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The Value of Data and the Use of Databases Essay Sample

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The Value of Data and the Use of Databases Essay Sample

Data is valuable for a number of reasons:

* It takes time to compile.

* It takes time to input the data into the computer.

* Its historical value

* It can be analysed, accurate, and up-to-date.

Data can be very valuable to an organisation providing it can be clearly analysed. An example of the value of data is the use of stock control systems. As the data about stock can be updated each time a stock item is sold, the stock situation is always up-to-date. This means that, as soon as the amount in stock falls below a reorder level, an order can be placed. Indeed, many systems trigger the reordering automatically as soon as the number in stock falls below its reorder level. This is often done by the system sending the order to the supplier using electronic data interchange (EDI).

This automatic stock reordering has two cost effects. First it means that the organisation should rarely run out of stock which causes a loss of sales and, hence, loss of income. It also means that the organisation should not need to store large quantities of stock which leads to high inventory costs.

If the organisation also keeps data showing the rates of sales of products, the system can recognise changes in these rates and so change its ordering patterns.

Thus, data about products in stock and rates of sales is valuable as they improve the profitability of the organisation.

In order for data to be of value they must be accurate and up-to-date. Often data are inaccurate due to them not being frequently updated. If the sales figures are only used once a week to update the stock database, the stock levels are soon out of date and the data have little value.

These days banks offer services other than banking. They offer mortgages, insurance and business support. If a bank is considering a loan, it is important that the bank is aware of the risks involved. Keeping data about previous borrowers, such as age, income and social background, and comparing the data for a potential new borrower with the historical data can help to determine whether or not to make the loan. This is often done using artificial intelligence (AI) techniques and leads to fewer people reneging on their loan. Thus, the data used is very valuable to the bank.

Another example is of an international company that has run two advertising campaigns in two different countries. The one was much more successful than the other. It is important that the company keeps data about the two campaigns in order to determine why the one campaign was more successful than the other. This will lead to better sales campaigns in the future, improving the profitability of the company.

A company can lose its data for the following reasons:

* Hardware / Software failure

* Attack by a virus or hacker

* Theft of data

* Accidental misplacing of data

* Theft of the equipment that data is on

* Sabotage by an employee

Hardware which could be used for back-up purposes:

* Floppy disks

* Zip disks



* Creating a mirror hard drive

* Backing up to Internet Storage

EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) is the electronic transmission of business data such as purchase orders and invoices from one firm’s computerised information to that of another firm. EDI was developed to provide an interface between two separate computer systems. Each company could have its own way of doing things, but by using EDI, they could now ‘talk’ to each other without one company having to re-enter data or redesign its system to match the other company’s.

A company who wants to use EDI with another company does the following:

o They form an EDI trading agreement with that company: they need to agree which EDI protocols they will use

o Once this has been agreed, both companies will write programs that convert documents that they want to send and receive into the agreed EDI format

Benefits of EDI

o Savings in labor costs (through the elimination of data entry, paper document handling, reconciliation and other manually performed tasks).

o Elimination of mailing costs.

o Reduction of document management costs (on site and off site storage).

o Reduction in data entry error rates.

o Elimination of communication lag time between agency and customer.

o Improved customer service.

o Expendability of the system to other functions (using the same translation software for various applications such as procurement, collections, payments, etc.).

Value Added Networks (VANS)

As EDI became more widespread, enhanced communication links between companies were offered by companies. VANS simplify the exchange of data between users of the service by using computer networks.

In these systems, users plug into the interface provided by the VANS operating company and the software does everything else. A VANS may operate in a single company or may be of use to several companies. For example, estate agents may share a VANS in order to match potential buyers with sellers over a much wider area than is possible if each estate agent only has access to their own data.

VANS provide services such as:

o Allow different EDI protocols to be used by different companies

o Allow companies to store data within the VANS so they could more easily be accessed from outside the company, for example, by other organisations.

o Provide the technical know-how for companies

o Provide a vehicle by which companies could set up an EDI trading agreement.

