DM Review Published in DM Review Online in November 2005.
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Strategic Information Infrastructure: Not Everyone Who Drives a Car Fixes It Themselves

by Kevin Quinn

One of the most important things to know about an information architecture is the skill level of its users. As a start, certain assumptions can be made about the basic skills that will be common to everyone. We can assume that all information workers have access to e-mail via a mobile device or through an Internet-connected computer and have access to and familiarity with a Web browser.

Outside of those basic skills or common denominators, users are usually categorized by skill-level into four groups - IT developer, power user, analyst and non-technical user. IT developers are technical people who work in the IT department and produce reports or information for other users. Power users, also called business unit developers, are also technical people but they work in a business unit and often have a better understanding of business than the IT developers. Power users frequently produce reports for other people within their group or business unit. Analysts are technical people who work in a business unit and are responsible for analyzing and interpreting the meaning of data and information. Finally, non-technical business users often have business savvy but are not necessarily technically advanced. Non-technical business users are the general consumers of information and typically make up between 85-90% of the information worker audience in most organizations. For them, we can assume that their skill set only includes the common-denominator capabilities.

In addition to knowing the skill levels of your users, you also need to understand the basic tendencies of information workers regardless of their skill category. Information workers and people who create their own reports are a lot like drivers. Most drivers don't want to fix or maintain their cars. They want to drive their cars, and they want them to run perfectly all of the time. Even if they have the capability of maintaining their car themselves, changing the oil, for example, people usually don't have the time or the inclination to do it. If they can find someone else to maintain and fix their car, they will. Of course there are people who do fix and maintain their own cars, but as a percentage of all drivers they are the "few."

It's the same for information workers. They don't want to create their own information. They just want the information. Even if you are a power user, there will be many occasions when you won't have the time to create information yourself. If there is an easy way to get or retrieve information, most workers prefer it to having to create the information themselves.

Many companies act is if their users want to spend several hours each day in creating information. This is probably the number one mistake they make in choosing business intelligence software for the foundation of their information architecture.

The vast majority of information workers do not want to spend a lot of time creating reports. They want it done for them. This is one of the most fundamental rules of building an information architecture. If you create an environment that provides ad hoc capability (that is, the ability to create your own report - ad hoc), don't expect the majority of your users to take advantage of it.

With meetings, phone calls, networking, business operations and processes, e-mail and regular mail, how much spare time do workers in your organization have to create their own reports? What percentage of their time do they have to analyze information or build reports? The answer for most workers is "not very much," unless you are one of the few information workers who actually has the word analyst in their title.

Analysts and power users play important roles in an information architecture, which we will discuss in a future column. They are a key catalyst in keeping information flowing to the rest of the information worker audience.

Many companies assume all or a large portion of information workers are really analysts or power users, which is a fatal flaw. Companies also extend the problem into the process of choosing the business intelligence software, by appointing power users or technical users to head up the steering committee that selects business intelligence software. But think about it. Why let these people chose the software when 90% or more of your users will never use the tool as a power user?

As an architect of your company's information infrastructure, you need to figure out the easiest way to get information to your users without them doing a lot of work. This is not necessarily an easy task. Information needs to be filtered, secured, and manipulated to meet the unique individual needs of each worker. We will discuss how this is accomplished in future columns.

For now be aware of the pyramid of users shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Non-technical business users make up 85-90% of your user audience; analysts, people who look at information for a living, make up 7% of the typical audience; power users, or producers of information and reports, make up 5% of the audience, and IT developers make up 3%.

While all four categories of business users play a significant role in your information architecture, it is the non-technical users that make up a majority of the audience.

Where do you think most executives sit in this pyramid? They are most often non-technical users. Even if by chance, they are more technical, in most cases, they don't have the time to spend using a tool. They just want information, too.

So the rule is: Understand the users' skill levels and concentrate on providing information to everyone in the pyramid via the basic channels or common denominators - e-mail and a Web browser. If you concentrate on delivering technical business intelligence tools to power users and analysts, your information architecture will really be satisfying the needs of only a small percentage of your users.

Kevin Quinn, vice president of Product Marketing at Information Builders, researches new technologies for acquisition or adoption and defines the strategy and road map for the WebFOCUS business intelligence platform. In his 22 years of experience in IT, Quinn has helped companies worldwide develop information deployment strategies that accelerate decision making and improve corporate performance. Quinn is also the founder of an interactive sports statistics Web site that leverages business intelligence functionality. You can reach him at

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