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Knowing Your Needs: The Question to the Ultimate Answer

Magazine article Online

Knowing Your Needs: The Question to the Ultimate Answer

Article excerpt

Fans of Douglas Adams will recognize this title as a running gag in his famous "five-part trilogy," The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A highly advanced alien race builds the supreme computer and asks it for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of "Life, the Universe, and Everything." Seven million years later, amid much fanfare, it reveals the long-awaited response, "forty-two." Baffled and more than a little miffed, the aliens angrily ask the computer what they're supposed to do with that answer. It replies huffily that to interpret the answer, one must know the question. They then build an even more powerful computer to find the "Question to the Ultimate Answer," and it is straight downhill from there.

We computer users frequently fall into the same trap. We tend to express what we need in terms of the Answer rather than the Question. We say, "I need WordWhiz version 5.234," rather than, "I need to create documents with multiple columns and fonts, tables, etc." This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many experienced users know what product will best meet their needs. However, jumping directly to specifics can be a problem when discussing the overall automation needs of an organization or department.


By specifying an answer at the beginning, we may ignore other solutions that are better, easier, or cheaper. Computer department staff testify that this is one of their most frustrating problems--especially true when we users deal with a computer need outside of our range of expertise. It is like telling the doctor you need a cortisone shot, instead of allowing her to diagnose an ailment and prescribe treatment. Although most of us can't diagnose illnesses, we often identify the solutions for what we want and need our PCs to do.

The "answer-before-the-question" syndrome makes effective automation planning difficult. Most organizations operate on some sort of annual schedule, usually tied to a budget cycle. As part of the management process, administrators usually develop various plans for the coming year, covering finances, personnel, training, goals, etc. This process should include a plan for automation needs, both across the organization and within each department. All too often, discussions begin by talking about products rather than problems, and the issue of automation needs turns into simply "what do we want to buy next year?"


Here are some issues to bear in mind when thinking about automation needs. The analysis requires a shift in thinking, so that we focus on functional requirements (what we want to do) first, before looking for ways the PC can meet them. This is difficult for most of us, because we tend to approach a problem in light of software and hardware we are already using. We are also prompted to think immediately in terms of answers, bombarded by ads and articles describing solutions.

Examining user requirements is a cornerstone of systems analysis. In an organization that has a systems/ data processing group to provide computer resources, expressing needs in terms of tasks and functions makes it much easier to select or design applications for users. Nothing wastes more time than systems people and users going into a discussion with radically different solutions already chosen. If, however, the discussion begins with needs and requirements, both sides can work more smoothly to a mutually acceptable solution.

If you don't have an ADP department in your organization, analyzing your computer needs in terms of functions, rather than products to buy, will make, it easier for you to cut through the hype in the computer marketplace. Even if you're not shopping for new software or equipment, doing a functional inventory of your computer needs can reveal where more support may be needed, or where technologies could be better used. Going through such a process can even reveal tasks that could be done better manually, heretical as that may sound. …

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