|Management of agricultural research: A training manual. Module 6: Management information systems, computers and network techniques (1997)|
|Session 3. Computers as management tools|
|Reading note: Computers as management tools|
A detailed exercise may be necessary for most organizations wishing to evolve a strategy for adoption of information technology. The exercise would include study of requirements, design of a suitable configuration, scheme of acquisition and selection of systems. The following sections describe these processes.
Requirements analysis and configuration
Design of a suitable computer configuration is fundamental to the use of computer in management. Computer services departments, if they exist, or expert consultants should be invited to design a suitable configuration, with approximate cost estimates. The alternatives discussed in the earlier sections, such as stand-alone systems, work stations, minicomputer with terminals, PCs in a LAN or WAN, etc., will have to be evaluated in the context of organizational needs. Application needs and availability of suitable software generally become vital factors in configuration design. It is always desirable to start with a good software base, since it determines the pace at which applications can be developed and users can be involved in the computerization process. A reliable hardware-software combination is essential for successful computerization.
Requirements analysis is an elaborate exercise, involving almost all the members of the organization. The professional group entrusted with the task of designing a suitable computer configuration should hold discussions with all the relevant members of the organization and try to understand the practices of information management as they exist in the institution. Methods to improve these practices with the help of appropriate information technology will be worked out by the group. Any special computing requirements will also be taken into consideration at this stage. A detailed exercise of this nature is necessary to develop a strategy for the use of information technology in the organization as a whole. This ensures proper introduction of information technology and effective use of the system.
A phased approach to acquisition and introduction of computers is normally adopted in cases where experience in the use of computers is limited within the organization. Unless it is estimated that the full configuration will be utilized within a year, it is not desirable to acquire a large configuration of hardware and software, since the rate of developments in technology may render these systems obsolete before the organization is ready to use them.
Selection of computer systems
The effort necessary for the selection of hardware and software depends upon the configuration decided upon. While the prime consideration for selecting a PC may be limited to the availability of good after-sales service, it is quite complex for mini- and large computer systems, and for systems involving use of recent processors, peripheral devices and software products. Even in the case of PCs, the software selection exercise may have to be done extensively for advanced software products.
It is perhaps the power of the machine and how well the operating system and application software can exploit it in a desired configuration which determine the selection of minis and large systems.
Data on comparative performances of hardware and software products can be obtained independently from standard computer magazines. Any user experience, if available, in the neighbourhood will be a valuable input for evaluation. These inputs along with vendor supplied information may be tabulated to prepare a short list for detailed consideration.
Data may include hardware characteristics such as speed, capacity, expandability and method of interconnection of processor, memory and input-output devices. The model and make of these units are equally important inputs.
Ease of use, features supported, ease of data conversion, efficiency of implementation, etc., are some dimensions by which data on software may tabulated for comparison. These inputs will have to be collected for each important software package, including operating systems, language processors, end-user packages and special purpose application software systems.
Vendors offering comparatively superior hardware and software products for the specified computer configuration can be shortlisted for detailed performance evaluation.
To evaluate the performance of shortlisted systems, a detailed study using benchmark test programs will have to be carried out.
These studies involve development of a large number of prototype programs (around 20 to 30) running in the proposed hardware-software environment. These benchmark programs will have to be run in several experiments on the proposed equipment.
Observations such as smooth performance of the system (easy navigable, no breakdowns, no hang-ups, etc.) and knowledge of system engineers concerning the hardware and software may be given equal importance to elapsed and execution times required to run the test programs.
Benchmark data may be used to evaluated the vendors using either of approaches. Either
· assign interval scores to each vendor on each criterion and multiply this score by the weights of the criteria. Add these weighted scores to produce a final weighted total. Use these totals to rank order the systems. This scheme works right when the weights are judiciously chosen and the resultant totals are not too close; or
· prepare a brief scenario of how the organization would function with each proposed system. These scenarios would illustrate efforts required in using the proposed system along with the associated costs and benefits. The decision making body can then rank these scenarios and choose the most desirable one.
In addition to benchmark results, the market image and service reputation of the vendor are other important points to be considered while selecting computer systems. Detailed techno-economic evaluation may be necessary after this stage.
Since computer selection is a specialized task, it is advisable to engage professional consultants to select complex hardware/software systems involving large budgets.
Performance monitoring and expansion
Monitoring the performance of computer services is as important as monitoring other functions. It is perhaps more complex because of the several issues, including:
· the manager of the computer services function has a wide variety of subordinates, ranging from highly technical computer personnel to clerical personnel;
· the department is responsible for a broad range of activities, from creative system design to routine clerical tasks;
· the department has an impact on many areas of the organization; and
· the manager is responsible for major investment in hardware and software.
Given these points, top management should see the manager of the computer services department as a change agent and give support to the manager's activities within the organization.
Management will have to evolve policy guidelines for data retention, privacy and security. These areas have significant bearing on cost, legal and societal implications.
Auditing computer procedures is essential to ensure adequate control for computer-based systems. Some illustrations of audit controls are: maintenance of control logs for input and output; records of job run, beginning, ending, errors, re-starts and re-runs; file back-up procedures; program back-up procedures; back-up arrangement for processing with another organization; insurance for re-creating bad files; disk and tape library controls; system documentation; user documentation; and operator documentation.
Performance of the computer services department can be influenced by reviewing the performance of existing systems, including users, in the design of new systems and training of the staff of user departments.
Based on these inputs, an expansion plan may be worked out. The plan could include the expansion of the computer services department in terms of augmentation of manpower or equipment. A detailed exercise may be necessary in the case of equipment expansion to take advantage of developments in information technology.