Too Much Information? The Dangers of Data Drowning
Since the 1970s, fleet managers have seen vehicle operation data increase from a trickle to a torrent. How should they separate useful data from the interesting, but useless?
It began decades ago. First as a trickle, then it turned into a flood. Before billings became automated and before computers were able to capture it, the amount of vehicle data that fleet managers managed was fairly small. How much did fuel or repairs cost, what was the spend for, when, and for which vehicle? That was it — at the beginning.
Then programs became more sophisticated, technology raced forward, and pretty soon fleet managers were told they had access to every bit of excruciating detail on every purchase made in the operation of their fleets. The torrent of information continues today unabated, and fleet managers can now slice and dice fleet cost information in ways their predecessors could not imagine.
Is this a good thing? Is there such a thing as too much information?
What exactly do fleet managers manage? Are they really managing vehicles or are they managing information? Fleet managers, for the most part, manage vehicle information. Most fleet managers see few of the vehicles for which they’re responsible, and depend almost entirely on the information and data the operation and possession of those vehicles generate.
Therefore, the more data a fleet manager has access to, the better job the fleet manager will do, right? After all, when you have minute details on a vehicle’s costs, “drilling down” will result in the greatest savings. Or so it is thought.
Creating the Monster
Fleet management began to evolve hand-in-hand with the remarkable technological revolution that began in earnest in the 1970s. Prior to the widespread advent of computers and other types of automation, the kind of data detail that fleet managers needed to track vehicle cost and performance was difficult to capture. Fleet lessors and other service companies were able to provide it, but only on paper via voluminous reports, and exception reporting was cumbersome and difficult. (Some may recall the days when every new report had to go through the full IT process: requests, project planning, programming, testing — all done on mainframe computers). Then came PCs, which could be networked to share data, and desktop software into which data could be fed by suppliers, with reporting run from there.
When the Internet burst onto the scene, suppliers created websites where customers could log in and view their data quickly; create, schedule, and run exception reports; and, overall, manage the fleet quickly and easily.
Some suppliers will admit privately that they’ve created a “data monster,” the sometimes insatiable need for the most arcane minutiae that can be captured.
“We can provide you Level III data on all fleet spend,” fleet managers have been told. “There are dozens of data elements that you can mine 24/7 to find savings,” suppliers boast. And sometimes, fleet managers are simply overwhelmed by all that information, with little time to use it despite the tools at their disposal.
Let’s start from the beginning. Back when most everything was manual or when “computer” brought about science fiction visions of a HAL 9000, a huge machine that needed to be programmed to perform the simplest of tasks, fleet managers not only managed data, but staff as well. The old rule of thumb that a fleet needed three people per thousand vehicles held sway, and it wasn’t unusual to see a fleet department with a half dozen full-time staff. There were thus ample people to perform the manual gathering and manipulation of data, backed by expert programmers whose favorite question was, “What do you want?” whenever a report was needed.
Then came the outsourcing trend begun ironically in those very IT departments by IBM, as routine tasks were outsourced to suppliers who may have had the expertise in the form of the process, but little in the substance. Companies outsourced their entire IT departments to IBM (and other such firms), only to find that this critical function wasn’t something you left to others. Similarly, the outsourcing trend soon enough began to move into fleet management, as suppliers told their customers that they didn’t need a fleet department; just turn it all over to them, and all the fleet’s ills would be cured (and money saved).
And all along, there was that increasing wave of data. More sophisticated means by which data would be captured arose every year: swipe cards for universal fuel purchases; maintenance management programs with automated data capture; accident reporting with a single, toll-free call. Fleet managers would know not only how much, for which car, and what driver, but what grade of fuel, whether the maintenance was an oil change or power steering fluid, and have photos of accident damage sent to them electronically.
Next came the start of shrinking the fleet department staff. That staff of six became three, then one, and finally went away altogether. Yes, data was captured in waves automatically, but what to do with it? Fleet managers had only 24 hours in the day, and no one to help mine all that detail for savings. The result? Fewer (or nonexistent) staff to manage and study a rapidly increasing set of information, and that is what leads to the need to determine what is important, and what is just “interesting, but uselesss” data.
Further, the data flood isn’t just in vehicle expense categories. In 2010, some 1.9 billion people sent more than 107 trillion e-mails. Yes, trillion. The technological revolution, now in full swing, has made communication from cell phones to e-mail, from Twitter to Facebook to texting easier than ever before. A quick test: count the number of e-mails you receive in a typical work day, sort them by relevance to the job, and you’ll find that you receive literally hundreds of useless, irrelevant e-mails every week.