Showing posts with label CRM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CRM. Show all posts

Friday, December 27, 2019

Healthcare Providers Define New Ways to Elevate and Improve the Digital Patient Experience

Transcript of a discussion on how a new culture and heightened focus on the total patient experience, including financial considerations, can be assisted by improved digital technology in healthcare.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: HealthPay24.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect. Our next healthcare insights discussion explores ways to improve the total patient experience -- including financial considerations -- using digital technology.

To learn more about ways that healthcare providers are seeking to leverage such concepts as customer relationship management (CRM) to improve their services we are joined by Laura Semlies, Vice President of Digital Patient Experience, at Northwell Health in metro New York; Julie Gerdeman, CEO at HealthPay24 in Mechanicsburg, Penn., and Jennifer Erler, Cash Manager in the Treasury Department at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis. Welcome to you all.

Laura, digital patient experiences have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. It’s not just technology, though. What are the major components needed for improved digital patient experience?

Laura Semlies: Digital, at the end of the day, is all about knowing who our patients are, understanding what they find valuable, and how they are going to best use tools and assets. For us the primary thing is to figure out where the points of friction are and how digital then has the capability to help solve that.

If you continuously gain knowledge and understanding of where you have an opportunity to provide value and deliberately attack each one of those functions and experiences, that’s how we are going to get the best value out of digital over time.

So for us that was around knowing the patient in every moment of interaction, and how to give them better tools to access our health system -- from an appointments’ perspective, to drive down the redundant data collection, and give them the ability to both pay their bills online and to not be surprised when they get their bill and the amount. Those are the things that we focused on, because they were the highest points of friction and value as articulated by our patients.

Where we go next is up to the patients. Frankly, the providers who are struggling with the technology between them and their patients [also struggle] in the relationship itself.

Partner with IT to provide best care

Gardner: Jennie, the financial aspects of a patient’s experience are very important. We have separate systems for financial and experience. Should we increasingly be talking about both the financial and the overall care experience?

Jennie Erler: We should. Healthcare organizations have an opportunity to internally partner with IT. IT used to be an afterthought, but it’s coming to the forefront. IT resources are a huge need for us in healthcare to drive that total patient experience.

As Laura said, we have a lot of redundant data. How do we partner with IT in the best way possible where it benefits our customers’ experience? And how do they want that delivered? Looking at the industry today, I’m seeing Amazon and Walmart getting into the healthcare field.

As healthcare organizations, perhaps we didn’t invest heavily in IT, but I think we are trying to catch up now. We need to invest in the relationship with IT -- and all the other operational partners -- to deliver to the patients in the best way possible.

Gardner: Julie, doesn’t making technology better for the financial aspects of the patient experience also set the stage for creating an environment and the means to accomplish a total digital patient experience?

Julie Gerdeman: It does, Dana. We see the patient at the center of all those decisions. So put the patient at the center, and then engage with that patient in the way that they want to engage. The role that technology plays is to personalize digital engagement. There is an opportunity in the financial engagement of the patient to communicate; to communicate clearly, simply, so that they know what their obligation is -- and that they have options. Technology enables options, it enables communication, and that then elevates their experience. With the patient at the center, with technology enabling it, that takes it to a whole other level.

Learn to listen; listen to learn 

Semlies: At the end of the day, technology is about giving us the tools to be active listeners. Historically it has been one-directional. We have a transaction to perform and we go when we perform that transaction.

In the tomorrow-state, it becomes much more of a dialogue. The more we learn about an individual, and the more we learn about a behavior, the more we learn what was a truly positive experience -- or a negative experience. Then we can take those learnings and activate them in the right moments.
We just don't have the tools yet to actively listen and understand how to get to a higher level of personalization. Most of our investment is now going to figure out what we need to be actively listening.

It’s always impressive to me when something pops up on my Amazon cart as a recommendation. They know I want something before I even know I want something. What is the analogy in healthcare? It could be a service that I need and want, or a new option that would be attractive to me, that’s inherently personalized. We just don’t have the tools yet to actively listen and understand how to get to that level of personalization.

Most of our investment is now going to figure out what do we need so that we can be actively listening -- and actively talking in the right voice to both our providers and our patients to drive better experiences. Those are the things that other industries, in my opinion, have a leg up on us.

We can do the functions but connecting those functions and getting to where we can design and cultivate simple experiences that people love -- and drive loyalty and relationships – that’s the magic sauce.
Gain a Detailed Look at Patient
Financial Engagement Strategies
Gardner: It’s important to know what patients want to know, when they want to know it, and maybe even anticipate that across their experience. What’s the friction in the process right now? What prevents the ultimate patient experience, where you can anticipate their needs and do it in a way that makes them feel comfortable? That also might be a benefit to the payers and providers.

Erler: Historically, when we do patient surveys, we ask about the clinical experience. But maybe we are not asking patients the right questions to get to the bottom of it all. Maybe we are not being as intuitive as we could be with all the data we have in our systems.

It’s been a struggle from a treasury perspective. I have been asking, “Can we get a billing-related question on the survey?” That’s part of their experience, too, and it’s part of their wellness. Will they be stressing about what they owe on my bill and what it is going to cost them? We have to take another look at how we serve our patients.

We need to be more in-the-moment instead of after-the-fact. How was your visit and how can we fix it? How can we get that feedback right then and there when they are having that experience?

Gardner: It’s okay to talk about the finances as part of the overall care, isn’t it?

Erler: Right!

Healthy money, healthy mind 

Gerdeman: Yeah, absolutely. We recently conducted a study with more than 150 providers at HealthPay24. What we found is a negative billing-financial experience can completely negate the fabulous clinical experience from a healthcare provider. Really, it can leave such a bad impression.

