanted to tackle at Look Mum No Hands!.
We met some great SMBs with big ideas on Tuesday and it was a genuine pleasure to open their eyes to the latent potential they could tap into through an easy-to-use, intuitive business solution. These businesses are looking to grow at pace but they have been hamstrung by technology they have had to adapt to rather than a bespoke data solution that works for them. Our team of experts was on hand to share a wealth of experience in helping business grow not only at a great pace, but to manage this growth effectively. Over a coffee we gave entrepreneurs the chance to bring along their own spreadsheets or other data forms and show them how easy it is to develop a bespoke data solution that works for their business. The fact that we could do this over a short break in a coffee shop shows how quickly things can be turned around.
So just how much room for improvement is there?
Looking at a recent piece of research that we have undertaken, 87 per cent of UK SMB decision makers see themselves as highly skilled when it comes to using IT tools, yet when we conducted a separate survey, speaking to IT pros, they painted quite a different picture. These professionals certainly don’t see many users as experts, only recognising 21 per cent of Microsoft Word users as having a strong or advanced understanding. From the same survey, conducted through Spiceworks (a community for IT pros) we found that almost half (47 per cent) of IT pros spend at least three hours a week helping employees with productivity suite issues. So what are we to take from this, that businesses are happy for employees to be nothing more than ‘ok’ at using their core business tools? It strikes me that we wouldn’t settle for mediocrity in any other area of business so why in IT?
Let’s look at the positives though. There is evidently a huge potential to be unlocked here. By giving people intuitive technology that they are able to use expertly, businesses can take full advantage of the innovative instincts and creative potential within the workforce.
The feedback from those we spoke to at Look Mum No Hands! underlined our feeling that we have become creatures of habit, unwilling to think how things could be done better outside of the IT structures that we currently work within. It seems clear that IT rarely helps us to break the mould, but opened up to its full potential we can help these SMBs tap into their latent potential and help real people do greater things.
People-focused productivity is still an area in which software can provide a competitive advantage. What has been reinforced from the event at Look Mum No Hands! is the need for technology to improve employee productivity by nurturing their interest and unlocking their talent. Technology should not dictate how we work or the work that we do; it should enable us to innovate and help people get on with their jobs. The future is ‘instinctive IT’; let’s free the UK’s SMBs to follow their vision and embrace real productivity.
Are we kidding ourselves about the boost remote working gives to our productivity? FileMaker recently carried out some research looking into how technology use is impacting SMBs in the UK. It turns out that often the tech is failing to deliver on its promises.
Shirking from home?
92 per cent of key decision-makers at UK SMBs work remotely at some point in their (never average) weeks, but it seems that away from the safety net of the office they are still pretty hamstrung. Of those that work remotely, 40 per cent felt limited by their own organisation’s tech. Many working for SMBs may feel that they are well equipped to take on the working day armed with laptop, tablet and phone, yet cumbersome technology means that they are not getting the complete functionality of the office while off-site.
Effective employees need complete access to the full functionality of their business systems enabling them to setup office wherever they are. They need to be able to do this without being a programming genius; just access to the internet and a connected device/browser. It’s increasingly important, for SMBs in particular, to be able to work effectively wherever they are and to be able to do so at full capacity.
Show me the money…and my hours
Aside from the productivity issues SMBs are facing with cumbersome tech, they are losing a lot of money at the same time. According to the research, small businesses are writing off up to £3.4 billion every year thanks to technical glitches and software crashes. On top of this they’re losing precious time wrestling with these faults. C-level executives at larger SMBs are losing 3-4 hours a month from technological meltdown and a third of respondents claimed the main problem with technology was that it was too time consuming.
SMBs need solutions that can be customised to fit the specific requirements of their businesses, not force your business adapt to the whims of modern technology. Easy tailoring of solutions and simple access easier through connected devices and web browsers will allow SMBs to run their databases more efficiently than ever and free them up to spend time and resources focusing on growth.
