UK: A SYSTEM FOR THE PERPLEXED - EXECUTIVE INFORMATION SYSTEM (EIS). - Managing IT - With colour graphics and touch sensitive screen, EIS gives the overall picture.

by Jane Bird.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Managing IT - With colour graphics and touch sensitive screen, EIS gives the overall picture.

Imagine you are just about to leave the office one evening when a colleague rings you to say that he is unable to attend an important dinner with clients that evening. You are asked to fill the breach. The trouble is you do not know the client and are not familiar with the contract or the people involved. Most managers would panic. But not Nick Hilton of Moore Stephens, a London-based accountancy practice. Thanks to the Executive Information System (EIS) program on his desktop computer, Hilton can gain instant access to all the firm's contracts, clients and even the names of their husbands or wives. A quick read through the printout on the way to dinner, and he will be able to carry off the occasion almost as well as his colleague.

Although a situation like this may be rare, there are many occasions when managers need to get information out of their computers, but find it very difficult to do so. Chief executives who have poured millions of pounds into IT during the past few years, are very frustrated by this, says Bryan Black, managing director of Pilot Software UK, an EIS supplier. 'In the 1980s, IT departments encouraged management to spend lots of money computerising their corporate information, but now they can't get it out. There is a feeling among senior management of having been duped by IT.'

EIS programs began appearing on the market in the late 1980s as a solution to this problem. Their purpose is to give top managers quick and easy access to data held in their companies' computers. Stunning colour graphics and touch-sensitive screens make the EISs visually appealing and simple to use. They are designed to present broad overviews of company performance and highlight areas of particular interest, or cause for concern. Managers wishing to examine specific areas in greater detail need only touch the relevant part of the screen which then 'explodes' into a whole new tier of graphically-presented data. In theory, the user can thus descend through all the levels of information in the database.

EISs have proved slow to catch on. A survey carried out two years ago by the consultancy Business Intelligence found that, of those senior managers using an EIS, the majority had not seen tangible benefits. Their systems were often expensive and inexpertly applied. But a similar survey carried out by the same company last year showed demand growing, with 41% of organisations using at least one EIS. According to IDC, the US-based market research company, in 1991 the worldwide EIS market exceeded £60 million, and some analysts forecast that it will reach £110 million within two years.

One of the main reasons for the increasing popularity of EIS is the program's ability to bridge the great computer divide in most organisations between operational data (ledgers, payroll, production control, booking systems) with that relating to individual user (spreadsheets, word-processing files and suchlike).

The latest generation of EISs allows users to draw on both these categories of data for general managerial applications such as planning, reporting and budgeting. This considerably widens their appeal, and, in many cases, is making them virtually indispensable. It seems that what was useful to the chief executive is even more valuable further down the organisation, says Ian McNaught-Davis, CE of EIS market-leader Comshare International. 'Five years ago, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that an EIS might need to be shared by thousands of users within an organisation. Most of these systems were designed for use by no more than 20 senior managers. But if your boss has one, you need one too.'

His view is shared by Pilot's Black: 'EIS is no longer just for top executives. There is now a much larger user base of people in organisations who need to access data but who are not computer literate - they just want to point and click a mouse.'

According to McNaught-Davis, there are some 80 companies worldwide whose EIS is used by more than 100 executives, and several installations are nudging up to 1,000 users. Many companies are planning even larger-scale expansion in this area. 'The question for these organisations is no longer whether they need an EIS, but how they could possibly run their business without one.' Another reason for the success of EISs in the 1990s is the way they complements the move towards flatter management structures. As McNaught-Davis explains: 'Empowered workforces cannot function if the guy at the top sits on all the information.' Moreover, the plunging price of PCs has made it feasible to provide desk-top machines for many more staff.

It was the prospect of improved information access that attracted Moore Stephens to an EIS. Previously, all the firm's data was held on its Data General minicomputer. Every day the latest bankings would be photocopied or printed out some 40 times for partners. Switching to EIS has brought a dramatic improvement on the paper system, says Hilton.'By Tuesday morning we can see all the previous week's business.' The EIS is also used for planning meetings, as everyone's diary is on the database. In the old days, someone would have had to spend ages talking to secretaries or tracking down partners who may have gone out with their desk-diaries. Now it takes seconds to identify the times when a group of people are free to meet, and which rooms are available.

The main role of the Moore Stephens EIS is as repository of corporate knowledge. 'It records what we know, who we know, where they are located and what our relationship with them is,' says Hilton. Hence, a partner who needs to find a shipping lawyer with experience of litigation in Hong Kong can immediately see if the firm has had contact with such a person, simply by pressing a few keys. 'All the information was available before but now we can produce it much more quickly.' Because names and addresses of clients and business contacts are stored only once, the firm avoids duplication, such as sending copies of a standard letter to a person listed at more than one address. Changes of address are also much easier to keep track of. 'The only thing we can't do yet is automatic billing, and that will be available soon.' Hilton says that even technophobes can easily master an EIS. 'I'm 40, and before all this happened I was a complete IT heathen, utterly terrified about the implications of computing, as were lots of the partners. Now I'm very comfortable with it.' Using the EIS is like driving a car, he says. 'I don't need to know how it works as long as it does what I want when I switch on the ignition.' Many more companies are expected to instal EIS systems during the next few years, as an increasing number of middle managers are phased out. Black says: 'There won't be the huge armies of analytical people around in the future, so more senior managers will need better vehicles for analysing trends.' Many companies still have far to go. For instance, Black cites the chief executive of one of the UK's largest retailing groups who recently asked his managers for the group's market share compared with its competitors. They took two weeks to find out. 'He had spent a fortune on databases and computers. Yet when he asked what he thought was a simple question, his staff were brought to their knees for two weeks trying to find the answer.' Just finding the way into his computer proved difficult for this chief executive. It took him 15 minutes to sign on to his desktop one day. This included having to ask his secretary for the new password which had been changed without his knowledge. Ease of use is vital.

It is important to anticipate the full range of company information you may need to put on the system. McNaught-Davis says: 'You might not need a piece of corporate data today, but sooner or later there will come a time when somebody needs it on the system, and the EIS that cannot provide it will have failed.'

The capacity to cope with much larger data-bases is also essential. A senior executive may only need a broad overview, but as an EIS moves down the management chain, individuals will need to examine data in far more detail. It is advisable to choose an EIS that works with a wide range of PCs as there may be employees in other offices with different machines who will want access to the EIS.

Finally, an EIS should have excellent visual presentation. This will let users see immediately the way things are going and where they are out of line or wrong. 'Graphics are much more illuminating than a tabular format,' says Black. 'A picture really does tell a thousand words.' Implemented successfully, an EIS can help to break down organisational walls and create a more closely-co-ordinated corporate culture. Users, who previously may have hoarded information, have come to regard their data as business intelligence and are now more ready to share it. Meanwhile, senior executives need no longer feel they are looking at pieces of a jigsaw-puzzle - the EIS should make the overall picture plain to see.

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