To Jennie’s point, by asking questions -- not just around the clinical experience, but around the financial experience, and how things can be improved – allows patients to get back to their options and the flexibility is provided in a personalized way, based on who they are and what they need.

Semlies: The other component of this is that we are very organized around transactional interactions with patients, but when it comes to experience -- experience is relationship-based. Odds are you don’t have one bill coming to you, you have multiple bills coming to you, and they come to you with multiple formats, with multiple options to pay, with multiple options to help you with those bills. And that is very, very confusing, and that’s in one interaction with the healthcare system.

If you connect that to a patient who is dealing with something more chronic or more serious, they could have literally 20, 30, 40 or 100 bills coming in. That just creates such an exasperation for our patients -- and frustration.
Our path to solving this needs to be far less around single transactions and far broader. It demands that the healthcare systems think differently about how they approach these problems. Patients don’t experience one bill; they experience a series of bills. If we give them different support numbers, different tools, different options for each and every one of those, it will always be confusing – no matter how sophisticated the tool that you use to pay the bill is.

Gardner: So the idea is to make things simpler for the patient. But there is an awful lot of complexity behind the scenes in order to accomplish that. It’s fundamentally about data and sharing data. So let’s address those two issues, data and complexity. How do we overcome those to provide improved simplicity?

Erler: We have all the information we need on a claim that goes to the payer. The payer knows what they are going to pay us. How do we get more married-up with the payer so that we can create that better experience for our customers? How do we partner better with the payers to deliver that information to the patients?

How do we start to individualize our relationships with patients so we know how they are going to behave and how they are going to interact? How do we partner better with the payers to deliver information to the patients?
And then how do we start to individualize our relationships with patients so we know how they are going to behave and how they are going to interact?

I don’t know that patients are aware of the relationship that we as providers have with our payers, and how much we struggle just to get paid. The data is in the claim, the payer has the data, so why is it so difficult for us to do what we need with that data on the backend? We need to make that simpler for everybody involved.

Gardner: Julie … people, process, and technology. We have seen analogs to this in other industries. It is a difficult problem. What technologically and culturally do you think needs to happen in order for these improvements to take place?

Connect to reduce complexity 

Gerdeman: It’s under way and it’s happening. The generations and demographics are changing in our society and in our culture. As the younger generations become patients, they bring with them the expectation that data is at their fingertips and that technology enables their lives, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, because they have a whole other view.

Millennials, the younger generations, have a different perspective and expectations around wellness. There is a big shift happening -- not just care for being sick, but actual wellness to prevent illness. The technology needs to engage with that demographic in a new way and understanding.

Laura used the word connection. Connection and interoperability are truly how we address the complexity you referenced. Through that connection, the technology enables IT to be interoperable with all the different health systems hospitals use. That’s how we are going to solve it.

Gardner: We are also seeing in other industries an interesting relationship between self-help, or self-driven processes, and automation. They complement one another, if it’s done properly.

Do you see that as an opportunity in healthcare, where the digital experience gives the patient the opportunity to drive their own questions and answers, to find their own way should they choose? Is automation a way that makes an improved experience possible?
Gain a Detailed Look at Patient
Financial Engagement Strategies
Semlies: Absolutely. Self-help is one of the first things we first went live with using HealthPay24 technology. We knew the top 20 questions that patients were calling in about. We had lots of toolkits inside the organization, but we didn’t expose that information. It lived on our website somewhere, but it didn’t live in our website in a direct, easy to read, easy to understand way. It was written in our voice, not the patient’s voice, and it wasn’t exposed at the moment that a patient was actually making that transaction.

Part of the reason why we have seen such an increase in our online payments is because we posted literally, quite simply, frequently asked questions (FAQ) around this. Patients don’t want to call and wait 22 minutes to get an agent to hear them if they can self-serve themselves. And it’s really helped us a lot, and there is an analogy in that in lots of different places in the healthcare space.

Gardner: You need to have the right tools and capabilities internally to be able to satisfy the patient requirements. But the systems internally don’t always give you that single view of the patient, like what a customer relationship management (CRM) system does in other industries.

Would you like to have a complement to a CRM system in healthcare so that you have all the information that you need to interact properly?

Healthcare CRM as a way of life

Semlies: CRM is something that we didn’t talk about in healthcare previously. I very much believe that CRM is as much about an ethos and a philosophy as it is about a system. I don’t believe it is exclusively a system. I think it’s a way of life, an understanding of what the patient needs. You can have the information at your fingertips in the moment that you need it and be able to share that.

I think we’re evolving. We want to be customer-obsessed, but there is a big difference between wanting to be customer-obsessed and actually being customer-obsessed.

The other challenge is there are some inherent conflicts when you start talking about customer obsession and what other stakeholders inside the health system want to do with their patients, but it can be really hard to deliver. When a patient wants a real-time answer to something and your service level agreement (SLA) is a day, you can’t meet their expectation.
We're evolving. We want to be customer-obsessed, but there is a big difference between wanting to be cusomter-obsessed and actually being customer-obsessed. It can be really hard to deliver.

And so how do you rethink your scope of service? How do you rethink the way you provide information to individuals? How do you rethink providing self-help opportunities so they can get what they need? Getting to that place starts with understanding the customer and understanding what their expectations are. The you can start delivering to them in the way the patients expect us to.

Erler: Within our organization, there’s an internal cultural shift to start thinking about a patient as being a customer. There was a feeling of insensitivity around calling a patient a customer or treating this more as consumerism, but that’s what it’s becoming.