Back to basics
Another eye-catching stat from the research is that 92 per cent of SMB decision-makers want their employees to have a better understanding of the technology that they are using. It’s all very well having all the souped up tech that money can buy, but what’s the point if no-one can use it? For SMBs it’s all about ease of use and getting the most out of the financial and human resources available. Modern hardware is simple and intuitive to use but only when matched with software that follow suit.
In short no organisation should be beholden to tech. If you truly want to focus on growth and delivering your frontline services you have to call the shots. We have seen that too many man hours and too much money is wasted each year chasing after gremlins in the system so let’s lay down some simple ground rules.
Firstly, tech should adapt to your business, not the other way around.
Secondly, it must be easily accessible and allow true remote working. If you can’t do everything you do in the office out of it then there’s still work to do.
Thirdly tech must be easy (and enjoyable) to use. If it is, then workers will be able to use it to the best advantage of the business.
Simplicity is the key; let’s make tech work for us.
It would be easy to look on the current BYOD trend as a threat to business productivity. After all, with employees using the same devices for work and play, there is a danger that clients will be receiving more emails charting progress on Candy Crush Saga than the latest data on a medical trial that they are running. Yet for all the archaic rhetoric about these devices distracting staff from their work, they hold the key to unlocking the untapped potential of almost any business. One of the pearls of wisdom I picked up when at the latest Gartner Symposium, was that 80 per cent of words will be typed on glass in 2017. The analyst house declined to mention any stats around Candy Crush use but the message is clear – tablets are here to stay and will be central to business growth in the future.
According to Gartner, through to 2018, BYOD will either double or triple the size of the mobile workforce. To take full advantage of this growth and to enable this workforce to be truly productive, it needs to be able to start and finish processes away from the office desk, even if they don’t leave the building. Having mobile capabilities is one thing, but if you can’t directly update the central database hosted in your office, the time saved will be minimal. Mobile, live access to company databases enables this true productivity to be realised, severing that last tie to the office desk.
Just in this last year we have seen how iPads can enable companies from all walks of life to make significant and sustainable improvements to business performance. For an employee working away from the office, a tablet can be the key to unlocking the huge potential of the company database.
The perfect remedy
Take Healing Honey for example. The company produces a bug resistant anti-microbial for hospitals that is significantly improving chronic wound care treatment around the world. Now, on the face of it, managing a database would not appear to many as a primary concern for this business. But look under the skin of the organisation and you will find a database, critical to ensuring that this life-changing product can do what it does best.
Ian Staples, the company’s founder, came up against a brick wall when faced with prohibitive costs associated with trialing a medical product. The FileMaker Platform allowed him to conduct a full trial of the product at a cost the business could manage. By simply giving each doctor and nurse involved, an iPad, Healing Honey was able to record and monitor results in real-time during the trial period, immediately updating the trial database and proving the product’s worth. This allowed SurgiHoney to start saving lives quicker.
The key to growth
Equipping employees with a good mobile business solution is not just about saving time and money; it can allow businesses to focus on delivering their front-line services and expanding their organisation. Alletson Arnold is a logistics company, dedicated to processing vital immigration papers. In an industry where time is of the essence, the FileMaker Platform has enabled Alletson Arnold to not only significantly reduce time spent on each case, but it has also given managing director Jeremy Arnold the freedom to grow his business.
Providing every one of his employees with an iPad, Jeremy gave them instant access to critical resources, with a really strong database in the background. FileMaker has allowed employees to enter information while off-site, at a government agency for example. The information that is entered on an iPad is automatically updated in the main database back at the office, triggering an email update to be sent to customers, meaning that they know in real-time exactly where documents are. The time and manpower that this saves has been significant, but it is the extra resources that Jeremy can now plough into developing the business that will bring the long-term rewards.
