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Magazines > Online > Nov/Dec 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2003
FEATURE
Putting "Information" First in Information Technology
By Rick Noble

THE FACT

that technology has changed our lives in nearly every way is indisputable. From how we pay our bills to the way we communicate with one another, advances in information technology have fundamentally altered the foundation of our world.

However, in too many business situations today, "information" is taking a back seat to the "technology." As a result, IT professionals are missing the opportunity to truly improve outcomes for customers, both within their companies and those being served by the organization. While the last 10 years have brought unprecedented advances in information technology, many industries have had to be forced "kicking and screaming" into new paradigms that take advantage of such progress. Most importantly, IT professionals must continue to keep their focus on the improved access and enhanced use of information rather than the implementation of gadgetry. Hopefully, they can use some library/information science experiences to keep them on track.

WHEN IT WORKS

One of the best examples of truly usable information technology was the introduction of the first Palm device in 1996. It certainly wasn't the first portable information device—a number of leading consumer electronic companies had attempted to replace our address books before, with perhaps the most notable example being the Apple Newton, which is widely regarded as the world's first PDA. Although Apple chairman John Sculley predicted PDAs would become ubiquitous tools, for the next 3 years, sales of Newton and other PDAs were disappointing, and basically non-existent by 1995. Although some of the products—including the Newton—were interesting and even fun, all of them failed. It was too difficult to input data, and the near ubiquitous use of a handful of software programs—like Microsoft's Outlook—was still a few years off, making it difficult to move data to another device or computer.

Then came the first Palm device, which solved almost every problem that limited the earlier PDAs. The interface was easy; Palms "talked" to our PCs (which were now as much a part of the modern office as a desk); and they were smaller than an overstuffed day planner.

We would all be wise to remember this example in planning our business IT needs. By providing the information users need in a format they'll use, we'll develop the most useful tools and processes, not simply gadgets that will only be embraced by a handful of early adopters. It's not just the information provided, it's how and where it's presented.

LOOKING FORWARD

Here are some examples of industries that I believe are facing a critical crossroads regarding the implementation of information access for their customers. While each specific area is unique, the overriding problem is the same: How do we best use technology to deliver the right information at the right time?

Healthcare: Information has been proven to dramatically improve patient outcomes as well as to help reduce medical errors—which have been estimated to cause as many as 98,000 deaths annually—in a number of important areas. Sadly, IT spending in healthcare is one of the lowest as a percentage of any industry.

In this case, the availability of technology and information is not the obstacle—the inability or unwillingness to invest in technology is the problem. Limited spending leads to antiquated technology remaining in widespread use for far too long. This cripples our ability to get critical information—like drug interaction tools or computerized order entry—in the hands of busy clinicians, where it can improve patient outcomes and even help reduce medical mistakes.

According to itmWEB, in March 2003, the average spending per employee in the banking industry was nearly $15,000 per year, while healthcare spent just over $3,000 per employee annually. Together, all industries average nearly $7,000 of spending per employee each year. Clearly, healthcare is lagging in this area.

• Financial Services: While spending in this area is aggressive, concerns continue to mount regarding the accuracy and security of information contained in personal financial records. Some argue that the more information we have, the more information the "bad guys" may have access to. In critical data areas like financial or medical records, we must strive to ensure that our push to make information easily accessible also includes the checks and balances required to keep the information confidential.

• Publishing and Entertainment: The push-pull between free and paid information will continue to play out until a balance is found that allows for quick and accurate access by those authorized, while protecting the intellectual property rights of those who develop the information. This is true for everything from news articles to songs—and with the ability to move and store large amounts of information quickly, properties such as motion pictures will become a larger part of this fray.

The early "Wild West" days of the Internet—when the mantra was free information, regardless of the copyright—are fading. However, only a handful of sites have been successful in finding a price that attracts and retains readers while also generating profits. Plus, the continued debate over both re-purposing data and outright piracy will continue to haunt this area for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, publishers are increasingly looking to the Internet as a source of revenue and are making more content available, although, at a cost. According to Michael Scherer in the Columbia Journalism Review, "The free ride that proved so costly for newspapers is coming to an end. Online news junkies will increasingly have to give up money or personal information to get their previously free fix" [www.cjr.org/year/03/1/scherer.asp].

In each of these examples, the issue is not the need for newer or more advanced technology—it's about delivering the information people either want or need in a usable, affordable and effective manner. In short, it's a question of a business model, not an IT solution.

TICKETS TO THE SUPER BOWL— ON MONDAY

The focus of IT professionals must be on making the right information more accessible and more useful to those who need it. Involving the organization's library, information professional, and content management staff is a good first step. In the end, having valuable information stored away—either on paper or in a database that can't be readily accessed—is a bit like getting tickets to the Super Bowl on the Monday after—it's worthless and even more frustrating than not having the information at all.

I believe the following key areas should be our overriding focus in moving forward:

Continue to move information from the central database to the remote desktop and mobile devices.

What used to be volumes of information now fits on a single CD. There's no excuse for not providing information to mobile professionals in a format that allows them to use it whenever they need it. When a paramedic can look up what pills were taken by an overdose victim on the way to the hospital instead of waiting until they arrive in the emergency department, it can mean the difference between saving a life and losing one.

As appropriate, make information easier to access, update, and correct.

If you've ever tried to remove an inaccurate entry from your credit report, you know that correcting information in a large shared database can be a daunting task. Yet, swipe a debit card in Bangkok and the merchant knows in a matter of seconds if you have the funds available in your checking account in Colorado to pay for the purchase you're making. The technology exists to allow for the accurate, near-instantaneous update of critical information. In order to further the use of this data, we must make every effort to develop systems that protect privacy while ensuring the ability to update and maintain accuracy.

Technology should focus on organizing information into usable and accessible pieces.

Because information is now easier than ever to accumulate and store, IT professionals can sometimes overwhelm end users with too many facts. A doctor looking for interaction between two drugs does not want to wade through a list every prescription medication available on the market today.

Instead, we must focus not on data, but on information. By using technology to help us synthesize the piles of data available, we can deliver meaningful information quickly to those who need it.

We must also continue to focus on the necessary security advances which will be critical in ensuring information is used appropriately while protected from those with bad intentions.

The thoughtful analysis of well-organized data could provide breakthroughs never before possible.

Imagine what we might learn if we took every medical record of every patient in every U.S. state over the last 10 years and analyzed them together, looking for trends that would never surface in a smaller sample. Maybe the cure for diseases lies in aggregate data analysis. Crimes investigations could get new angles through the data mining of worldwide police and court records.

By putting information first in information technology, all these advances are possible using today's tools, and many more will come to light with the advances that are inevitably just around the corner.

 


Rick Noble [rick.noble@Thomson.com] is president and chief executive officer, Thomson Healthcare.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.


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