As that culture shifts and we think more about consumerism and CRM, it’s going to enhance the patients’ experience. But we have to think about it differently because there’s the risk when you say “consumerism” that it’s all about the money, and that all we care about is money. That’s not what it is. It’s a component, but it’s about the full patient experience. CRM tools are going to be crucial for us in order to get to that next level.

Gardner: Again, Julie, it seems to me that if you can solve this on the financial side of things, you’ve set up the opportunity -- a platform approach, and even a culture - to take on the larger digital experience of the patient. How close are we on the financial side when it comes to a single view approach?

Data to predict patient behavior, experience 

Gerdeman: From a financial perspective, we are down that path. We have definitely made strides in achieving technology and digital access for financial. That is just one component of a broader technology ecosystem that will have a bigger return on investment (ROI) for providers. That ROI then impacts revenue cycles, not just the backend financials but all the way to the post-experience for a patient. I believe financial is one component, and technology is an enabler.

One of the things that we’re really passionate about at HealthPay24 is the predictive capability of understanding the patient. And what I mean by that is the predictive analytics and the data that you already have -- potentially in a CRM, maybe not – can be an indicator of patient behavior and what could be provided. And that will further drive in ROI by using predictive capabilities, better results, and ultimately a much better patient experience.

Gardner: On this question of ROI, Laura, how do you at Northwell make the argument of making investments and getting recurring payoffs? How do you create a virtuous adoption cycle benefit?
Gain a Detailed Look at Patient
Financial Engagement Strategies
Semlies: We first started our digital patient experience improvements about 18 months ago, and that was probably late compared to some of our competitors, and certainly compared to other industries.

But part of the reason we did was because we knew that within the next 2 to 3 years, patients were going to bring their expectations from other industries to healthcare. We knew that that was going to happen. In a competitive market like New York, where I live and work, if we didn’t start to evolve and build sophisticated advanced experiences from a digital perspective, we would not have that differentiation and we would lose to competitors who had focused on that.

The hard part for the industry right now is that in healthcare, relationships with a provider and a patient are not enough anymore. We have to focus on the total experience. That was the first driver, but we also have to be cognizant of what we take in from a reimbursement perspective and what we put out in terms of investment and innovation.

The question of ROI is important. Where does the investment come from? It doesn’t come from digital itself. But it does come from the opportunities that digital creates for us. That can be from the access tools that create the capacity to invite patients that wouldn’t ordinarily have selected Northwell to become new patients. It can mean in-house patients who previously didn’t choose Northwell for their follow-up care and make it easy for them to do so and then we retain them.

The questions of ROI is important. Where does the investment come from? It doesn't come from digital itself. It comes from the opportunities that digital creates for us. We have actually increased collections and decreased bad debts.
It means avoiding leakage into the payment space when we get to things like accelerating cash because it’s easy. You just click a button at the point of getting a bill and pay the bill. Now I have accelerated the cashflow. Maybe we can help pay more than one bill at a time, whereas previously they maybe didn’t even understand why there was more than one bill. So we have actually increased collections and decreased bad debts.

Those are the functions that we are going to see ROI in, not digital itself. And so, the conversation is a tricky one because I run the service line of digital and I have to partner with every one of my business associates and leaders to make sure that they are accounting for and helping give credit to the applications and the tools that we’re building so the ROI and the investment can continue. And so, it makes the conversation a little bit harder, but it certainly has to be there.

Gardner: Let’s take a look to the future. When you have set up the digital systems, have that adoption cycle, and can produce ROI appreciation, you are also setting the stage for having a lot more data to look at, to analyze, and to reapply those insights back into those earlier investments and processes.

What does the future hold and what would you like to see things like analytics provide?

Erler: From a treasury perspective, just taking out how cumbersome it is on the back end to handle all these different payment channels [would be an improvement]. If we could marry all of these systems together on the back end and deliver that to the patient to collect one payment and automate that process – then we are going to see an ROI no matter what.

When it comes to the digital experience, we can make something look really great on the front end, but the key is not burdening our resources on the back end and to make that a true digital experience.

Then we can give customer service to our patients and the tools that they need to get to that data right away. Having all that data in one place and being able to do those analytics [are key]. Right now, we have all these different merchant accounts. How do you pull all of that together and look at the span and how much you are collecting and what your revenue is? It’s virtually impossible now to pull all that together in one place on the back end.

Gardner: Julie, data and analytics are driving more of the strategic thinking about how to do IT systems. Where do you see it going? What will be some of the earlier payoffs from doing analytics properly in a healthcare payer-provider environment?

The analytics advantage 

Gerdeman: We are just starting to do this with several of our customers, where we are taking data and analyzing the financials. That can be from the discount programs they are currently offering patients, or for the payment plans they’re tying to collection results.  We’re looking at the demographics behind each of those, and how it could be shifted in a way that they are able to collect more while providing a better experience.

Our vision is this: The provider knows the patient so well that in anticipation they are getting the financial offer that best supports their needs. I think we are in such an interesting time right now in healthcare. What happens now when I take my children to a doctor’s appointment is going to look and feel so different when they take their children to an appointment.
We are seeing just the beginnings of the text reminders, the digital engagement, you have an appointment, have you thought about this? They will be walking around and it’s going to be so incorporated in their lives -- like Instagram that they are on all the time.

I can’t wait to see when they are taking their children -- or not, right? Maybe they are going to be doing things much more virtually and digitally than we are with our own children. To me there will be broad cultural changes from how more data will be enabling us. It is very exciting.

Gardner: Laura, where do you see the digital experience potential going for healthcare?

