Learning from Libraries

Learning from Libraries

StockSnap_MXVB7KKVAB_library_digitaltransformations_BPChange is afoot..... - Those of you who are old enough may remember going to the library and looking up materials in a printed "card catalog," and perhaps going to the shelves and hoping to find the book or volume stored there. If it wasn't there, maybe you could go to the circulation desk and fill out some kind of paper request. When the book eventually came back, maybe someone would check to see if someone was waiting for it, and maybe you'd get a phone call at some point saying the book was ready.

Times have changed. Now I can search my library's electronic catalog remotely, at a time of my choosing, and I know right away not only if my library has the material but also whether someone has checked it out. If so, I can get in line to check it out later, but I can also see if it's available at another library, and request that it be transferred to my local branch; in many cases I can even acquire an electronic copy which I can download to a device I already own. As a library patron, I can do many more things without assistance, I can find out information quickly and conveniently. 

If we look at nearly any industry, from banking to education to health care to hospitality, we can observe similar developments. This is highly visible in operating support functions, such as registration, sales, billing, hiring, payroll; all of these areas are now highly computerized and automated, offering users greater flexibility and convenience, moving transactions quickly, and simplifying communications. 

But these "digital transformations" are also increasingly visible in the core competencies of these industries as well. I can apply for a loan and receive it without providing a scrap of paper, going into an office, or in many cases without even speaking to a single person; I can register for classes without leaving my house; when my physician refers me to a specialist my medical history can be waiting for me when I arrive for treatment; I can reserve, check into, unlock the door of, and pay for a hotel room without meeting a single person face to face!

Every time I get a bill by mail there's always some printed encouragement to get dunned electronically instead, and for an increasing number of on-line vendor relationships, a person now has to regularly opt into, rather than out of, print materials. Banks introduced automated teller machines in the late 1960s and much more of their operations have gone digital since then, so much so, that there are banks that are now entirely virtual!

Digital Transformation

These are just a few obvious examples of what is understood as digital transformation (sometimes known as DX). Broadly (and somewhat tautologically) speaking, DX involves using digital technologies to transform business operations. 

Some will say that digital transformation has been driven by consumer demand: consumers want faster access, more convenient interaction, less actual paper, what have you. We have to imagine that supply-side drivers such as cost containment and profit maximization weren't exactly absent from this development. Retail may be the most well-known locus of digital transformation (the so-called Amazon effect), but no matter what your organization does you've probably seen digital incursion into or transformation of communications, logistics, financial operations, even the way your core services are delivered.

Some articles about DX will call it disruptive, although we think the jury may still be out on that one. For example, it's not as though libraries have become completely automated, and it may even be the case that more people work in libraries now than a few decades ago. After all, someone still needs to add new materials to the catalog - it's just done electronically rather than by printing up a new card. (To be fair, many libraries managed circulation and collections electronically for years while still using the card catalog as an end-user interface. But that's another story for another time and place.) Someone has to decide which items to add in the first place, and to take care of that purchase. Someone has to decide which items have been overcome by events and thus need to be removed. For physical items, someone still needs to return them to their shelf (and/or take them off the shelf for fulfilling a request, or for de-accessioning). Library materials occasionally require maintenance, or replacement; someone has to update records accordingly, and then of course do something with the physical item. (Maybe AI will eventually take on all these tasks. Now that would be disruptive!)

Even the Amazon effect (which has inspired change not only in the shopping/purchasing end of retail, but also in supply chain management, logistics, fulfillment and delivery, and elsewhere) has historical roots. After all, it's not as if Amazon invented mail-order! In fact it appears that plenty of companies have transitioned from paper catalogs to on-line retail quite successfully, and it's far from clear that L.L. Bean, say, needed Amazon to show it the way.

Some industries, or perhaps at some organizations across many industries, may already be into a second wave of digital transformation (or a third, depending on how far back you think the original DX took place!). Many libraries, for example, used the space freed up by removing physical card catalogs to install an array of inexpensive desktop computers, and for millions of people provided their only consistent access to high-speed internet. Now that smartphones and wireless networks are more common, the demand for this service may be fading, and libraries may once again find themselves repurposing space and reevaluating the services they provide.

Data Management and DX

We think digital transformation is an interesting lens through which to look at data management. One byproduct - although often it's intentional rather than inadvertent - of DX is increased capture of, exposure to, and potential usage of data. Digital data is increasingly used in a daily operating capacity, and has been for decades now. How much record keeping is analog these days? But the tools to process, analyze, display, etc., are faster, more powerful, easier for non-experts to use, and so on. Moreover there is now widespread belief that data is an organizational asset, and that it can be used the way any other assets can be used: to reduce costs; to improve productivity; to support strategic planning; to increase employee satisfaction; to increase customer satisfaction; and so on. Now that we describe the situation that way, it sounds like data is both a byproduct of and a prime mover in any organization's DX initiatives.

Let's be clear about what has changed, and what hasn't changed. The data used by these business functions is largely the same: what is the book called, where is it stored, is it checked out now, etc. (Do we have more data about it now? Sure. Can we do more with that data? Maybe...) Payroll and banking used to be deeply paper-centric, but data has always been central to those industries. What has changed is the way we interact with that data, and how quickly, and how deeply.

Much of the literature on DX is customer-centric: collecting and analyzing data about consumer preferences drives product development and sales; now that the majority of customers are digital in their daily lives they expect similar digital features when purchasing or consuming; digital transformation is all about providing better experiences/products/services in a transformed way. An important aspect of providing digital experience is making better use of data.

And that's all well and good. But digital transformation is actually carried out by people. No matter what their industry, staff who are responsible for these digital functions need to understand the tools they use, and they need to be able to recognize problems of input, of processing, of output. That is to say, they need to be able to manage increasing volumes of structured and unstructured data, across an ever-widening variety of platforms and environments, in compressed timeframes.

Some key aspects of data management include collection, storage, classification, security, retention, disposition, and archiving. More recently we've seen other aspects come to the fore: automation, integration, predictive analytics, privacy concerns, etc. And there can be little doubt that new, equally critical aspects of data management are just over the horizon.

We've said countless times over the years that reporting is not a technology problem, that data management issues will not be solved by deploying new software, and that data governance is not the responsibility of the information technology office. Data is an organization asset, and it is best utilized when managed properly, and it is best managed when it circulates in an ecosystem characterized by appropriate data governance practices. 

Our experience has been that clients who struggle to manage their data, who try to skip over the foundational work of data governance, are generally unable to leverage their data assets meaningfully and consistently. If digital transformation is predicated on creative, innovative, strategic uses of data, as we believe it is, is your data ready to support and sustain DX? 

IData has a solution, the Data Cookbook, that can aid the employees and the organization in its data governance, data stewardship and data quality initiatives. IData also has experts that can assist with data governance, reporting, integration and other technology services on an as needed basis. Feel free to contact us and let us know how we can assist.
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Photo Credit StockSnap_MXVB7KKVAB_library_digitaltransformations_BP #1033

Aaron Walker
About the Author

Aaron joined IData in 2014 after over 20 years in higher education, including more than 15 years providing analytics and decision support services. Aaron’s role at IData includes establishing data governance, training data stewards, and improving business intelligence solutions.

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