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Greenville Business Magazine

Businesses realize more value from data in age of information sharing

By John C. Stevenson

Sharing information in the digital age can mean anything from posting a recipe on Instagram to how companies use information to gain advantages over the competition. For businesses, information sharing comes with great rewards for companies that understand the value – and limitations – of virtually limitless data.

Information sharing comes in myriad forms and formats, but for computer scientists, the term comprises only four design patterns for sharing information: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many and many-to-one.

In business, information sharing might have started out as a function of IT, but that has changed radically as a greater understanding was developed for the value of accurate information.

“Historically, the IT department within a company was primarily tasked with capturing data, automating tasks, centralizing data storage and protecting data,” said Mark Ferguson, senior associate dean for academics and research and chair of management science at UofSC’s Darla Moore School of Business. “But the more recent shift is to make the right data available to all sorts of layers within an organization so the managers can have the information they need to make better decisions.”

Part of the shift was accomplished by the creation of visualization software that gives businesses the ability to take raw data and put it into easy-to-understand visual formats, such as graphs and charts.

“Instead of needing to know the particular programming language or database coding language to extract the data I need, it’s pushed to me as a manager,” Ferguson said. “So, using drop-down menus or choosing what fields I want to look at, I don’t need the technical expertise I needed in the past to get to that information.”

At the same time, companies began to realize the value of data that had been previously underused.

“There’s a recognition that the IT group has the information, but they don’t necessarily have expertise in supply chain or marketing or finance or whatever that is really needed to use that data to make decisions,” Ferguson said. “But the reverse side of that is that the people who have the expertise don’t want to become IT experts. They want to continue in their specialty, but just have the information they need without having to either learn how to extract it themselves or get in a waiting group for the people in IT to write something for them.”

It often falls upon the chief information officer to play an important role in managing the use of information.

“The CIO is much more a part of the strategic planning team now, so they’re in those C-level discussions on the direction they want the firm to go,” Ferguson said. “They’re the in-between between the technical side and the managerial side of how do we make this happen with the systems that we have and the data that we have, or what data do we need that maybe we’re not capturing today.”

Biggest Challenge: Accuracy

While technology bears part of the blame for the traditional lack of access to data, another problem has been that companies haven’t always worked to ensure they had quality data.

“One of the biggest challenges is that if that data hasn’t really been used for high-level decision-making in the past – maybe you’ve been capturing it, but you don’t have a culture of using data to help in decision-making, then oftentimes that data is not the highest of quality,” Ferguson said.

In the infancy of electronic-data collection, many businesses were lax in how they gathered data. 

“Firms would get excited about ‘we’re going to use data more,’ and ‘we’re going to buy software that’s going to make it available,’ without going back and doing the unsexy but very necessary work of ensuring that data is clean and accurate – the data-integrity piece – and that can lead to some very bad decisions,” Ferguson said. “They think the data is pointing to (something), but it’s really because of the data not being very clean and maintained. So you’ve got to be a skeptical user, especially at first.”

Life-Saving Results

Information sharing has many benefits beyond building company profits. Another benefit of information sharing is its value in driving positive customer experiences, and in few places is that more potentially critical than in health care.

“The value of information sharing is one of efficiency,” said Robert Hartwig, clinical associate professor, finance department director and co-director of the Risk and Uncertainty Management Center of the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. “Businesses have been striving for many years now to develop systems that can communicate freely with each other, in the interest of not only reducing cost but improving customer service.

“We can all remember when, if you went to one doctor, you had to fill out a lot of paperwork; if you went to the next doctor, you had to fill out the same paperwork, and so on and so forth,” Hartwig continued. “With the digitization of medical health records, what we have is all providers within a network being able to share the same information instantaneously, and the ability to input information that can be observed by all medical professionals within a network. Not only is this efficient, it reduces medical errors and it produces a better customer experience, meaning better health outcomes such as greater longevity.”

But as is so often is the case, with new technologies come new risks.

“Every American essentially has a health record that you accumulate over your life,” Ferguson said. “What that means is that there are vast amounts of data on varied platforms, whether from health providers or life insurers or perhaps even through your employment, worker’s comp insurers, where there will be information about your personal health status and which you may not wish to have made public. 

“But because this information is being shared across platforms, and very, very large platforms, it’s simply going to be the case that it’s likely to be vulnerable, particularly since the world has largely migrated to cloud computing, so rather than sitting on one system, we’re talking about vast networks that stretch across the world.”