Seize the Data

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - If the writing on the wall in Washington gets much bigger, Uncle Sam will need to start renting billboards on Pennsylvania Avenue to display it all. The government is clearly unimpressed with the high-tech industry's self-serving arguments that it can self-regulate to protect online consumer privacy. No surprise that politicians are buzzing around this issue like wasps on cotton candy.

The United States Federal Trade Commission recently weighed in with a harsh assessment of the toothless privacy policies posted on so many popular Web sites today. Paired with that story was one describing a wireless technology that essentially spies on which stations car radios are tuned to and feeds that data back to advertisers. Yet another story ["Database Key in Airline Merger"] noted how a compelling reason behind the proposed merger of United and US Airways is the consolidation of two of the largest customer databases in the travel industry.

Politics aside, it's all about the customer data. Every company with a substantive online presence is collecting terabytes worth of "clickstream" data, and most of them, frankly, don't have a clue what to do with it yet. The latest technological Holy Grail is integrating this new source of online data with back-office business systems and front-office customer prospecting software. The smarter your data - the better you connect those e-customer dots - the more profitable the picture becomes. That's why business intelligence software - everything from Web site data analysis to CRM systems - is booming.

What's missing from this emerging scenario is the voice of IT leadership. In the good old glass-house days, technology departments were the chief data collectors. Then the PC revolution derailed that duty and handed it off to end users. In this new online century, the pendulum is swinging back with a vengeance.

It's time for IT to seize the data back again. Not just its care and feeding, but the strategic thinking around what your companies actually do with it. Make everything that supports and surrounds customer data your business. Make it the most critical focus of IT. Make sure the CEO understands the consequences of who sees what data and why.

Don't wait to read all about it on Uncle Sam's billboard.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson@computerworld.com.

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