Automation assists prevention 

Semlies: Automation is key to the functions that we do. We expend energy in people and resources that we could be using automation for. Data is key to helping us pick the right things to automate. The second is anticipation and being able to understand where the patient is and what the next step should be. Being able to predict and personalize is the next step. Data is obviously a critical component that’s going to help you do that.
Gain a Detailed Look at Patient
Financial Engagement Strategies
The last piece is that prevention over time is going to be the name of the game. Healthcare will look very different tomorrow than today. You will see new models pop up that are very much moving the needle in terms of how we collect information about a person, what’s going on inside of their body, and then being able to predict what is going to happen next.

We will be able to take action to avert or prevent things from happening. Our entire model of how we treat wellness is going to shift. What primary care looks like is going to be different, and analytics is at the core of all of that -- whether you’re talking about it from an artificial intelligence (AI) perspective, it’s all the same thing.

Our entire model of how we treat wellness is going to shift. What primary care looks like is going to be different, and analytics is at the core of all of that. But most doctors aren't getting that kind of information today because we don't have a great way of sharing patient-generated health data yet.
Did you get the data on the right thing to measure? Are you looking at it? Do you have the tools to be able to signal when something is going off? And is that signal in the right voice to the person who needs to consume that? Is it at the right time so that you can actually avert it?

When I use my Fitbit, it understands that my heart rate is up. It’s anticipating that it’s because I’m exercising. It asks me that, and it asks me in a voice that I understand and I can respond to.

But most doctors aren’t getting that same kind of information today because we don’t have a great way of sharing patient-generated health data yet. It just comes in as a lot of noise. So how do we take all of that data?

We need to package it and bring it to the right person at the right moment and in the right voice. Then it can be used to make things preventable. It can actually drive an outcome. That to me is the magic of where we can go. We are not there yet, but I think that’s where we have to go.

Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect healthcare strategies discussion exploring ways to improve the total patient experience, including financial considerations, using digital technology.

And we have learned about ways that leading healthcare providers are leveraging such concepts as CRM and advanced data analytics to both improve their services to patients and their returns on technology investments

Please join me in thanking our guests, Laura Semlies, Vice President of Digital Patient Experience at Northwell Health in metro New York; Julie Gerdeman, CEO at HealthPay24 in Mechanicsburg, Penn., and Jennie Erler, Cash Manager in the Treasury Department at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis.

And a big thank you to our audience as well for joining this HealthPay24-sponsored healthcare thought leadership discussion. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator. Thanks again for listening, and do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: HealthPay24.

Transcript of a discussion on how a new culture and heightened focus on the total patient experience, including financial considerations, can be assisted by improved digital technology in healthcare. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2019. All rights reserved.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Agnostic Tool Chain Approach Proves Key to Fixing Broken State of Data and Information Management

Transcript of a BriefingsDirect podcast on how Dell Software is working with companies to manage internal and external data in all its forms.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Dell Software.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you're listening to BriefingsDirect.

Today, we present a sponsored podcast discussion on better understanding the biggest challenges businesses need to solve when it comes to data and information management.

We'll examine how a data dichotomy has changed the face of information management. This dichotomy means that organizations, both large and small, not only need to manage all of their internal data that provides intelligence about their businesses, but they also need to manage the reams of increasingly external big data that enables them to discover new customers and drive new revenue.

Lastly, our discussion will focus on bringing new levels of automation and precision to the task of solving data complexity by embracing an agnostic, end-to-end tool chain approach to overall data and information management.

Here now to share his insights on where the information management market has been and where it's going, we're joined by Matt Wolken, Executive Director and General Manager for Information Management at Dell Software. Welcome, Matt. [Disclosure: Dell Software is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

Matt Wolken: Dana, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Gardner: From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges that businesses need to solve now when it comes to data and information management? What are the big hurdles that they're facing?

Wolken: It's an interesting question. When we look at customers today, we're noticing how their environments have significantly changed from maybe 10 or 15 years ago.

About 10 or 15 years ago, the problem was that data was sitting in individual databases around the company, either in a database on the backside of an application, the customer relationship management (CRM) application, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, or in data marts around the company. The challenge was how to bring all this together to create a single cohesive view of the company?

That was yesterday's problem, and the answer was technology. The technology was a single, large data warehouse. All of the data was moved to it, and you then queried that larger data warehouse where all of the data was for a complete answer about your company.

What we're seeing now is that there are many complexities that have been added to that situation over time. We have different vendor silos with different technologies in them. We have different data types, as the technology industry overall has learned to capture new and different types of data -- textual data, semi-structured data, and unstructured data -- all in addition to the already existing relational data. Now, you have this proliferation of other data types and therefore other databases.

The other thing that we notice is that a lot of data isn't on premise any more. It's not even owned by the company. It's at your software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider for CRM, your SaaS provider for ERP, or your travel or human resources (HR) provider. So data again becomes siloed, not only by vendor and data type, but also by location. This is the complexity of today, as we notice it.

Cohesive view

All of this data is spread about, and the challenge becomes how do you understand and otherwise consume that data or create a cohesive view of your company? Then there is still the additional social data in the form of Twitter or Facebook information that you wouldn't have had in prior years. And it's that environment, and the complexity that comes with it, that we really would like to help customers solve.

Gardner: When it comes to this so-called data dichotomy, is it oversimplified to say it's internal and external, or is there perhaps a better way to categorize these larger sets that organizations need to deal with?

Wolken: There's been a critical change in the way companies go about using data, and you brought it out a little bit in the intro. There are some people who want to use data for an outcome-based result. This is generally what I would call the line-of-business concern, where the challenge with data is how do I derive more revenue out of the data source that I am looking at?

What's the business benefit for me examining this data? Is there a new segment I can codify and therefore market to? Is there a campaign that's currently running that is not getting a good response rate, and if so, do I want to switch to another campaign or otherwise improve it midstream to drive more real value in terms of revenue to the company?

