Census and Sensibility

Census and Sensibility

There's gold in them thar demographics

It was undoubtedly the year's biggest IT project, utilizing 30,000 casual and full-time workers to pull it together. Nine million forms were gathered, all of which need to be data entered. Not a single Australian reader of this magazine could have escaped it. Yet I wonder just how many of these same readers, when they grumbled about the number of questions on their census form, stopped to think how their organizations could utilize the goldmine of demographic data that was being captured.

Commercial organizations wanting to increase sales in demographics as diverse as single women aged 21 to 35; retirees over 55; families on incomes over $100,000; regular Internet users or ethnic communities, like the Chinese or South Africans, could discover where the greatest concentrations of these people are within Australia. The information would help with marketing questions such as where to locate offices and shops, how best to structure sales channels and better understand where to advertise.

Yet I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of IS departments actively geared up to utilize the census data. This is despite the reams and reams of paper that this industry has devoted in that time frame to topics like business intelligence systems, executive dashboards and data warehouses. In fact, Gartner forecast that business intelligence would be the number one technology priority for CIOs this year. Unfortunately, as I have learned all too well in my 25 years in it, we may well call this industry information technology but the focus of the practitioners is nearly always on the technology part of that description.

I strongly believe that we have to stop looking for miracle technology cures if this industry is ever going to capture the executive respect for IT that so many industry practitioners crave. If we are to achieve this respect then the answer to every problem cannot be technology. We must think laterally how we can help the executive meet their top priorities. Research from the Conference Board shows that three of the top 10 challenges identified by CEOs this year are to do with better serving customers. This includes growing profits, improving speed to market and enhancing customer loyalty and retention. Surely many CIOs can see ways that the census data might provide opportunities to help with these tasks.

A few years ago one CIO beautifully illustrated this point to me. His organization managed advertising billboards, and one of the regular questions the sales staff encountered was how well could the use of this advertising medium help marketers reach their desired demographics. The CIO's idea was to chart the site of the company billboards into a geographic information system (GIS) and to overlay the census data on top of this. The result was the company sales staff could then pinpoint the population make-up in the vicinity of each billboard. However, the CIO did not sell his executive on GIS. Instead he sold them on the advantages of harnessing the census.

CIOs have to understand the questions for which the business needs answers and then look for ways to satisfy that need. These answers can come from both internal and external data sources. However, the beauty of the census is that it is local, comprehensive and current so I would be surprised if it did not provide some valid insights for these executive questions. All it needs is someone to think how it can be done and that, in my mind, is the task of someone who, after all, is the chief information officer of the business.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years

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