You probably purchased your management information system (MIS) believing it would solve most of your management problems. But if you're like many other graphic arts executives, you may have been disappointed. Perhaps your system is new and not fully implemented, or it is older and not keeping pace with your needs; maybe you're wondering if you'll ever stop buying upgrades. Now, during your let down phase, is the ideal time to do a little hard-headed analysis and see how you can get all the benefits possible from your MIS investment.
Consider the source of your MIS disenchantment. Were your expectations unrealistic to start with? Did you latch onto the computer as the cure-all for every problem? Or did you have a narrow view of its capabilities, buying the system to perform one function -perhaps job costing- and completely ignoring its potential for automating others? Maybe it's time to audit your MIS to determine where you are and where you're headed. Start by asking yourself a few questions:
"Did I have a clear understanding of my needs before I purchased my new MIS system?"
It is a natural tendency to get caught up in the sales pitch. The salesperson made the process look so simple: a click here and another click there any you have an estimate. Convert the estimate into a job with a click, and with one more click, update your schedule. This is NOT reality!
Before you start the process of reviewing potential MIS vendors, you must have, on paper, a clear understanding of your needs and goals, your purpose for purchasing and implementing a new system. This document, referred to as a "needs analysis", should be your guide through the selection process. It is also productive to perform needs analysis after the purchase to determine your implementation priorities and, in the case of older systems, to decide if it's time to replace/update your system.
Do I have a realistic understanding of what computers can and cannot do?
If you're uncomfortable with computers and don't understand the terminology, you will constantly be frustrated. The reality of "plug & play" software and hardware often turns into "plug & pray." Operating systems from Microsoft, Novell, IBM and SCO are very sophisticated software packages that require a high level of expertise to install, maintain and fine tune. The era of stand-alone "turnkey" systems has evolved into the "open" system approach where all the computers in your plant are connected to each other and data flows across all platforms.
Look at the direct machine interface software available to connect your MIS directly to your manufacturing equipment. It is no longer possible to install the hardware in hours and have the system "completely" installed in a matter of days. Implementation of today's sophisticated management information systems can stretch over a period of months (and, yes, even years).
If you currently have a system, take advantage of annual users' meetings to learn what is going on in the computer world and, more specifically, with your vendor. Have they updated their hardware platform or software capabilities? Is it time to update your system? Don't lag behind; it is too difficult to catch up. You should also consider participating in a smaller users' group that can focus on specific issues. Every major vendor has a users' group and most have regional groups.
"What type of change will an MIS bring to my company, my staff, myself?"
Management information systems do a great job producing reports that cover every possible business contingency. The key to getting the most from your MIS is to determine which reports provide important and valuable information. My personal preference is to use reports to look for possible trends. Once I identify a trend, I request more details to determine the cause for the change. In computer terms, this is referred to as a "drill down" report. Data used to summarize the information become available by viewing the individual records that made up the summary. This can be an invaluable tool to better management.
Software can also force a new management style on you and your business. If, for example, the software you purchased to improve cash flow generates a list of jobs that have been "shipped, but not billed, " you may need to improve billing procedures. The MIS software can impose a new routine on your business, and you must be ready to respond to it.
"Have I completed the implementation of my system?"
With today's systems, you will probably never complete the implementation. You can get the data files built, convert the costing, accounting, estimating, and scheduling, but about the time you feel that it's almost done, someone will say, "How about office automation, fax server, word processing, e-mail, Internet access, etc." Change has become the norm and implementing change a never-ending process. The days of installing and forgetting about an MIS are over. Most vendors release a software update annually, with some providing interim updates almost monthly.
Answer the Challenge
Remember that, as with any business resource, computer systems have
to be managed. Tap into whatever internal expertise you have, or seek professional
guidance. Whatever it takes, answer the challenge to harness your system
to your company's needs. Don't settle for a limited system that has achieved
only a fraction of its potential. And don't settle for an untamed system
that has never been brought under managerial control.
