Putting "Information" First in Information
By Rick Noble
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
devicea 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 productsincluding the Newtonwere 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 programslike Microsoft's Outlookwas
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.
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
to help reduce medical errorswhich have been
estimated to cause as many as 98,000 deaths annuallyin
a number of important areas. Sadly, IT spending
in healthcare is one of the lowest as a percentage
In this case, the availability of technology and
information is not the obstaclethe 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 informationlike drug
interaction tools or computerized order entryin
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
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
play out until a balance is found that allows for
quick and accurate access by those authorized, while
the intellectual property rights of those who develop
the information. This is true for everything from
news articles to songsand with the ability
to move and store large amounts of information quickly,
such as motion pictures will become a larger part
of this fray.
The early "Wild West" days of the Internetwhen
the mantra was free information, regardless of the
copyrightare 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 technologyit'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 awayeither on paper or in a database that
can't be readily accessedis a bit like getting
tickets to the Super Bowl on the Monday afterit'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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.