That’s the more modern aspect of it. All of the prior activities inside business intelligence (BI) -- let’s flip those words around and say intelligence about the business -- was really internally focused. How do I get sanctioned data off of approved systems to understand the official company point of view in terms of operations?
How do I go out and use data to derive a better outcome for my business?

That second goal is not a bad goal. That's still a goal that's needed, and IT is still required to create that sanctioned data, that master data, and the approved, official sources of data. But there is this other piece of data, this other outcome that's being warranted by the line of business, which is, how do I go out and use data to derive a better outcome for my business? That's more operationally revenue-oriented, whereas the internal operations are around cost orientation and operations.

So where you get executive dashboards for internal consumption off of BI or intelligence for the business, the business units themselves are about visualization, exploration, and understanding and driving new insights.

It's a change in both focus and direction. It sometimes ends up in a conflict between the groups, but it doesn't really have to be that way. At least, we don't think it does. That's something that we try to help people through. How do you get the sanctioned data you need, but also bring in this third-party data and unstructured data and add nuance to what you are seeing about your company.

Gardner: Just as 10 or 15 years ago the problem to solve was the silos of data within the organization, is there any way in traditional technology offerings that allows this dichotomy to be joined now, or do we need a different way in which to create insights, using both that internal and external type of information?

Wolken: There are certainly ways to get to anything. But if you're still amending program after program or technology after technology, you end up with something less than the best path, and there might be new and better ways of doing things.

Agnostic tool chain

There are lots of ways to take a data warehouse forward in today's environment, manipulate other forms of data so it can enter a data warehouse or relational data warehouse, and/or go the other way and put everything into an unstructured environment, but there's also another way to approach things, and that’s with an agnostic tool chain.

Tools have existed in the traditional sense for a long time. Generally, a tool is utilized to hide complexity and all of the issues underneath the tool itself. The tool has intelligence to comprehend all of the challenges below it, but it really abstracts that from the user.

We think that instead of buying three or four database types, a structured database, something that can handle text, a solution that handles semi-structured or structured, or even a high performance analytical engine for that matter, what if the tool chain abstracts much of that complexity? This means the tools that you use every day can comprehend any database type, data structure type, or any vendor changes or nuances between platforms.

That's the strategy we’re pursuing at Dell. We’re defining a set of tools, not the underlying technologies or proliferation of technologies, but the tools themselves, so that the day-to-day operations are hidden from the complexity of those underlying sources of vendor, data type, and location.
We’re looking to enable customers to leverage those technologies for a smoother, more efficient, and more effective operation.

That's how we really came at it -- from a tool-chain perspective, as opposed to deploying additional technologies. We’re looking to enable customers to leverage those technologies for a smoother, more efficient, and more effective operation.

Gardner: Am I right then in understanding that this is at more of a meta level, above the underlying technologies, but that, in a sense, makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts of those technologies?

Wolken: That’s a fair way of looking at it. Let's just take data integration as a point. I can sometimes go after certain siloed data integration products. I can go after a data product that goes after cloud resources. I can get a data product that only goes after relational. I can get another data product to extract or load into Hive or Hadoop. But what if I had one that could do all of that? Rather than buying separate ones for the separate use cases, what if you just had one?

Metadata, in one way, is a descriptor language, if I use it in that sense. Can I otherwise just see and describe everything below it, or can I actually manipulate it as well? So in that sense, it's a real tool to actually manipulate and cause the effective change in the environment.

Gardner: I'd like to go into more of the challenges, but before we do that, what are the stakes here? What do you get if you do this right? If you can, in fact, manage across various technology types and formats, across relational and unstructured data, internal and external data sources and providers.

Are we talking iterative change, a step change, or is it something that is a bit larger and that we might have some other examples of companies when they do this well can really demonstrate something perhaps quite unique in terms of a new level of accomplishment?

Institutional knowledge

Wolken: There are a couple of ways we think about it, one of which is institutional knowledge. Previously, if you brought in a new tool into your environment to examine a new database type, you would probably hire a person from the outside, because you needed to find that skill set already in the market in order to make you productive on day one.

Instead of applying somebody who knows the organization, the data, the functions of the business, you would probably hire the new person from the outside. That's generally retooling your organization.

Or, if you switch vendors, that causes a shift as well. One primary vendor stack is probably a knowledge and domain of one of your employees, and if you switch to another vendor stack or require another vendor stack in your environment, you're probably going to have to retool yet again and find new resources. So that's one aspect of human knowledge and intelligence about the business.

There is a value to sharing. It's a lot harder to share across vendor environments and data environments if the tools can't bridge them. In that case, you have to have third-party ways to bridge those gaps between the tools. If you have sharing that occurs natively in the tool, then you don't have to cross that bridge, you don't have the delay, and you don't have the complexity to get there.

So there is a methodology within the way you run the environment and the way employees collaborate that is also accelerated. We also think that training is something that can benefit from this agnostic approach.
You're reaching across domains and you're not as effective as you would be if you could do that all with one tool chain.

But also, generically, if you're using the same tools, then things like master data management (MDM) challenges become more comprehensive, if the tool chain understands where that MDM is coming from, and so on.

You also codify how and where resources are shared. So if you have a person who has to provision data for an analyst, and they are using one tool to reach to relational data, another to reach into another type of data, or a third-party tool to reach into properties and SaaS environments, then you have an ineffective process.

You're reaching across domains and you're not as effective as you would be if you could do that all with one tool chain.

