While information management systems have become tightly interwoven with business operations, realizing a solid return on the data stored in them remains a challenge. No off-the shelf database management package meets every need, according to Dr. Carlos A. Cuadra, founder and President of Cuadra Associates, a leader in information and text retrieval systems development. Worse, he says, the software often cannot be adapted to changing needs without incurring the cost of expensive vendor services.
"Many firms buy on the basis of buzzwords or a set of dazzling bells and whistles but find within the first week of implementation that their new system has some weaknesses," Cuadra observed. Cuadra, who is also the founder of industry series Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, said that he has seen the scenario repeated time and again in his more than 25 years in the industry. "Inevitably, there will be a new function or a different search option needed. If their software cannot be easily customized, customers will be stuck with something that becomes more inadequate over time."
That problem, Cuadra claims, is quickly exacerbated as the information age pushes organizations to ask more and more of their information systems. "Searchable online databases are a favorite tool for attracting visitors to a web site, providing the site a means for both distributing and gathering information," he explained. "Nearly every firm is in a rush to establish an informative web site that lures viewers and brings them back ¾ so online searches are becoming more widespread every day. These search functions highlight the limitations inherent in the information management system that powers them."
Cuadra believes the best way to avoid pitfalls is to make flexibility a priority when selecting information management and retrieval systems. "Businesses selecting database software, especially those creating online databases, should first make sure their system will be able to grow and adapt with them. Will it generate the kind of reports they need, interface with their other software, and allow for customization?"
In line with Cuadra's belief in flexible design, Cuadra Associates has been developing increasingly powerful versions of the STAR information and text retrieval system since 1973. Many organizations that deal with full-text archives, documents and book collections take advantage of the adaptable text retrieval capabilities of the Cuadra STAR system, which is designed to maintain databases with variable-length fields and myriad search options that can be customized without calling in a programmer.
"The majority of the data entry/retrieval systems implemented are complex by nature, and difficult to setup and maintain," Cuadra pointed out. "The vendor may come in, assist in design and do the installation. Yet without fail, the user later needs to add a field or change a query. But altering many of these systems is complex enough to discourage do-it-yourself customization, and hiring the vendor or consultants every time some small update is needed can quickly get expensive. Organizations selecting new information management systems should make sure that customizations can be made quickly and without programming."
No one is more aware of the challenges of designing effective information management systems than the 'Information Clearinghouses' that gather, organize, index, and publish specialized bodies of data for their clients. While most organizations use their information systems to support their primary operations, the selling product of the Information Clearinghouse is data ¾ and the margin of error for database management systems is even smaller. One such Information Clearinghouse, Marketing Intelligence Service, LTD., has used the Cuadra STAR system since 1987 to track and publish data about new consumer packaged goods. This information is distributed through subscriptions both to their web site (http://www.productscan.com), and to several print publications, such as Product Alert, to clients who use the data for competitive analysis and new product ideation.
The service tracks a variety of consumer packaged goods worldwide, recording data about each product, from packaging descriptions and contents to the full text of the packaging copy. Over the last year, Marketing Intelligence Service tracked over 20,000 new products in North America alone, according to Tom Vierhile, General Manager.
"With so many products, and so much variety among them, the ability to design and customize our information system is essential," Vierhile noted. "Any system like this is complex, but simply being able to make the changes without calling a developer every single time is essential."
"It really is a question of making sure the system is flexible, because needs will change," Vierhile concluded, in agreement with Cuadra's assessment. "Carefully selecting your system will save a lot of time, money, and effort down the road, and will give you a flexible platform on which to build your business and add services and functions as they're required."
Brad Forrister, Director of Publishing at M. Lee Smith Publishers, LLC, agrees. "We implemented STAR in 1984 to organize our collection of court opinion summaries and our tracking system for the Tennessee legislature, and its flexibility has allowed it to grow with us as we've added services," he affirmed. M. Lee Smith Publishers specializes in gathering legal data such as court opinions and proposed laws, which it presents to clients in the form of newsletters and several Internet-based searchable databases. The company publishes more than 110 state-specific newsletters, which it archives and indexes with STAR."M. Lee Smith actually has more than 2.5 gigabytes of text stored in the 250 databases we manage with STAR," Forrister commented. "STAR exports data to the software we use to create our print publications, and we also use the web interface to create sites where our clients can get searchable, up to the minute information over the Internet."
Tracking an average of 1900 proposed laws each year, as well as a constantly growing database of almost 50,000 court opinion summaries and 20,000 employment law newsletter stories, M. Lee Smith often needs to expand databases and queries. "Defining databases is quite easy," Forrister noted, "whether you're adding new fields, rearranging them, or creating new views. We're able to do almost all customizations without in-house programmers and with only rare calls to Cuadra's customer service folks."
"We get a lot of requests for custom reports," Forrister explained, "and the ease of designing new reports in STAR, and of making regular searches and reports virtually automatic, has made it possible to handle those requests quickly and economically. Since we started using it, our mantra has been, 'just tell us what format you need, and we can get it there.' The system's flexibility has allowed us to provide cost-effective, custom information to customers time after time."
"Especially now, as many organizations rush to make data available to the Internet marketplace, and in a variety of other formats, information storehouses like Marketing Intelligence and M. Lee Smith provide great examples for any business purchasing information management software," Dr. Cuadra concluded. "Making flexibility a watchword when choosing a system helps ensure that your data is efficiently organized and accessible, no matter how needs change."