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If you thought you might have been suffering from that most fashionable complaint, information overload, then a quick trip to the National Hall, Olympia, for the On-line Information 98 exhibition in December might well have forced a re-think. It’s not so much the sheer volume of electronic databases that are now available; true, most of the exhibitors talked in terabytes (that’s 1,000 gigabytes or 1,000,000 megabytes) in much the same way performance car makers brag about brake horsepower or astronomers coo over light years. But the way the information is delivered has become the key driver in this market. Stung by the “information overload” hype, data providers are now keener than ever to prove that the user interface, the number and text crunching software and the delivery systems are making extensive research projects a matter of touching a button. “When you’re talking to the finance director, it’s really about manipulating the data into a form that they can actually use,” said Ian Green, business development manager at Dun & Bradstreet. He also noted that decision-making time in certain sectors has fallen to the point where information needs to go direct to the point of use, even if that user is untrained in database handling. Philip Mellor, senior analyst at the veteran corporate data company, claimed new levels of user-friendliness have been developed to meet this changing audience. “More and more companies are getting more information hungry, and because of that they’re keen to pass the responsibility of obtaining financial data via the end-user terminal,” said Mellor. That’s where the Internet has come in – and if you could find a stand at On-line Information 98 which didn’t have the word “Internet” prominently displayed, there were cash prizes on offer. “Just three years ago, CD-ROMs were the flavour of the month for data dispersal,” Green noted. “But it was surprising how many companies didn’t have CD-ROM drives. That doesn’t apply to the Internet. The instant delivery it affords also supports the faster rate of decision making in companies.” Developing a large, reliable database and presenting it nicely is one thing – but it actually increases information overload. At the Verity stand, they were trying to show how to get the right information easily. “Our focus is best described as developing intranet portals,” said vice-president for strategy and development, Ronald Weissman. “The business problem is that we’ve spent the last few years building a great IT infrastructure and ensuring everyone has connected their resources to the network. But are people able to find more information than they did before?” Users of Internet search engines will be familiar with the problem. You might want highly specific data on potential partner companies in the US. But search under general industry headings, and hundreds of thousands of potential matches may appear on screen. Verity’s system classifies text documents under a number of headings so that users can narrow down their search to the right areas. “With a corporate portal (the equivalent of Yahoo!, Alta Vista or Infoseek on the Web, but based on your corporate network), you can search, browse, subscribe to concepts so that new documents will be delivered automatically,” Weissman explained. “Executives need to be able to access business intelligence on their competitors, their own financial data, company and departmental news, all of which in fact already exist in one place.” One of the key elements of these systems is agent technology. Agents are basically programmes which learn what types of information and documents you like to see and alert you when new ones are added to the system. Equally, summarising software can lessen the burden of ploughing through huge documents by “intelligently” looking for key words and concepts and delivering extracts and precis versions of the original. “The number one issue for financial directors is what have they got for all this investment in networked computer systems and an intranet?” said Weissman. “Can you find all of your information in one place, or do you have to go to 20 different places? Do you have an interface on top of this intranet that makes it simple to find? And are you linking your intranet to the mission critical initiatives of the company? If you can answer yes to any of those questions, you’re way ahead of the game.”

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