These are just two examples of how tablets can untap the latent potential of an organisation and allow it to concentrate on delivering critical front-line services. Jumpstart, a business consultancy specialising in guiding UK businesses’ R&D credit applications has also shown the great power that such a small device can wield. As the company grew its client base, a simple database management system was needed to track the progress of numerous projects. The FileMaker database allowed Jumpstart to track hundreds of claims at any one time and has since been developed to link up the three core elements of the business. The business analysts in the office, sales people in the field and partners that refer claims to Jumpstart are now all linked by a new system, built on the FileMaker Platform. New leads can be registered via a tablet and their progress tracked across the company, enabling the business to take on and manage a greater number of leads.
It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it
So making that leap of faith and letting employees work with familiar, easy-to-use tablets and devices , can lead to great growth opportunities for a business. The resources are already there, it is how you use them that will make the difference to your organisation, and by giving employees a device that is easy to use, they can untap the latent potential that lies within their databases. With the right tools, managing a database can actually become a spot of fun, dare I say it! Who knows, in a few years estranged other halves may be safe from the distractions of the Candy Crush Saga but complaining about their partners spending too much time on FileMaker.
Picture the scene – it’s a Saturday morning and you decide to brave the bus into town and visit a museum. If you’re in London, you might drop in to The National Gallery, one of the most visited galleries in the world.
Say the word “gallery,” “museum” or “library” and you could be forgiven for stirring up connotations of murky corridors and dusty tomes; an institution that’s weighted in the past and rather than in the realities of today. Even people who are otherwise of a creative disposition can sometimes fail to be engaged by them; they might appreciate specific artworks or artifacts but be left non-plussed by the experience as a whole. However, if you’re interested in the power of database technology, it might dawn on you as you’re sat in a gallery or museum that you’re also sat in a giant database.
This holds true for almost all such collections – whether it’s The Natural History Museum to The Cumberland Pencil Museum. Large or small, they are collections of data, carefully assembled by expert developers, which have been catalogued, can be searched and are accompanied by contextual help. Best of all, you can walk through them! The next time you stop to read the informative cards next to a particular exhibit, remember you’re being guided by experts through a collection of unstructured data. Even if you’re a developer yourself, it’s always useful to see how the last person who analysed the data made of it! Recently, the British Geological Survey took the museum/database experience further by creating a 3D online database of its fossil collection, allowing viewers to engage far more closely with the artifacts using an interactive display case in the comfort of their own homes.
We’ve previously discussed the challenges facing the NHS and other public bodies in today’s economic climate and how better management of information can help these be overcome – and there are obvious parallels to be drawn with the UK’s museums and libraries. They tend to be large, complex organisations that must handle huge volumes of information, are saddled with unwieldy legacy systems and have not always been keen adopters of technology. Introducing an organisation-wide IT system in these institutions can be a huge – and complex – financial investment, but many departments and individuals within them are recognising the huge efficiency benefits that business technology can bring. Projects that start life as small bespoke business solutions can spread from one department, or even part of one department, to become a vital component of an organisation’s function.
In these situations, it pays to have a platform that is intuitive and scalable, and allows a department or organisation that may not have a resident IT department or huge levels of funding to harness its own expertise to build the best system to manage its information. We’ve also seen a variety of organisations in the academic and museums sector choosing database technology to streamline their operations. Efficiency is not the sole benefit of this – many FileMaker customers in this sector have been able to boost research and increase the scope of their audience or readership.
The realities of today – real life examples
In a corner of Oxford University, a group of academics in the Bodleian Library have been using FileMaker to resurrect what they term the “the first global social network”, bringing letters, maps and pictures out of archives and online to share with the academic community and future generations.
More than 60,000 letters from historical figures from the early-17th to the mid-19th century have been indexed and incorporated into an online database – the Electronic Enlightenment project. The name is apt; the project takes figures such as Adam Smith, Voltaire and the poet Thomas Gray, and brings them out of the archives and into the light, positioning them in the political, social and physical landscape in which they existed.
Beginning as a means of connecting tens of thousands of letters and hundreds of thousands of annotations, the Electronic Enlightenment project is creating a rich tapestry of their context by incorporating other contemporary material such as maps and portraits. Now, for example, an online visitor to the Electronic Enlightenment project can read a letter from Edmund Haley to Josiah Burchetta, written from the Bermudas on 8th July 1700 alongside scholarly annotations and in combination with a contemporary map of the location. It’s not just the figurative and social topography that is being explored here, but the way society at this time perceived the physical world that it inhabited and travelled in.
