Software

Case study: Get data into the right hands

Many off-the-shelf applications don't offer all the sorting and reporting options end users need. This case study illustrates how a simple change in procedure can enhance your end users' ability to manage information.


Do the end users you support spend a lot of time rekeying information from printouts? Or perhaps your call center frequently hears from users who say, "There must be an easier way to get this information into my system."

Let me tell you about a consulting client whose workers were spending an inordinate amount of time handling corporate data. The solution we put in place saved countless hours of busy work and helped get information into the right hands in a timely manner.

The challenge: Eliminate duplicate efforts
Recently, I helped a small business owner streamline the flow of information between departments. If you work the help desk or support and train users in the field, you know that users like consistency in their routine, even if that routine is inefficient. In this shop, where users were accustomed to keying data from printouts, it never occurred to anyone that the process was inefficient. They needed certain information in Excel spreadsheets to do their jobs, and typing that data in was what they had always done. Period.

Most of the initial typing takes place when information is entered into a mainframe application. The retyping took place when employees used printouts generated by the mainframe to key information into their Excel spreadsheets. The reports had come off the mainframe the same way for as long as anyone could remember.

Unfortunately, in tracing the path of data in the reports hitting the owner's desk, we discovered that a disturbing amount of that information had been typed and then retyped as many as four or five times.

Just ask for it
The solution we came up with eliminated virtually all of the retyping of data into spreadsheets. It turns out that no one had ever sat down with the database administrator (DBA) on the mainframe side and asked whether he could provide the monthly reports in some electronic form.

I went into the conversation hoping and expecting that the DBA would offer to dump the data to some form of fixed-length or comma-delimited text. Instead, the DBA pleasantly surprised me by offering to dump the whole thing to an Excel spreadsheet.

I recommended that the company put that spreadsheet on a network share accessible to all the users who needed the data. That approach had a couple of immediate benefits:
  • When everyone began copying and pasting data from the same central repository (spreadsheet), they were literally on the same page. Typographical errors were virtually eliminated when the data wasn't being rekeyed two or more times in different places.
  • End users were able to spend more time analyzing data and creating custom reports now that they were spending less time rekeying data.

Introducing the Excel Spreadsheet Administrator (ESA)
Here's a big surprise: At first, the users weren't satisfied with having an electronic copy of all the information that used to be available only in printout. Some of the users whined because the master spreadsheet had more columns than they needed for their particular purposes. "It's just too much trouble to get rid of the stuff we don't need," they'd say.

The DBA's manager did not want the DBA to get in the business of writing custom exports for all the departments or individuals who needed them. So, a compromise was struck. The DBA would, on a regularly scheduled basis, create a spreadsheet containing all of the monthly data needed by end users.

The Excel spreadsheet administrator, dubbed the ESA, assumed responsibility for carving up the spreadsheet into smaller pieces. Thereafter, when employees need a certain subset of columns and rows from the master worksheet, they can go get the data themselves, or they can ask the ESA to copy that data to a new worksheet.

In this shop, the ESA isn't a brand-new job title; it's an unofficial title given to the help desk person who stepped up and volunteered to take on the extra support duties.

The transition to the new system has seen a few minor bumps. The first time the master sheet was put on the network share, it wasn't saved as read-only. An overzealous user deleted columns and made other changes to the original copy of the .xls file. Saving the original as read-only eliminated that problem.

Some users had well-developed spreadsheets under the old way of getting data. Those folks didn't like having to redo their sheets to accommodate the new way. However, overall everyone's happy:
  • Demand for the printed copies of the monthly reports disappeared. The DBA saves some paper and printer expense.
  • Some end users estimate they have gained as many as 10 hours per month now that they no longer have to rekey data.
  • Having access to all of the data—not just the data they used to rekey—allows end users to perform more detailed analyses.
  • The ESA is carving out a niche for himself as the in-house Excel guru.
  • The business owner is getting higher-quality management reports than before, in less time than before.

If you notice that your end users are spending an inordinate amount of time rekeying data from printouts, whatever the source, stick your nose in and look around. You just might uncover a technology solution that makes life easier for everyone.

How quickly and freely flows the information in your shop?
If you've implemented creative solutions for helping end users save time and work faster, please share your experiences with fellow TechRepublic members. Just post a comment or write to Jeff.

 

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