I literally have a massive database of cat sounds. – El-P (Jaime Meline)
In my travels through old book stores I came across one titled Systems Thinking in the Public Sector by John Seddon which has the line “Keeping a database is a very inelegant way of designing a lettings service.”
So, of course, I had to buy it and find out more.
The reason for this is that all of us have at some time thought about whether we need a database.
Yes, even you…
Even a to-do list is a database – records arranged in a list for you to mark off.
This may seem like an odd thing to think about – surely it’s something that IT people worry about?
But actually, if you run a business, the choices you make about when to use a database and when not to has a real impact on customers and the viability of your business.
Seddon, in his book, uses the example of government organisations that deal with providing housing to people.
One approach you could take is that whenever a house becomes available you market it, let people apply and give it to the people who most need it.
He calls this approach elegant because it is only started when a house becomes available, people who need it right then are the only ones who respond.
The house manager and tenants don’t waste time because they both need something – a house to be let and a house to live in.
Now, what happens if you ask everyone who is interested in a house to register their interest and enter their details in a database.
Now, you start to build a list of people. Some of these might want a house at some point in the future, some need one right now, some might be trying to make sure they’re in line in case they need one.
All this information comes pouring in, so many forms containing data.
You scoop up this data and stick it in a database – and one thing happens.
Your database gets bigger and bigger.
At some point you spend more time worrying about the data in your database and managing it and sending out emails to everyone on it than you do actually helping the people stood at the door needing help finding a house right now.
Now perhaps you think it’s reasonable to make sure everyone who might have an interest in a house is informed.
But think of estate agents and how they work.
They rarely have to go out and tell all the people registered on their list about properties.
That’s because some people are always searching for houses and others aren’t.
You only want to talk to the ones that want to buy.
The implication is that in this case a database is actually going to cost you business as you stop paying attention to the customer and spend time shovelling data instead.
Now does that happen in any other field?
When you think about it you’ll see it everywhere.
It’s there are the call centres where people follow scripts and take details and don’t get anything done.
It happens at the doctor’s surgeries where the medic spends more time tapping notes into the machine than looking at or talking to the patient.
In many of these cases the right thing to do for the customer is to get rid of the database and the logging and the keyboard and spend your time instead helping them sort out whatever is bothering them.
But this is an age where the cloud holds everything and we are conditioned to believe that data in databases is the only way to manage anything.
But it’s not.
So when is it good to have a database and when is it not?
One approach is to think about whether you’re using data to pull information when you need it or using it to push information to where it isn’t needed.
For example, a good database is probably your contacts information. That’s something you’re going to draw on all the time to connect to people.
What about KPIs and budgets and targets? Should you be collecting that kind of information?
That’s when this question gets hard to answer – because it’s linked to deep assumptions we have about how to get things done.
Like the line “You can’t manage something you can’t measure.”
If you believe that then you have a deep, visceral need to collect and store data to feel like you are making the right decisions.
Others would suggest that the preoccupation with data will lead you to forget the most important person standing there.