If you're looking for the real value in your MIS system you must look beyond the wires, microchips and CPU. You must look deep into the database.
The database is the heart of any computerized data system, and if you're going to take full advantage of your MIS investment, you must learn how to manage the data in it. Today, most turnkey vendors offer add-on utilities that allow you to search the database and generate reports based on user-defined selection criteria, and they provide a variety of options. But let's begin at the beginning.
First off, just what is a database? Very simply, it's a collection of information. Each file on your system is a portion of your database. Alone the file may be meaningless, but all the files brought together create a structure that is a tool to provide information. Information is created when the data in your files, output in a useful and meaningful manner, provide facts that assist in making management decisions.
Databases are generally organized sequentially. If the sequence in which the information is stored is not the same as the sequence in which the user needs it, two results are likely. One, a lot of time will go by before the user finds everything he is looking for. Two, the user will find only what he is looking for. Any related information that might be helpful is usually lost to the decision-making process.
Newer database managers provide multiple indexes to allow for several different sequential views of the data simultaneously. The index is created from a subset of the data that is stored in a datafile record. The indexes used on the master job file might include job number, date of the last transaction, delivery date, customer number, salesperson number, etc. Therefore, if a manager is running a job listing by salesperson and by customer, for example, she would use two of the indexes for her search/selection.
Data files are also generally "related" in some manner to another file through a specific relationship. One relationship used quite often in a job costing database is the job number. This tends to be the "link" that is used to relate several files together. Understanding file relationships is critical when you set out to use some of these add-on report writers. The software will need to know how to access data from a related file, and the relationship "link" is how the software determines which records are related.
Some turnkey vendors will discuss features like ODBC compliant database (or database link). ODBC stands for Open Data Base Connectivity, a standard set by Microsoft to define various databases by one measure. Typically, the turnkey vendor will write a program that will allow existing database structure to be converted to the ODBC standard as a report is run. When the report is generated, the ODBC software will interpret the database requests that match the turnkey vendor's database structure.
A simple example is the format of a date. The vendor may save the date of March 5, 1997 as 19970305 and the ODBC standard might expect to see 03/05/1997. The turnkey vendor's ODBC driver would take the ODBC compliant request (03/05/1997) and convert it to its database structure, 19970305. The selection would then take place and the proper records be sent back to the report writer via the ODBC driver. In other cases, the turnkey vendor might use an ODBC compiant database such as FoxPro. This would eliminate the need for an ODBC interpreter.
Once you have access to your datafiles with a standard such as ODBC, you may make use of an SQL (Sequence Query Language) report writer such as Crystal Report Writer. It is one of several such report writers that are quite effective in generating very sophisticated reports while requiring little knowledge of database organization or computer programming.
Start Out Simple
When defining a report, you will need to know the primary data file, any related secondary files, how you want the data sorted, and where you want intermediate report subtotals. As you start to define the report, the report writer will present you with a report screen and ask you to indicate the report header (typically column/report headers) , detail, report subtotals, and report grand totals. You select the data elements used in the report from a screen that outlines the fields in a record.
If a second file is used, the report writer will ask about the relationship that should be used between the files so that the appropriate records are selected for inclusion in the report. It's a good idea to run the report several times as you are defining it in order to ensure that it includes all the data you desire and is formatted correctly. Sometimes this is the only way to debug the report. Start out with a simple report, and then add subtotals and totals once you have completed the detail portion.
A good report writer, in conjunction with a good database (ODBC compliant), can provide you with the tools to generate custom reports that can be crucial in the management of your business. Turnkey vendors have provided hundreds of "standard" reports in their MIS software packages, but many times you need a summary of the data or need it organized differently.
Don't waste valuable time entering data from several reports into a separate database (or spreadsheet) so that you can have the report "your way." Take the time to learn how to utilize a report writer that is capable of working with your database.
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