The Bodleian Library is just one instance of FileMaker’s use in this sector. The Natural History Museum’s Department of Zoology is taming the vast amount of data collected in two externally funded research projects involving the study of parasite evolutionary biology. The department has specimens coming in from Parasitologists based all over the world and, although they may sound small, the rarity of the specimens and the high cost incurred from collecting them from the field means they are highly valuable, not to mention scientifically significant.
By deploying a FileMaker solution, the department has been able to generate an overview of the data in their possession and gain insight into where specimens are at any stage of a project. Furthermore, the research team can trust the integrity of the platform – and therefore of the data. The department hasn’t kept these benefits within its walls; by investing in a FileMaker server, it has been able to share the Tissue Database on the web, where it is in use by 50 Parasitologists across the world.
Many institutions have managed to bring about great improvements using technology, without the luxury of trained IT professionals but with a spirit approaching that of entrepreneurship. By identifying an intuitive technology, without management overheads, that can be adapted to the needs of themselves and their fellow academics, they are taking the future of their departments and organisations into their own hands. In a world where the pressure on museums and academic organisations is increasing, this may become a model for others.
As the UK economy continues on its road to recovery, much has been written about the role of the entrepreneur in kick-starting growth. Many of the UK’s most successful founder-entrepreneurs – Branson, Dunstone, Jones, Lynch, Sugar et al – are now the subject of media discussion, prompting significant interest in the often mysterious world of entrepreneurship.
In the eyes of the public entrepreneurs’ firms appear as extensions of their passions and personalities – for good and ill, depending on your point of view – but all have made a significant contribution to the country’s wealth and employment. They are the lightning rods around which things happen – they are `The RainMakers`.
So much of this analysis, however, is just interpretation of history. FileMaker, a favourite for a new generation of emerging entrepreneurs, decided that it would produce a snapshot of what motivates these individuals now and, crucially, how they maintain the spirit of entrepreneurship that keeps their firms innovating and makes them the engine for growth.
The aim of `The RainMakers` report is to understand how the founders and leaders of some of the UK’s most promising young companies keep the spirit of innovation alive within their teams. It also explores how teams of any size, within any organisation, can emulate their approach to ensuring growth in their people and their company.
To ensure that interviews were independent and expertly conducted, the interviews were carried out by Guy Rigby, Head of Entrepreneurs at Smith & Williamson, an accounting, tax and corporate finance firm that champions the cause of entrepreneurs.
The interviewees are a diverse selection of companies and individuals. However there are three common themes that characterise their approach to business and enable them to sustain and increase motivation, driving the behaviour of their teams to meet business goals.
All those interviewed in some way state the need to be allowed to find their own way around problems and operate in ‘their way’.
This `rebelliousness` comes as no surprise – it’s a typical characteristic in entrepreneurs. It’s not a trait exclusive to entrepreneurs, it’s also the norm across creative industries, where the need to `think different` is a primary job requirement.
The difference in leaders of high growth companies is that this trait is almost always united in their minds with a clear goal and clear responsibility – this we have termed `focussed freedom`.
Taarvet Hinrikus of online money transfer business TransferWise remarks: “My entrepreneurship comes from a deep-rooted desire to bring about change and make a difference. That is why I dropped out of university when my work with Skype became full time. Skype was more important to me as I knew, as its first employee, I could achieve something great there and have a positive impact.”
These entrepreneurs and their peers create a feeling of ‘freedom’ in their companies, which in turn replicates their focussed freedom in employees, setting challenging tasks and ensuring every task completed yields a palpable result.
Many agree that the best way to create RainMakers within organisations is to encourage employees to have and pursue their own ideas in their own areas of responsibility.
