IT needs to stop being so Canadian

In modern companies, information drives everything from product planning to sales to finances. The flow of knowledge throughout a company is a critical asset.

There’s gold in that traffic—real-time business intelligence, risks and threats, customer insight. IT is custodian of that information, but most of the time it simply passes on raw data to the rest of the company. And that’s wrong.

If it is to remain relevant, IT must stop being a resource economy and become a producer of finished goods. This has happened before, and it’s a history lesson anyone in information technology needs to study.

Why IT doesn’t run web analytics

Fifteen years ago, IT knew more about web presence than anyone in the company. Server logs showed how much traffic was going to the website and how many errors had occurred. But this was technical data, and not relevant to the business, because it didn’t tie into users and revenues.

At the same time, marketers were waking up to a world of accountable marketing. The web let them see which ads and campaigns generated the most revenue. This holy grail of marketing let them optimize their advertising better than ever before.

Initially, marketers used tools that took the raw logfiles and processed them. Pioneers of this approach, such as Webtrends, sold to marketing instead of IT. With Netscape 2 came Javascript, which gave browsers a mind of their own and simplified things further: Marketers could now add business context to their pages—what was being sold, what kind of user, and so on—and do so in minutes instead of waiting months for IT.

Javascript ultimately made it possible to bypass IT entirely. Startups like Omniture, WebSideStory, Urchin, Coremetrics and Visual Sciences flourished. These companies thought like business, not IT. Today, IT is only remotely connected to web analytics. The people managing the pipes often have no idea what’s running inside them.

The migration of web analytics from IT to business is a microcosm of all that’s wrong with IT. Technologists were sitting on what was arguably the richest vein of customer insight in the last century, but rather than transform that data into business meaning, they simply handed it over in its raw form. And the business went elsewhere.

What happened to web analytics is about to happen to the rest of the business.

IT is like Canada

IT is like the Canada of the 1970s: Polite enough, quick to apologize, and unable to transform its natural riches into finished products others value. When something goes pear-shaped, blame Canada.

Canada has gradually stopped being a resource-driven economy. The country’s markets are still heavy with raw materials: Mining, oil, forestry. But Canada has reinvented itself, and now has a largely service-based economy. IT needs to do the same thing.

Everything in the company, from messages to phone calls to employee locations, is information traveling across wires—the richest possible resource. Today’s IT organization has the ability to capture the flow of traffic within a company, and to deliver it, real-time, to any department that wants it.

To simply hand over these riches, however, would perpetuate the resource economy. The rest of the company has enough data; what it wants is insight. Rather than sending logfiles and usage reports, send knowledge. Stop dealing in raw materials and start transforming those materials into products and services the rest of the organization can use.

Enough platitudes; give me something concrete

Fair enough. IT organizations can mine the information at their disposal and provide visualizations, insight, tools, and even warnings to the business. For example, they can:

  • Provide data on e-mail activity as it relates to user satisfaction or salesperson productivity
  • Put realtime traffic flows into Business Intelligence systems, then give business units access to those systems to let them analyze the data
  • Tie phone data to sales churn to see whether increased contact with customers improves or hurts retention
  • Link GPS and GeoIP information to fleet costs to assess green footprint
  • Create a simple set of HTTP calls that let anyone embed charts or data into spreadsheets, democratizing the analysis of IT information

A great example of the right way to do things is the Gapminder project. There has long been a vast amount of data on world populations, poverty, technology, and education. But that data remained invisible to all but the most tenacious researcher, because making sense of it was a challenge. Gapminder changed this, turning every web surfer into an analyst.

Swivel or IBM’s Many Eyes take similar approaches. They make it easy for people to share and publish information, turning raw data into insights. IT can do the same thing: Instead of sending data, send tools and ways of analyzing it.

IT could have anticipated the loss of web analytics at the dawn of the web economy if it had only thought about solving business problems with information (the “why”) instead of focusing on the tools (the “how.) Now technical teams can either start providing services and tools instead of raw data, or find themselves outsourced to the lowest bidder.