Another Information Priority: Legacy Systems

August 16, 2013

The hoohah about cloud computing, Big Data, and other “innovations” continues. Who needs Oracle when one has Hadoop? Why license SPSS or some other Fancy Dan analytics system when there are open choice analytics systems a mouse click away? Search? Lots of open source choices.

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Image from http://sageamericanhistory.net/gildedage/topics/gildedage3.html

We have entered the Gilded Age of information and data analysis. Do I have that right?

The marketers and young MBAs chasing venture funding instead of building revenue shout, “Yes, break out the top hats and cigars. We are riding a hockey stick type curve.”

Well, sort of. I read “Business Intelligence, Tackling Legacy Systems Top Priorities for CIOs.” Behind the consultant speak and fluff, there lurk two main points:

  1. Professionals in the US government and I presume elsewhere are struggling to make sense of “legacy” data; that is, information stuffed in file cabinets or sitting in an antiquated system down the hall
  2. The problems information technology managers remain unresolved. After decades of effort by whiz kids, few organizations can provide basic information technology services.

As one Reddit thread made clear, most information technology professionals use Google to find a fix or read the manual. See Reddit and search for “secrets about work business”.

A useful comment about the inability to tap data appears in “Improving business intelligence and analytics the top tech priority, say Government CIOs.” Here’s the statement:

IT contracts expert Iain Monaghan of Pinsent Masons added: “Most suppliers want to sell new technology because this is likely to be where most of their profit will come from in future. However, they will have heavily invested in older technology and it will usually be cheaper for them to supply services using those products. Buyers need to balance the cost they are prepared to pay for IT with the benefits that new technology can deliver,” he said. “Suppliers are less resistant to renegotiating existing contracts if buyers can show that there is a reason for change and that the change offers a new business opportunity to the supplier. This is why constant engagement with suppliers is important. The contract is meant to embody a relationship with the supplier.”

Let me step back, way back. Last year my team and I prepared a report to tackle this question, “Why is there little or no progress in information access and content processing?”

We waded through the consultant chopped liver, the marketing baloney, and the mindless prose of thought leaders. Our finding was really simple. In fact, it was so basic we were uncertain about a way to present it without coming across like a stand up comedian at the Laugh House. To wit:

Computational capabilities are improving but the volume of content to be processed is growing rapidly. Software which could cope with basic indexing and statistical chores bottlenecks in widely used systems. As a result, the gap between what infrastructure and software can process and the amount of data to be imported, normalized, analyzed, and output is growing. Despite recent advances, most organizations are unable to keep pace with new content and changes to current content. Legacy content is in most cases not processed. Costs, time, and tools seem to be an intractable problem.

Flash forward to the problem of legacy information. Why not “sample” the data and use that? Sounds good. The problem is that even sampling is fraught with problems. Most introductory statistics courses explain the pitfalls of flawed sampling.

How prevalent is use of flawed sampling? Some interesting examples from “everywhere” appear on the American Association for Public Opinion Research. For me, I just need to reflect on the meetings in which I have participated in the last week or two, Examples:

  1. Zero revenue because no one matched the “product” to what the prospects wanted to buy
  2. Bad hires because no one double checked references. The excuse was, “Too busy” and “the system was down.”
  3. Client did not pay because “contracts person could not find a key document.”

Legacy data? Another problem of flawed business and technology practices. Will azure chip consultants and “motivated” MBAs solve the problem? Nah.Will flashy smart software be licensed and deployed? Absolutely. Will the list of challenges be narrowed in 2014? Good question.

Stephen E Arnold, August 16, 2013

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