All the entrepreneurs interviewed recognise the difficulties than many employees encounter when attempting to generate and see through their own ideas. Each believed their own role in the company was to enable employees to ‘make rain’ – acting as coaches rather than bosses.
This usually requires implementing processes and automation that remove the need to concentrate on the minutiae and the mundane and enable employees to think bigger.
Tamara Littleton, of social media management agency eModeration, also highlights the importance of allowing people to fail without blame – “they’ll dust themselves off and try again,” she says.
Ed Bussey, of crowd sourced content provider, Quill, emphasises that “people should be dealing with exceptions, not processes.”
Every RainMaker interviewed emphasised the importance of building strong teams and tapping into the talent that lies within them.
All were united in two underlying beliefs; the need to assemble a broad range of skills to create a company-wide balance and ensuring that teams are invested in the business and its goals.
Dominic Joseph and Adam Ludwin of digital advertising company Captify, take this approach when hiring. “This is something that is core to the business, having specialists in every department to focus on their element of the business.” Both acknowledge that, without a strong team behind them, they couldn’t have created or grown the company.
When Jumpstart’s four UK directors came together, they “felt like the planets had aligned.” Each brought skills that augmented those of the next, creating a combination of expertise and passion that has brought the company quickly to the top of its field.
Brian Williamson of Jumpstart says, “We hear the team on the phone and you can tell that our passion has been passed on to them. That’s what makes the job worthwhile.”
Managing a team in a large organisation is not the same as running a start-up. However, the innovation and spirit of a start-up is one every manager would jump at the chance to capture – it is lightning in a bottle. ‘Intrapreneurship,’ (entrepreneurship within an existing organisation) however, can be grown within a team by instituting a culture in which everyone is their own RainMaker.
The role of the manager in creating intrapreneurship is to set goals that will test their team and to emplace the processes and systems that will allow them to stop concentrating on the day-to-day and begin to focus on the goal.
By doing this, and allowing everyone to see and understand the fruits of their labour, companies can grow successfully and even large institutions can breed the same innovation and spirit as the most spritely start up.
To say that supply chain management is important to businesses is to state the obvious somewhat. As supply chains have grown in scope and complexity their management has demanded increasing resources. Global supply chains produce information on an international scale – and if companies are to keep track of the production and distribution of products, they must be able to gather and analyse data at vital points on this journey.
The supply chain does not just generate data that must be managed – efficiently managing data can allow businesses to increase the flexibility of supply chains and generate efficiency. A retailer, for example, is able to collect data about the impact of hot weather on sales of certain items – garden furniture, for example – and use information to ensure the optimum amount of stock is available.
Traditional supply chains were concentrated in specific areas. As many people may be aware, Dell centralised its supply chain to the extent that it could make or break the economy of towns or regions. It’s even rumoured that two countries hosting Dell distribution centres became involved in a border stand-off, one of their first actions was to reassure the company that situation would not escalate and threaten its supply chain. This may be an extreme example, but it demonstrates the extent to which even the most successful and innovative of companies were embedded in certain regions – and by extension limited the dispersal of their data.
This can, however, be a risky strategy; if a distribution centre is unable to deliver due to circumstances beyond its control, and without warning, it would have far-reaching consequences for the company and its reputation.
Nowadays a more distributed set up is common and many companies can map their supply chains across the globe. In the same way that physical supply chains have grown in complexity and stakeholders, so has the virtual supply chain: the data chain. It is now just as important to ensure that data is in the right place at the right time as it is with physical goods, particularly when the data produced outside your organisation can be just as valuable as that produced in your organisation.
As big data continues to swamp many businesses, they need to remember that size doesn’t matter – it is all about the quality, context and access. So in today’s evolving business world the same consideration that businesses take around centralisation vs decentralisation in supply chains needs to occur in the data chain.
We have all seen how the wrong data can lead to the wrong decisions being made and severe consequences ensuing; no one is immune from making a mistake due to flaws in the data supply chain. If even the largest and most sophisticated organisations can fall foul of inaccurate data in their supply chains, what’s to stop any business being caught out by a simple data error?