One of the problems with so much data being available is trying to sift the data for useful information. This is often achieved using data mining techniques. A lot of work is going on to develop sophisticated datamining software which looks for patterns in vast quantities of data.

The ability to sift through data to find patterns such as

* finding people who are most likely to respond to ‘junk mail’,

* which products (such as bread and milk) are most often sold together in a supermarket,

* which people are likely to live longest,

can lead to much better targeting of customers with the result that there are better returns on investments.

Data Warehousing

A data warehouse is a central store of data that has been extracted from operational data. Data in a data warehouse is typically subject-oriented, non-volatile, and of a historic nature, as contrasted with data used in an on-line transaction processing system. Data in data warehouses are often used in data mining and on-line analytical processing tools.

The idea behind data warehouse is that

* Historical data mainly from past transactions that the company has carried out, are separated out from the business

* The data is re-organised in such a way as to allow it to be analysed

* The newly structured data is then queried

* The results of the query are reported

Data warehousing could be used as a predictive tool, to indicate what should be done in the future. However, the main use of data warehousing is not as a predictive tool but as a review tool, to monitor the effects of previous operational decisions made in the course of a business.

For example, if Marks and Spencers decided to open stores in Asia, data could be collected as the stores opened and over the first few months. This could then be passed to a data warehouse. The wisdom of opening stores in Asia for the business as a whole could then be reviewed and conclusions backed up with statistical evidence.

Data Mining

Data mining and knowledge discovery in databases are often used synonymously. Data mining is the term applied to the software technique that looks at a huge set of data and tries to find hidden trends in it. Data can be extracted in such a way that they can be put to use in areas such as decision support, prediction, forecasting, and estimation. The data is often voluminous but, as it stands, of low value as no direct use can be made of it; it is the hidden information in the data that is useful.

Data mining can be used to answer such questions as “who is most likely to buy a book at Christmas” and “why are they more likely to buy a book at Christmas”. The most important thing about the role of data mining is that it is predictive. It seeks to answer questions about the future. Data mining techniques are used in mathematics, cybernetics, and genetics.

Data mining and data warehousing has become possible for the following reasons:

* Sophisticated software is now available

* Vast data storage is possible

* Vast processing power is available, for example using parallel processing

* The price of sophisticated hardware has fallen dramatically


Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.

For example, the format of the credit cards, phone cards, and “smart” cards that have become commonplace is derived from an ISO International Standard. Adhering to the standard, which defines such features as an optimal thickness (0,76 mm), means that the cards can be used worldwide.

International Standards thus contribute to making life simpler, and to increasing the reliability and effectiveness of the goods and services we use

Without standards there would be a proliferation of formats and it would not be possible to move data electronically. Not only must file formats be standardised but also communication methods. For example, if two computers need to communicate, it is essential that both are sending and receiving data in the same format. It is useless if one computer sends in one format and the other is expecting the data in a different forma. As communications are world-wide and there are a multitude of computer manufacturers, it is essential that standards are set for consistency.

In order to be able to share data successfully some form of standardisation is needed so that users can send, receive and interpret the data correctly. Some typical standards used for files are given below.

* Text files These are used to hold characters represented by the ASCII code. Text files are used to transfer data between application packages. The data consists of individual characters and there is no formatting applied to the characters.

* Comma Separated Variable files are used to transfer tabular data between applications. Each field is separated by a comma.

* Tab Separated Variable files are used to transfer tabular data between applications. Each field is separated by a tab character.

* Standard Interchangeable Data files are used to transfer tabular data between applications. They are not common outside the UK education market.

* Rich Text Format files are a complex format used to store data from a word processor. They include information about fonts, sizes, colour and styles.

