Bricks and Mortar Hidden by Cyberspace
Cyberspace is not a universe unto itself. For businesses, cyberspace is intimately connected to the real world. Most of the time, these connections are beneficial. Sometimes they are not.
The other day, I encountered two examples of a disconnect between physical reality and that reality as portrayed by two corporate web sites. For various reasons, I needed to visit branches of two unrelated organizations: a top 10 bank and a well-known international distributor. In neither case did the firm's www site acknowledge the existence of the branch location. Both branches are intended for their main customer base, the bank branch in an active local business district, the distributor's storefront on a major secondary road. When I spoke with the officers at the bank branch later that day, I was told that I was not the first person to report the lack of a listing, but them manager's requests to corporate for a correction had not borne fruit.
This is a shocking example of an IT governance issue: the validity of the data on the firm's web site. In both cases, the locations have been with the company for years, possibly predating mass web usage. The governance issue is not that the error exists. Errors themselves are unsurprising and inevitable. In both cases, there is either no effective method to correct the incorrect data, or that no one has noticed the incorrect data. The lack of an effective method of correcting the error transforms the mundane technical IT error into a governance question.
However, the governance question is not the only question. It is clear that there is no automated process connecting the list of corporate locations (and their managers) to the process used for building the data provided by the www site.
The Internet is generally considered to have become a mass public vehicle in the mid-1990's. As the Internet era dawned (February 1996), I spoke at The Conference Board's Commerce in Cyberspace conference. My presentation, Plain Talk Management Needs to Hear from Its Technical Support Staff noted that in the online world, a firm's www site is its face to the world and its customers. With the proliferation of connected devices, all feeding on information retrieved from web sites, what was true then is only more vital now. If a business location is not listed in the corporate web site's list of locations, it is effectively boarded up to many customers. The reality that is bricks and mortar on the street, with bright awnings and signage is irrelevant. Many customers will never get close enough to see the reality. They will only see the reality on the “Locate branch” page, which shows no location within a mile.
Neither branch was a backwater in a small town far from a commercial center. The bank branch in question has been located about one block from the terminus of the IRT #7 line at Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street in Flushing for many years. While downtown Flushing is not Manhattan, it is an active commercial district. In the three blocks surrounding Main and Roosevelt, there are branches belonging to about a dozen different banks, including at least six major banks.
The distributor's location is also somewhat prominently located on a major thoroughfare.
Both locations are quite public, with bright, attractive signage signaling their corporate affiliation.
Admittedly, this is a difficult solution. In a large sprawling corporate enterprise, there are many hundreds of branches. Keeping up to date on which office has been relocated is a challenge. However, so is keeping the landlord paid, the lights on, and the other myriad services needed to sustain a location.
A straightforward solution for identifying the errors is an internal version of crowd sourcing. First establish an error correction mechanism that works correctly. Then, have the person closest to the impact of the incorrect information verify the accuracy of the information on a regular basis and report any discrepancies to a dedicated addressee.
A simple query to the Branch locator with a nearby address takes mere seconds, and instantly allows verification that location, telephone numbers, hours, and other information is accurate and up to date. Like the proverbial cop on the beat, the branch manager is the person closest to the problem, and best positioned to identify and report erroneous information. IT is responsible for ensuring that the errors reported are promptly corrected in the information on the corporate site.
On the IT side, the technical aspect of the problem is resolved by automating the process, removing the hazard of maintaining multiple parallel copies of information. An automatic process, compiling the list of branches from the definitive data, will be correct. This approach is a version of our Semi-Dynamic WWW Site technology demonstrator to ensure that data is continually updated from a definitive source. I described this approach at the 2009 Trenton Computer Festival Professional Conference in Web Efficiency: Using XHTML, CSS, and Server-side to Maximize Efficiency.
The IT Governance issue consists of ensuring that governance works as intended, with communication paths enabling proper reporting and that the process for corrections works as intended.
As I noted in 1996, a firm's www site is its public face. If there is incorrect information on the www site, the firm is damaged.
|||Robert Gezelter “Plain Talk Management Needs to Hear from Its Technical Support Staff”, Presented at Commerce in Cyberspace: Expanding Your Enterprise via the Internet, February 6, 1996|
|||Ibid. “Semi-Dynamic WWW Sites”|
|||“Web Efficiency: Using XHTML, CSS, and Server-side to Maximize Efficiency”|