Web Exlusive: Management Information Systems by Mark Deal, PLS

February 19, 2001
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Management is all about planning, leading, organizing and controlling. Accomplishing any of these tasks is difficult without information. Generating the right kind of information and being able to access it in a timely manner is very important for accomplishing any of these tasks. For this reason, taking a look at Management Information Systems can be a very worthwhile endeavor.

As surveyors, we are already familiar with Geographic Information Systems, which are really a specific type of Management Information System. In a GIS, data is tied to its spatial component for aid in decision making.

MIS is a catch-all phrase that can be used to describe the systems used to track information, as well as specific types of systems used to aid managers in their work. There are Executive Information Systems, Decision Support Systems and many other subspecies. As a Land Surveyor, you likely do not have the need for the functionality of very specialized information systems, but you could probably benefit from taking a look at how your data is organized and what kind of software can be utilized to make the most of your information. Every business has some sort of information system, whether it exists on paper, within a database or in your head. The ease with which this information can be accessed is a direct result of how much effort is put into the planning and implementation of your information system.

Strictly speaking, a Management Information System does not have to include computer hardware and software. An index card system, together with bound maps and paper files can be used just as effectively to manage your business. The explosion of activity in the MIS world is a result of the fact that computers make it much easier to do more with what you have. In other words, there are things that you can do with digital files that are either not possible with paper based systems or would be prohibitively expensive to do.

One of the first things that you should examine within your company is how your project information is organized and stored. How much time have you spent in the past looking for a benchmark to use on a topographic survey? It can be really frustrating when you know that you did another project nearby but can't remember which file contains the information you need. A comprehensive plan for organizing the information you have is the key to a successful information system. Good organization is the most important aspect of information management so that data can be quickly retrieved and used effectively. For nearly all of us this will include both digital and paper files. When contemplating a system for organizing this information, find a way that will be easy to understand when you revisit it. For some surveyors, organizing files by section, township and range is a good method. Some surveyors prefer to keep track of projects simply by project number, while others may choose to organize by client name. Regardless of how you organize your files, you should have some way of keeping track of the various attributes specific to that project. For example, if you organize your files by client name you would need other information to locate a specific project quickly. That other information should answer the questions of who, what, when and where. Ideally, you would identify several attributes that all projects have in common and keep track of that information in a relational database. This would allow you to search for a specific project by anyone of several characteristics and make finding the right project quick and easy.

Keeping track of current and past projects is one function of your MIS; being able to gather and analyze data is another. Financial information lends itself well to manipulation by computer software. You may want to know which clients consistently send you more work, which drafter is more time efficient, or figure out what kinds of projects are the most profitable for you. Your accounting software likely has the ability to track such information. Details about costs associated with, and revenue derived from each project are stored in a database within your accounting package. You may be able to export various views of this information (as reports) into Microsoft Excel or even export as a delimited file, which can be imported into other spreadsheet or database programs. Spreadsheets such as Excel allow you to sort data into groups, analyze it with pivot tables, statistical functions and many other things. Relational databases allow you to store, retrieve and manipulate your data.

Spreadsheet and database programs offer a great deal of functionality for examining cost data in different ways. If you have set up your office so that this information is automatically generated and stored, then it is relatively easy to analyze the data to come up with the answer to the question in your mind. Some types of analysis are best done on a regular, periodic basis. In this situation, organized digital files make it easy. In some cases, you will have to go back and generate this information from other sources. This can be problematic because if you have to key in a lot of information from other sources, the cost of doing so may be excessive. The cost of generating the data could keep you from making good decisions. This is an excellent reason for taking a look at how your organization creates, organizes and uses information. Improvements, even small, incremental ones, can help you in the long term.

The subject of Information Systems is a big one, and a thorough examination is well beyond the scope of this article. Hopefully, you can think of ways that your organization can improve upon the way that information is handled. If you are unfamiliar with how to utilize spreadsheets (they are also great for editing field shots) or databases, the Web is an excellent place to look for help. There are hundreds of reliable sources for help with spreadsheets and databases. One place to start is http://dssresources.com/ - which has links to articles and tutorials on the subject.

If you have been in business for awhile, you probably have many files that have been organized in a manner that you and your employees understand and use well. Making the most of this system will help you to operate more efficiently. If you are just starting out, or planning on starting your own firm, then organization of information is one of those other things that you should be thinking about. When it's just you working out of your garage it is pretty easy to keep track of things. If you are planning on being successful, then you are going to quickly amass lots of files and other data. How you set up your systems for keeping track of this information can be a major contributor to your success.

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