The extended data supply chain of today’s businesses must allow for multiple sources in varying forms (both structured and unstructured) from internal and external sources to allow for passing of data to where and when it is needed, transforming it as required along the way.
Businesses need to remember that not all data is of the same value and therefore the focus needs to continue to shift from expanding infrastructure, to storing data, to being able to purge databases to ensure the quality of data contained in them.
All decisions made by a business are based on data so it is crucial that the quality of data is safeguarded. Furthermore, businesses that don’t possess high quality data or are not able to differentiate it from data that won’t deliver value to the company will be in a vulnerable position as the data economy continues to grow.
Every modern business is in the data business. Therefore, modern businesses must place as much emphasis on the management of their data supply chain as they do on their physical supply chain management – or risk being left behind.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Reportedly first uttered by Socrates during his trial, this call to self-reflection and self-analysis has formed the starting point for philosophical thinking for the last couple of millennia. We now live in a technological age, so it is not surprising that technology looks set to make it easier than ever to monitor, record and dissect everyday life.
From Google’s wearable computer, Google Glass, to Jawbone UP, the bracelet that continually tracks data relating to your physical (and even mental) state reporting its findings to a smartphone, the distance between the individual and their gadget (already reduced by the advent of mobile technology) is being collapsed once more. After all, it’s one thing finding the time and resources to examine your life as a full time philosopher, and quite another as an “always on” member of the workforce.
Advocates believe that by collecting and analysing data about how we live and using it to flag problems and suggest positive changes, wearable technology will allow us to better understand our lives and possibly improve our health and happiness too. They refer to this state of being as the “quantified self”, playing on the significant data acquisition involved. In fact, a recent study commissioned by Rackspace revealed that 71 per cent of Brits who had tried these devices believe that they have “enhanced their lives.” It’s almost like a high-tech, automated version of the extensive diary writing of previous centuries. It’s not surprising that “the quantified self” resonates with the title of a biography of the compulsive journal-keeper and seventeenth century “life logger”: “Samuel Pepys – “The Unequalled Self.”
If people are to truly improve their lives by using wearable technology, they will need to be able to bring the data generated by separate devices together to create meaningful insights. Database software will elevate disparate or unstructured data into something approaching a “quantified self,” rather than just quantifying isolated and potentially meaningless data, such as what you ate for dinner last night. As we have seen in so many disparate cases, it is not merely the data that counts, but how it is used to generate meaning, value and insight. Put simply, it is the translation of data into information.
Wearing data in the workplace
Wearable technology and the data it collects is useful in more than simply a personal capacity; it has potential applications in almost any area of life or business. We have already seen the rise of smartphones and tablets lead to the personalisation of corporate IT and it is not a stretch to imagine wearable technology making the same inroads into businesses. Imagine, for example, how it might help companies to operate safety management systems in the workplace, or enable retailers to take full advantage of the potential of augmented reality to sell the newest products by, for example, allowing potential customers to try on, customise and interact with products using digital eye wear. There has already been discussion of the role that wearable technology could play in healthcare, and in the future we could see businesses using health-oriented wearable technology to reduce the health insurance premiums of its employees.
As is evident across all industries, simply collecting unstructured data is not enough in itself. Data means little if it is isolated or unstructured; it depends on organisation and analysis for its meaning. In other words, the rise of wearable technology will bring with it a requirement for database technology that can make sense of it and generate insight. Although the technology may be new and innovative, the information that it produces requires the same treatment as any other data produced by a business. It needs to be curated and analysed if it is to add value and generate insight.
Whatever the future of wearable technology brings, we can be sure of one thing. As long as there is a value in information, unstructured data will need to be captured, arranged and analysed. Similarly, a collection of individual body parts might make a human body, but it takes something extra to make a person.
Data management hit the headlines recently, when an academic paper that has played a significant part of a debate on economic policy during the recession – ‘Growth in a Time of Debt’ – was exposed as flawed. Academics and economists alike were stunned to learn that the problem lay with an error in the data in an Excel spreadsheet.