So those are some of the high-level ideas. That's why we think there's value there. If you go back to what would have existed maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you had one set of staff who used one set of tools to go back against all relational data. It was a construct that worked well then. We just think it needs to be updated to account for the variance within the nuances that have come to the fore as the technology has progressed and brought about new types of technology and databases.

Gardner: As for business benefits, we hear a lot about businesses being increasingly data driven and information driven, rather than a hunch, intuition, or gut instinct. Also, there's an ability to find new customers in much more cost-effective ways, taking advantage of the social networks, for example. So when you do this well, what are typically some of the business paybacks, and do they outweigh the cost more than previous investments in data would have?

Investment cycles

Wolken: It all depends on how you go about it. There are lots of stories about people who go on these long investment cycles into some massive information management strategy change without feeling like they got anything out of it, or at least were productive or paid back the fee.

There's a different strategy that we think can be more effective for organizations, which is to pursue smaller, bite-size chunks of objective action that you know will deliver some concrete benefit to the company. So rather than doing large schemes, start with smaller projects and pursue them one at a time incrementally -- projects that last a week and then you have 52 projects that you know derive a certain value in a given time period.

Other things we encourage organizations to do deal directly with how you can use data to increase competitiveness. For starters, can you see nuances in the data? Is there a tool that gives you the capability to see something you couldn't see before? So that's more of an analytical or discovery capability.

There's also a capability to just manage a given data type. If I can see the data, I can take advantage of it. If I can operate that way, I can take advantage of it.

Another thing to think about is what I would call a feedback mechanism, or the time or duration of observation to action. In this case, I'll talk about social sentiment for a moment. If you can create systems that can listen to how your brand is being talked about, how your product is being talked about in the environment of social commentary, then the feedback that you're getting can occur in real time, as the comments are being posted.
There's a feedback mechanism increase that also can then benefit from handling data in a modern way or using more modern resources to get that feedback.

Now, you might think you'll get that anyway. I would have gotten a letter from a customer two weeks from now in the postal system that provided me that same feedback. That’s true, but sometimes that two weeks can be a real benefit.

Imagine a marketing campaign that's currently running in the East, with a companion program in the West that's slightly different. Let's say it's a two-week program. It would be nice if, during the first week, you could be listening to social media and find out that the campaign in the West is not performing as well as the one in the East, and then change your investment thesis around the program -- cancel the one that's not performing well and double down on the one that's performing well.

There's a feedback mechanism increase that also can then benefit from handling data in a modern way or using more modern resources to get that feedback. When I say modern resources, generally that's pointing towards unstructured data types or textual data types. Again, if you can comprehend and understand those within your overall information management status, you now also have a feedback mechanism that should increase your responsiveness and therefore make your business more competitive as well.

Gardner: I think the whole concept of the immediacy to feedback, applied across various aspects of business -- planning, production, marketing, go-to market, research, and to uses -- then that's been the Holy Grail of business for a long time. It's just been very difficult to do. Now, we seem to be getting closer to the ability to do it at scale and at reasonable cost. So, these are very interesting times.

Now, given that these payoffs could be so substantial, what's preventing people from getting to this Holy Grail? What's between them and the realization?

It's the complexity

Wolken: I think it's complexity of the environment. If you only had relational systems inside your company previously, now you have to go out and understand all of the various systems you can buy, qualify those systems, get pure feedback, have some proofs of concept (POCs) in development, come in and set all these systems up, and that just takes a little bit of time. So the more complexity you invite into your environment, the more challenges you have to deal with.

After that, you have to operate and run it every day. That's the part where we think the tool chain can help. But as far as understanding the environment, having someone who can help you walk through the choices and solutions and come up with one that is best suited to your needs, that’s where we think we can come in as a vendor and add lots of value.

When we go in as a vendor, we look at the customer environment as it was, compare that to what it is today, and work to figure out where the best areas of collaboration can be, where tools can add the most value, and then figure out how and where can we add the most benefit to the user.

What systems are effective? What systems collaborate well? That's something that we have tried to emulate, at least in the tool space. How do you get to an answer? How do you drive there? Those are the questions we’re focused on helping customers answers.

For example, if you've never had a data warehouse before, and you are in that stage, then creating your first one is kind of daunting, both from a price perspective, as well as complexity perspective or know-how. The same thing can occur on really any aspect -- textual data, unstructured data, or social sentiment.
Those are some of the major challenges -- complexity, cost, knowledge, and know-how.

Each one of those can appear daunting if you don't have a skill set, or don't have somebody walking you through that process who has done it before. Otherwise, it's trying to put your hands on every bit of data and consume what you can and learning through that process.

Those are some of the things that are really challenging, especially if you're a smaller firm that has a limited number of staff and there's this new demand from the line of business, because they want to go off in a different direction and have more understanding that they couldn't get out of existing systems.

How do you go out and attain that knowledge without duplicating the team, finding new vendor tools, and adding complexity to your environment, maybe even adding additional data sources, and therefore more data-storage requirements. Those are some of the major challenges -- complexity, cost, knowledge, and know-how.

Gardner: It's interesting that you mentioned mid-market organizations. Some of these infrastructure and data investments were perhaps completely out of their reach until a new way to approach the problems through the tool chain, through cloud, through other services and on-demand offerings.

What is it now about the new approach to these problems that you think allows the fruits of this to be distributed more down market? Why are mid-market organizations now more able to avail themselves of some of these values and benefits than in the past?

Mid-market skills

Wolken: As the products are well-known, there is more trained staff that understands the more common technologies. There are more codified ways of doing things that a business can take advantage of, because there's a large skill set, and most of the employees may already have that skill set as you bring them into the company.

