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Using Databases Effectively

Digital Library > Operations and Technology > Computer software “Using Databases Effectively”

Databases are no longer just dry collections of facts and figures. Newer, broad-based applications can help you manage information and increase productivity in every segment of your company. This Quick-Read can help you determine your database needs and find the right application to manage them.

OVERVIEW [top]

The technology available today is redefining how we use databases. No longer limited to rows and columns of information, databases are flexible and all encompassing, playing a role in every facet of your business. One database program can perform project management, customer invoicing, telephone traffic reports and stock inventory. If your database simply maintains your customers’ contact information, take a look at what more it could be doing for you.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Features of the latest database applications.
  • Tips for maximizing your database use both now and long-term.

SOLUTION [top]

What can a database do for you?

Depending on the manufacturer and the components you opt to buy, database software can:

  • Maintain customer records, from contact details to company statistics, order history to incident reports.

  • Register customer purchases, providing you with purchasing trend reports and reducing the need for taking inventory.

  • Analyze sales figures or customer data for more effective marketing plans.

  • Manage service orders that require input from multiple departments.

  • Notify staff if an order or service request is not completed on time, allowing you to address the problem and notify the customer of a delay; it can send out messages to staff or customers, whenever a certain set of parameters are met.

  • Display inbound caller identification while simultaneously bringing up the customer file on your computer screen (when integrated with your phone system).

  • Provide data access to remote offices and traveling salespeople through an Internet connection.

  • Prevent duplication of effort and confusion; centralized storage of one official data file will discourage workers from developing incompatible similar databases on department LANs or individual PCs.

  • Provide resellers with limited access.

  • Interact with existing accounting software or use its own.

  • Generate ads and brochures in formats suitable for e-mailing to potential customers.

  • Conduct project management and calendar functions.

  • Control asset inventory, such as software or office equipment.

  • Host the content for your Web site.

How to get the most out of your database — from sourcing to implementation

Your database is only as strong as its underlying structure. To use a database effectively, schedule the following events.

  1. Talk to your staff about which features they believe would help them to better perform their roles.

  2. Meet with your staff to emphasize the importance of the database to the company’s overall operation. Explain how it will help them to perform their jobs, earn more money and grow the company.

  3. Using the Internet, research the products on the market to get an understanding of available features.

    • Total costs: purchase price, installation, training and support. Tip: the best solution may not be the most expensive. There are some very affordable database solutions that can be created for only a few thousand dollars.

    • Optional components. Most applications have a core offering with optional add-ons that will expand the database’s capabilities to meet your needs. Start with what you need and add modules as the company grows or can afford the extras.

    • Compatibility with other programs and existing applications. If you are not purchasing the billing system option, for example, you want to make certain the new database and your existing billing system can be integrated. Alternatively, you want existing data to be easily transferred to the new database from whatever program you are currently using.

    • Additional functions, such as remote access and the ease of making minor administrative changes.

    • Technical support and service agreements.

    • Training programs. Preferably, you will get on-site training for all staff plus multiple copies of a well-documented user guide.

    • Customer lists. Ideally, some current users will be companies of similar size, industry, application, etc.
  4. Make sure your office computers each have the hardware necessary to run the database application. If the computers are slow to run the program, your staff will be reluctant to use it.

  5. Purchase the hardware and software.

  6. Assign a two-or-three-person team to implement the database. These people will be involved in the configuration, installation and training. Assigning multiple staff to the task ensures the stability of the project is not threatened should one person leave the company.

  7. Keep all documentation provided by the manufacturer, from installation manuals to the user guide. If the manufacturer does not provide a user guide, create one. It will make training new staff easier.

  8. Train your staff well. The information in the database may be valuable, but only if people know how to access it.

  9. Stress the importance of recording and maintaining accurate information. Some details may seem minor, but spelling the CEO’s name incorrectly or mailing a document to an outdated address reflects poorly on your business.

How to get the most out of your database — long-term

Your employees’ enthusiasm for the new database will likely wane within a few months. Because a database is only as useful as the information put into it, you and your staff must maintain the good habits you used to introduce the database. To continue to get the most out of your database:

  1. Input information completely and accurately.

  2. Document any changes to procedures or additions to the database to ensure that both new and old staff are trained with the most current information.

  3. Be sure the database manager continues to get feedback from staff. They are using the database daily and will have suggestions for making it more effective. Stay current with new software releases, and keep informed of any known bugs. Have a staff person check the manufacturer’s Web site regularly, and sign up for the manufacturer’s e-newsletter for updates and other information.

  4. Whenever a member of your implementation team leaves or moves into a new role, have another staff member retrained quickly. Never leave yourself short.

  5. Conduct regular maintenance on the server on which the database is stored.

  6. Perform regular back-ups of the data.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Phase Two Strategies (PTS), a public relations firm focusing on high-technology clients, needed a relationship management tool that would maintain essential contact information for more than 12,000 media outlets and 20,000 individual media professionals, as well as allow them to create individually tailored presentations. Also, the application had to run on the Macintosh platform.

The company selected FileMaker Pro to form the core of its customer relationship management system. Since the initial purchase ten years ago, CEO William Boehlke says PTS has upgraded and expanded on the original application to support company growth and more advanced use of its features. Initially, the office manager maintained the database, making changes on an as-needed basis. Today, PTS employs a full-time developer who continuously looks for ways to use the database more effectively.

Continuing to expand on the original application has served PTS well, says Boehlke. "We did some analysis about five years ago. One third of the cost of presenting client information to journalists involved researching each media contact. Now, with FileMaker, this is automatic and we’re able to give our clients more value for the budget."

Staff members received a half-day training session on the application during implementation, which is reinforced with a semiannual refresher course. While this training program works well for existing staff, Boehlke admits that PTS overlooked a crucial part of the implementation strategy. "Had we realized how long we would be using the application, we would have invested more in documentation earlier in the process. We currently have 60 users, and better documentation would make training more effective."

DO IT [top]

  1. If you do not have an existing database:
    • Talk to other CEOs to get their input on the process and products available.
    • Test-drive trial versions of various databases.
    • Have your tech-savvy folks test them to identify any weaknesses.
    • Buy the application that satisfies your needs now and can be expanded to meet your needs in the future.
    • Ensure your office computers have enough memory to run the application.
    • Train staff well during the implementation phase, emphasizing how the application will assist them in their jobs.
    • Maintain the most current version of the application.
  2. If you have an existing database:
    • Research the application to fully understand its capabilities, either as it is now or with upgrading.
    • Host a refresher training session for staff, taking the opportunity to eliminate lax user habits and introduce previously unused features.
    • Collect or prepare documentation related to the installation, administration and use of the database so that others who join your organization will be able to find documentation on how your database operates.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Holy Grail of Data Storage Management by Jon William Toigo (Prentice Hall PTR, 2000). The first three chapters present the economic case for central storage as opposed to distributed storage of data. The remainder of the book is a primer on storage hardware technology suitable for non-information technology managers.

Interactive Data Warehousing by Harry Singh (Prentice Hall PTR, 1999). A primer on database architecture suitable for non-information technology managers.

Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System by Bill Gates and Collins Hemingway (Warner, 1999).

New Direct Marketing: How to Implement a Profit-Driven Database Marketing Strategy, 3rd edition (McGraw-Hill, 1999). Three chapters on managing marketing databases are followed by a textbook on statistical analysis to take advantage of the data.

Internet Sites

Data Warehouse Research Center (CIO.com)

DBMS Online Buyers Guide: Database Servers. A directory of vendor home pages.

Intelligent Enterprise magazine.

Article Contributors

Writer: Tracy MacNicoll

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