Many of us assume that a product of an institution as illustrious as Harvard is beyond reproach, but this episode demonstrates that the risks of mishandling data can prove disastrous (and embarrassing) to anyone. When EU commissioner Olli Rehn quoted the 90 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio to support his austerity policy, little did he expect the statistics to be called into question not by arguments around complicated economic theory but by an accident in data arrangement – which could potentially have been prevented by the transparency introduced with database software.
Big data. Big problem?
Whatever your view of economic policy, this episode starkly reveals the wide reaching impacts of the ways in which data is structured (or indeed unstructured) and managed. In his 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month, computer scientist Fred Brooks defined two parts of any computer project; the actual creation of computer code by programmers and the collection and co-ordination of this work, which may be being produced by hundreds of employees (read: big data). In an overrunning IT project, he argues, increasing the number of programmers will only worsen the situation by compounding the data management problem.
The question of how we collect, curate, share and present data – regardless of organisational or business models – is therefore vitally important to business and the wider world. At FileMaker, we have seen the difficulties that unstructured data and mismanaged information can cause – and the mitigating impact of business management software.
Take Jeremy Arnold, entrepreneur and founder of Alletson Arnold, an immigration logistics provider. Prior to implementing FileMaker database software, Jeremy was trying to keep track of tens of thousands of pounds worth of transactions and numerous visa applications using Excel spreadsheets. Much of this was unstructured data, which lacked visibility and prevented him from generating a clear insight into his business operations. To make things more difficult, he did not have prior experience in small business accounting. As a result, growth – which would usually be unreservedly positive – became a restrictive factor in his business.
As is often the case, the FileMaker database that Jeremy implemented has also acted as business management software, allowing him to track and update the progress of money, staff and visa applications, remotely and in real time. As Jeremy himself puts it “FileMaker allowed me to take control of my business.”
The database software saviour
Database software can provide much more than a solution for unstructured data. One of its major benefits is that it allows all stakeholders involved in a given project to keep track of, contribute to and critique (according to their level of access) data from the same source in real time.
By facilitating collaboration and encouraging peer review, database software can help to expose data anomalies early on. For example the student who helped to uncover the error in the ‘Growth in a Time of Debt’ revealed that when the authors provided him with the working spreadsheet used to generate the results: “Everyone says seeing is believing, but I almost didn’t believe my eyes.” To him, the mistake was simple and obvious – to someone else, it had been hidden. Although database software solutions cannot prevent human error, by increasing transparency and automating some processes they can make it more likely that mistakes are identified early on, and reveal anomalies before they become a major problem.
Database software also helps to improve efficiency and manage work processes. Another FileMaker success story is Framestore, which creates visual and moving images for all platforms in the film industry. Framestore counts big data as a fundamental part of business operations; so fundamental, in fact, that it would hesitate to term it “big data” at all. Framestore has worked on some of the biggest cinema releases of recent times, including the ground-breaking Avatar, and has a team of more than 600 artists, computer scientists, producers, animators, visualisers, developers and engineers.
The sheer size and complexity of these projects is staggering, as is the variety of information that must be managed. By making data accessible to all relevant parties, customer database software encourages stakeholders to contribute ideas and co-collaborate and foster internal thought leadership.
This collaborative ethos brought about by database software is reflected within our own community of FileMaker developers, both in-house and within the developer partners we work with. It is a culture that prioritises peer review and encourages sharing to produce the best customer database software solutions. In fact, many of these clients then go on to share their solutions with others: the Free Diagnostic Pathology Software Project, for example, has made its database solution available on an open source basis to allow other healthcare providers access to its benefits in helping to reduce cancer diagnosis times.
As data becomes ever more important to organisations of all kinds, the role of database and business management software in safeguarding its integrity and security, and turning it into real insight is increasing at the same rate. Excel may not be a destroyer of worlds, but database management could become a saviour.