There are also some advantages just in the way technologies have advanced over the years. Storage used to be very expensive, and then it got a little cheaper. Then solid-state drives (SSD) came along and then that got cheaper as well. There are some price point advantages in the coming years, as well.

Dell overall has maintained the status that we started with when Michael Dell started recreating PCs in his dorm room from standard product components to bring the price down. That model of making technology attainable to larger numbers of people has continued throughout Dell’s history, and we’re continuing it now with our information management software business.

We’re constantly thinking about how we can reduce cost and complexity for our customers. One example would be what we call Quickstart Data Warehouse. It was designed to democratize data to a lower price point, to bring the price and complexity down to a much lower space, so that more people can afford and have their first data warehouse.

We worked with our partner Microsoft, as well as Dell’s own engineering team, and then we qualified the box, the hardware, and the systems to work to the highest peak performance. Then, we scripted an upfront install mechanism that allows the process to be up and running in 45 minutes with little more than directing a couple of IP addresses. You plug the box in, and it comes up in 45 minutes, without you having to have knowledge about how to stand up, integrate, and qualify hardware and software together for an outcome we call a data warehouse.
We're trying to hit all of the steps, and the associated costs -- time and/or personnel costs – and remove them as much as we can.

Another thing we did was include Boomi, which is a connector to automatically go out and connect to the data sources that you have. It's the mechanism by which you bring data into it. And lastly, we included services, in case there were any other questions or problems you had to set it up.

If you have a limited staff, and if you have to go out and qualify new resources and things you don't understand, and then set them up and then actually run them, that’s a major challenge. We're trying to hit all of the steps, and the associated costs -- time and/or personnel costs – and remove them as much as we can.

It's one way vendors like Dell are moving to democratize business intelligence a little further, bring it to a lower price point than customers are accustomed too and making it more available to firms that either didn’t have that luxury of that expertise link sitting around the office, or who found that the price point was a little too high.

Gardner: You mentioned this concept of the tool chain several times. I'd like to hear a bit more about why that approach works, and even more detail about what I understand to be important elements of it -- being agnostic to the data type, holistic management, complete view, and then of course integrate it.

In addition to the package, it sounds from your earlier comments that you want to be able to approach these daunting issues iteratively, so that you can bite off certain chunks. What is it about the tool chain that accomplishes both a comprehensive value, but also allows it to be adopted on a fairly manageable path, rather than all at once?

Wolken: One of the things we find advantageous about entering the market at this point in time is that we're able to look at history, observe how other people have done things over time, and then invest in the market with the realization that maybe something has changed here and maybe a new approach is needed.

Different point of view

Whereas the industry has typically gone down the path of each new technology or advancement of technology requires a new tool, a new product, or a new technology solution, we’ve been able to stand back and see the need for a different approach. We just have a different point of view, which is that an agnostic tool chain can enable organizations to do more.

So when we look at database tools, as an example, we would want a tool that works against all database types, as opposed to one that works against only a single vendor or type of data.

The other thing that we look at is if you walk into an average company today, there are already a lot of things laying around the business. A lot of investment has already been made.

We wanted to be able to snap in and work with all of the existing tools. So, each of the tools that we’ve acquired, or have created inside the company, were made to step into an existing environment, recognize that there were other products already in the environment, and recognize that they probably came from a different vendor or work on a different data type.

That’s core to our strategy. We recognize that people were already facing complexity before we even came into the picture, so we’re focused on figuring out how we snap into what they already have in place, as opposed to a rip-and-replace strategy or a platform strategy that requires all of the components to be replaced or removed in order for the new platform to take its place.
We’ve also assembled a tool chain in which the entirety of the chain delivers value as a whole.

What that means is tools should be agnostic, and they should be able to snap into an environment and work with other tools. Each one of the products in the tool chain we’ve assembled was designed from that point of view.

But beyond that, we’ve also assembled a tool chain in which the entirety of the chain delivers value as a whole. We think that every point where you have agnosticism or every point where you have a tool that can abstract that lower amount of complexity, you have savings.

You have a benefit, whether it’s cost savings, employee productivity, or efficiency, or the ability to keep sanctioned data and a set of tools and systems that comprehend it. The idea being that the entirety of the tool chain provides you with advantages above and beyond what the individual components bring.

Now, we're perfectly happy to help a customer at any point where they have difficultly and any point where our tools can help them, whether it's at the hardware layer, from the traditional Dell way, at the application layer, considering a data warehouse or otherwise, or at the tool layer. But we feel that as more and more of the portfolio – the tool chain – is consumed, more and more efficiency is enabled.

Gardner: It sounds as if rather than look at the ecosystem that’s in place in an organization as a detriment, you're trying to make that into an asset, and then even looking further to new products available to bring that in. So I guess partnering becomes important.

Already-made investment

Wolken: Everything is an already-made investment in the company. If the premise to rip and replace is from the get-go, then you're really removing the institutional knowledge, the training of the staff, and the investment into the product, not to mention maybe the integration work. That's not something we wanted to start out with. We wanted to recognize and leverage what was there and provide value to that already existing environment.

One of the core values that we were looking at from a design point is how do you fit into an environment and how do you add value to it, not how do you cause replacement or destruction of an existing environment in order to provide benefit.

Gardner: We have been talking about the tool chain in terms of its value for analytics and intelligence about the business and bringing in more types of data and information from external sources.

It also sounds to me as if this sets you up for a lifecycle benefits, not just on the business benefits, but also on the IT benefits, for things like a better backup and recovery, a better disaster recovery strategy, perhaps looking towards more storage efficiency. Is there an intramural benefit from the IT side to doing this in the fashion you have been describing as well?

