Waylaid at the Information Waystation

Professor John M. McCann
Fuqua School of Business
Duke University

March 20, 1995

Conversations with marketing managers, marketing researchers, data vendors, and MBA students returning from summer internships reveal a pervasive unhappiness. Brand groups are consistently unable to take advantage of their scanner data, and this is not a happy situation.

Perhaps the unhappiness is related to the high expectations raised when these data first began to appear on the scene. It was easy to see how they could lead to far better insights than could the old store audit or warehouse withdrawal data. Vendor presentations made it look easy to get value from these data. And, the early experiences tended to confirm this view.

But then reality set in when firms began to deploy the scanner data and the associated information systems. Here are some of the descriptions I have heard about the results.

When I relayed these comments to a group of marketing managers in Toronto recently, a voice called out from the back of the room: "We call it Scan Pile ... they send us stacks of computer printouts that just pile up in the corner and get thrown out when the new pile arrives."

So, what went wrong? My studies indicate that too many marketing and MIS managers marched to the wrong tune, the one that goes something like this: "We don't want data, we want information." They seemed to be saying "we don't want to see reams and reams of numbers, we want to only see the information formatted so that we can make sense out of it."

The result was the design and deployment of information systems . You know the ones; they are on all the marketing and sales desks in all the consumer goods firms. You "interact" with them and they extract data and present you with a formatted report, usually rows and columns of numbers. You must then "make sense" of these numbers.

This was a logical approach at the time (mid-1980s) because it was the way things had always been done in the information systems world. Put masses of data into a mainframe computer and give "users" a tool for extracting just the right data. If you have this tool format these data so that the user can get meaning from them, you end up with information, not data.

But that approach was out of step with the nature of the data. They are too voluminous, they arrive too frequently, there are too many ways to break them down into meaningful reports, and the computing tools tend to be too wimpy.

By adopting an information focus and deploying these tools, we have been waylaid at the information waystation.

Marketing managers are charged with understanding their customers, consumers, and competitors. Thus, they are sitting at the information waystations trying to get insights from the numbers that flow out of the information systems. When they are successful, they can then convert these insights into actions ... into marketing plans, programs, and events. But all too often, they are not successful. They might find some interesting problem and focus on it, even though more intensive analysis would have revealed that there was a real monster lurking out there that should have been the focus of their attention.

Worse yet, they may have given up ... given over to the infocarcinoma and turned off their computers. In that case, they are flying blind. Devising strategies and tactics without a clue about what has worked in the past, what are the trends in the markets, and how their competitors are attracting their customers.

How do they get away from the piles of numbers and back to focusing on marketing? How can we let marketers be marketers? By moving beyond the information waystation and into a new world where the computer can process the numbers for you to find problems and opportunities that deserve your attention. Let the computer generate some insights and then communicate those insights to you in plain English. Let's move from information systems to insight systems .