The National Health Service (NHS): British institution, Olympic centerpiece and the single largest employer in the UK; a source of mingled pride, joy, frustration and elation in the minds of those it serves. It has, from its inception, been a political hot potato; the current government has come under fire for what is perceived by some as modernisation, others as wholesale destruction. Personal opinion aside, the announcement by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that he intends to make the NHS “paperless” by 2018 will trigger a step change in the way it deals with its often unstructured data.
This push to use technology to drive efficiency was initiated by Hunt’s predecessor, Andrew Landsley, who pledged to bring about an “information revolution” in the NHS. The problem of information and how it should be managed often acts as a fault line in the healthcare system. The scope of the NHS, both in the geographical terms of the area and individuals it must serve and the philosophical terms of its guiding ethos and mission, means that it must handle truly vast amounts of information.
Data in the NHS is not simple numerical inputs or uniform categories but complex, unstructured data. Adding to the complexity, the nature of patient confidentiality means that access to this information must be tightly controlled: this is big data at its most unwieldy. In addition, failures from both this and previous governments to maintain data integrity and restrain budgets have caused public perception of government-driven IT projects to become somewhat tarnished.
Comparisons suggest themselves between the challenges currently faced by the NHS and those tackled by businesses in an economic environment which demands increased efficiency and reduced costs without a drop in service. In recent years recognition of the ability of big data and database management to overhaul business efficiency, and help overcome such obstacles has steadily grown amongst entrepreneurs and company leaders. In response, they are choosing to adopt technological tools such as database software to help them harness the insights that big data offers.
Broadly speaking, the NHS has not rushed to follow this lead. It has not yet turned database management software to its advantage or adopted a system that would increase the usefulness and flexibility of its unstructured data. The process of submitting and resubmitting the same personal data to different NHS bodies has become familiar to patients. Furthermore, unstructured data input and recovery can reduce the time that healthcare professionals can spend caring for patients.
Database software helps businesses in all industry sectors to gain insights into their operations and boost productivity. In a similar way, database management could free the NHS and its staff from paper-based records and act as an efficiency enabler.
From big paper to insight
Lack of integration, lack of transparency and lack of consistency can stunt any organisation – and the NHS is no different. The reforms should work to increase these things by requiring every local NHS group to have its own medical records database, which is securely available online and able to integrate with the health service as a whole.
In the future, different professionals involved in the treatment of one patient will be able to instantly share information about their care. Patient details will not be kept in silos but will be accessible where they are needed most – at the point of treatment – and only by those with permission to access them. Furthermore, access to real time data could help regulators to identify anomalies or burgeoning problems across the service. A recent analysis of how the NHS in England treats data, the Caldicott review, has urged the service to overcome a “culture of anxiety” and share information more effectively, arguing that this could improve patient care.
A number of healthcare sectors have already introduced technology that streamlines their operations, demonstrated by the range of healthcare customers that are using our database software to bring about improvements in efficiency. One such example – Free Diagnostic Pathology Software Project – reveals that the impact of this technology is not limited to the “front line” of the GP surgery; using the FileMaker Pro solution, those involved in the project created database management software to improve the speed and accuracy of cancer reporting, using easy to use forms to input information such as patient details and observations that had previously been stored as unstructured data.
By deploying a technology that is simple-to-use and does not require management overheads or IT specialists, the project has helped to reduce the time required by pathologists to input findings and, as a result, to diagnose cancer. It can be used on both computers or mobile devices allowing hundreds of simultaneous users and keeping costs to a minimum.
Granted, healthcare provision is not the same as purchasing groceries in the supermarket. It is nonetheless important that it works for those it is designed to serve – whether they are patients or customers – just as a business, if it is to survive, should be aligned to the needs of its customers and focus on generating the best possible value for them. The Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, for example, is moving to replace traditional paper patient forms with electronic versions. These can be automatically analysed and securely synched to desktops to provide doctors with more relevant data prior to seeing a patient and negate the need for filling in multiple questionnaires.
The business environment has been successfully and securely dealing with large volumes of data for a number of years now – and the NHS could learn a great deal from business’ successful use of database management to drive efficiency, increase flexibility and generate value.