Wolken: We looked at the strategy and said if you manage this as a data lifecycle, and that’s really what we think about it as, then where does data first show up in a company? That’s inside of a database on the backside of an application most likely.
Doing that, you also solve the problem of how to make sure that the data that was provisioned was sanctioned.

And where is it last used inside of a company? That would generally be just before retirement or long-term retention of the data. Then the question becomes how do you manipulate and otherwise utilize the data for the maximum benefit in the middle?

When we looked at that, one of the problems that you uncover is that there's a lot of data being replicated in a lot of places. One of the advantages that we've put together in the tool chain was to use virtualization as a capability, because you know where data came from and you know that it was sanctioned data. There's no reason to replicate that to disk in another location in the company, if you can just reach into that data source and pull that forward for a data analyst to utilize.

You can virtually represent that data to the user, without creating a new repository for that person. So you're saving on storage and replication costs. So if you’re looking for where is there efficiency in the lifecycle of data and how can you can cut some of those costs, that’s something that jumps right out.

Doing that, you also solve the problem of how to make sure that the data that was provisioned was sanctioned. By doing all of these things, by creating a virtual view, then providing that view back to the analyst, you're really solving multiple pieces of the puzzle at the same time. It really enables you to look at it from an information-management point of view.

Gardner: That's interesting, because you can not only get better business outcome benefits and analytics benefits, but you can simplify and reduce your total cost of ownership from the IT perspective. That's kind of another Holy Grail out there, to be able to do more with less.

One of the advantages

Wolken: That's what we think one of the advantages can be, and certainly, as you have the advantage to stand on the shoulders of people who have come before you and look at how the environment’s changed, you can notice some of these real minor changes and bring them forward. That's what we want to do with IT as partners and with the solution that we bring forward.

Gardner: How should enterprises and mid-market firms get started? Are there some proven initiation points, methods, or cultural considerations when one wants to move from that traditional siloed platform and integrate them along the way, an approach more towards this integrated, comprehensive tool-chain approach?

Wolken: There are different ways you can think about it. Generally, most companies aren’t just out there asking how they can get a new tool chain. That's not really the strategy most people are thinking about. What they are asking is how do I get to the next stage of being an intelligent company? How do I improve my maturity in business intelligence? How would I get from Excel spreadsheets without a data warehouse to a data warehouse and centralized intelligence or sanctioned data?

Each one of these challenges come from a point of view of, how do I improve my environment based upon the goals and needs that I am facing? How do I grow up as a company and get to be more of a data-based company?

Somebody else might be faced with more specific challenges, such a line of business is now asking me for Twitter data, and we have no systems or comprehension to understand that. That's really the point where you ask, what's going to be my strategy as I grow and otherwise improve my business intelligence environment, which is morphing every year for most customers.
It's about incremental improvement as well as tangible improvement for each and every step of the information management process.

That's the way that most people would start, with an existing problem and an objective or a goal inside the company. Generically, over time, the approach to answering it has been you buy a new technology from a new vendor who has a new silo, and you create a new data mart or data warehouse. But this is perpetuating the idea that technology will solve the problem. You end up with more technologies, more vendor tools, more staff, and more replicated data. We think this approach has become dated and inefficient.

But if, as an organization, you can comprehend that maybe there is some complexity that can be removed, while you're making an investment, then you free yourself to start thinking about how you can build a new architecture along the way. It's about incremental improvement as well as tangible improvement for each and every step of the information management process.

So rather than asking somebody to re-architect and rip and replace their tool chain or the way they manage the information lifecycle, I would say you sort of lean into it in a way.

If you're really after a performance metric and you feel like there is a performance issue in an environment, at Dell we have a number of resources that actually benchmark and understand the performance and where bottlenecks are in systems.

So we can look at either application performance management issues, where we understand the application layer, or we have a very deep and qualified set of systems around databases and data warehouse performance to understand where bottlenecks are either in SQL language or elsewhere. There are a number of tools that we have to help identify where a bottleneck or issue might be from just a pure performance perspective as well.

Strategic position

Gardner: That might be a really good place to start -- just to learn where your performance issues are and then stake out your strategic position based on a payback for improving on your current infrastructure, but then setting the stage for new capabilities altogether.

Wolken: Sometimes there’s an issue occurring inside the database environment. Sometimes it's at the integration layer, because integration isn’t happening as well as you think. Sometimes it's at the data warehouse layer, because of the way the data model was set up. Whatever the case, we think there is value in understanding the earlier parts of the chain, because if they’re not performing well, the latter parts of the chain can’t perform either.

And so at each step, we've looked at how you ensure the performance of the data. How do you ensure the performance of the integration environment? How do you ensure the performance of the data warehouse as well? We think if each component of the tool chain in working as well as it should be, then that’s when you enable the entirety of your solution implementation to truly deliver value.
At each step, we've looked at how you ensure the performance of the data.

Gardner: Great. I'm afraid we we'll have to leave it there. We're about out of time. You've been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast discussion on better understanding the challenges businesses need to solve when it comes to improved data and information management.

And we have seen how organizations, not only need to manage all of their internal data that provides intelligence about the businesses, but also increasingly the reams of external data that enables them to improve on whole new business activities like discovering additional customers and driving new and additional revenue.

And we've learned more about how new levels of automation and precision can be applied to the task of solving data complexity and doing that to a tool chain of agnostic and capability.

I want to thank our guest. We have been here with Matt Wolken, Executive Director and General Manager for Information Management Software at Dell Software. Thanks so much, Matt.

Wolken: Thank you so much as well.

Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. Thanks again to our audience for joining us, and do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Dell Software.

Transcript of a BriefingsDirect podcast on how Dell Software is working with companies to manage internal and external data in all its forms. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2013. All rights reserved.

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