I was inspired by the headline Is GRI Too much transparency for NGOs? Which was posted on prizmablog.com and it made me think about how information is managed and how far we are from learning from each other’s mistakes in both the business and NGO/CSO world.
When I started in the field of business intelligence in the late 90’ties information of God, or at least we had a religious belief around information. All we wanted was to get as much information as possible little did we know that information would eventually make us inefficient and create weak decision-making systems.
In the transport industry was one of the main problems to know were stuff were? We transported ‘stuff’ all around the world with multiple stops along the way. When we wanted to know were ‘stuff’ were we needed to one see if it arrived at the destination or two pick up the phone and start asking around.
In one instance I had a package going from Vietnam to Copenhagen and it was lost and had not arrived on time. So I used a day calling the different stations along the supply chain all the way from Copenhagen to the different logistics hubs along the way all the way to south East Asia. In the end I got a hold of somebody in the Hanoi office and she might be able to help me out, but not until the day after because they only had power two hours a day so that she could use the computer. The next day I finally found my package in Belgium, but that is a different story.
The point is that we needed easy access to information and we needed it now. We had screaming clients in one end, and massive waste of man-hours in another and the solution was apparent to as all, we desperately wanted to know what was going on. The company was loosing both money and clients and at an alarming rate. To our benefit could be said that all our competitors was just as bad us so it was a level playing field.
So we started an information gathering project. All our packages had a barcode on them and that would form the backbone of our tracking service. All employees that handled packages were issued with a system for scanning and creating digital reference points. All in all, we figured that one package that were either shipped or received from outside Europe would receive somewhere between 30 and 50 checkpoints, as we called these reference points, along the way. In 1998 we hit the implement bottom and in a matter of days we were overloaded with information, which we knew we needed but we had no system for handling.
Basically we became hugely inefficient and the system was extremely expensive to implement and we were unable to determine if we were taking right or wrong decisions. Just imaging the cost of scanners and computers that was needed to get all the equipment installed around the world, not to mention the man-hours. On top of that we had of cause a need to upgrade the electricity supply in Vietnam, so that they could transmit and retrieve data.
Later one we found out what to do and had training and systems in place for handling the incoming data but the starting point was nothing less than a disaster.
What NGO should learn from Business Intelligence
So when one asks if the NGOs are able to handle the information they themselves have been asking for, my hypostasis would be that it’s a big NO. At least we had the benefit if knowing the business and its inner clockwork of the organization. The NGOs have no such perspective and the chance of miss interpreting data and making huge mistake are ever present.
What is needed it in my mind effective communication/information management. The transport business of 2011 is much more advanced than it was when I started and in the end left. The track and trace systems of today are much more intuitive and ‘Google’ inspired which really creates value for customers and transportation companies alike. The NGO or other organizations interested in transparency have no such system for handling data and have no experience. When I left the company some six years ago it was producing well over 10’000´000 checkpoints every day around the world at tens of thousands of locations.
How in the world would a NGO be able to handle just 1% or even less of that information? The GRI provides some individual 129 headlines, which in some way tell something about the company from economic data to its status on environmental impact and Human Rights. In a normal GRI report one would properly have somewhere between 500 and 3000 checkpoints. There is no way in my mind that NGO will be able to effectively use this data for anything than individual company analysis and spot checks without an effective information management system and training in how to use it.
So my small piece of advice is to think before you hit the implement bottom and get overwhelmed with information that you have no chance in the world to manage anyhow. Instead one should sit down and find out what information is needed, how we are going to handle it and what are we going to use it for. From there the NGO or other interested organization can systematically create databases of corporate GRI report data that is actually useful.