* Picture files These are used to represent sound pictures in digital format. There are many different formats such BMP (bit mapped), JPEG (Joint Picture Experts Group), GIF (Graphical Interchange Format) and MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group). JPEG and MPEG involve compression techniques. It is these techniques that allow pictures to be quickly transferred over the Internet. MPEG has also allowed the introduction of many more television channels.

* Sound files As with picture files, there are many different formats that store sound in digital form. WAV files are common on PCs . Storing sound requires a great deal of memory. CDs sample at the rate of 44,100 samples/sec and DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) at 96.000 samples/sec. Thus 3 minutes of music requires 3 x 60 x 96,000 = 16Mbytes. (Current DVDs can hold 4.3 Gbytes or 13 hours of music.)

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is comprised of digital telephony and data-transport services offered by regional telephone carriers. ISDN involves the digitization of the telephone network, which permits voice, data, text, graphics, music, video, and other source material to be transmitted over existing telephone wires.

The emergence of ISDN represents an effort to standardize subscriber services, user/network interfaces, and network and internetwork capabilities. ISDN applications include high-speed image applications , additional telephone lines in homes to serve the telecommuting industry, high-speed file transfer, and videoconferencing. Voice service is also an application for ISDN.

ISDN has a standard format that is used world-wide. There are two standard ISDN services known as primary rate access (ISDN 30) and basic rate access (ISDN 2). The difference is the number of channels and the methods used to deliver the services to the user.

ISDN 2 will probably be used by most small business and individual users. It provides two channels at 64kbps (B-channels) which carry user data and a signalling channel of 16kbps (D-channel) which carry control and signaling information, although it can support user data transmission under certain circumstances. The three channels are multiplexed onto a single communications medium.

ISDN 30 provides 30 B-channels and one D-channel. It is used by large customers and is usually delivered by fibre optics. Its operation is basically the same as ISDN 2 but 30 channels are multiplexed instead of two.

The data may represent sound, pictures, text or many other things. It is necessary to package this data into some standard format first. The standard used is Open Systems Interconnection Reference Model usually simply called the OSI model.

Open System Interconnection Reference Model

The Open System Interconnection (OSI) reference model describes how information from a software application in one computer moves through a network medium to a software application in another computer. The OSI reference model is a conceptual model composed of seven layers, each specifying particular network functions. The model was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1984, and it is now considered the primary architectural model for intercomputer communications. Each layer is reasonably self-contained so that the tasks assigned to each layer can be implemented independently. This enables the solutions offered by one layer to be updated without adversely affecting the other layers.

The following list details the seven layers of the Open System Interconnection (OSI) reference model:

Layer 7-Application

Layer 6-Presentation

Layer 5-Session

Layer 4-Transport

Layer 3-Network

Layer 2-Data link

Layer 1-Physical

Note A handy way to remember the seven layers is the sentence “All people seem to need data processing.” The beginning letter of each word corresponds to a layer.

All-Application layer

People-Presentation layer

Seem-Session layer

To-Transport layer

Need-Network layer

Data-Data link layer

Processing-Physical layer

1. OSI Model Physical Layer

The physical layer defines the electrical, mechanical, procedural, and functional specifications for activating, maintaining, and deactivating the physical link between communicating network systems. Physical layer specifications define characteristics such as voltage levels, timing of voltage changes, physical data rates, maximum transmission distances, and physical connectors.

2. OSI Model Data Link Layer

The data link layer is to divide data it receives from network layer into distinct frames that can be transmitted through physical layer or vice versa. A frame is a structured package for moving data that includes not only payload (user’s data) but also the sender’s and receiver’s network addressing as well as error checking and control information.

3. OSI Model Network Layer

The network layer defines the network address, which differs from the MAC address. Some network layer implementations, such as the Internet Protocol (IP), define network addresses in a way that route selection can be determined systematically by comparing the source network address with the destination network address. Because this layer defines the logical network layout, routers can use this layer to determine how to forward packets.

4.OSI Model Transport Layer

The transport layer accepts data from the session layer and segments the data for transport across the network. Generally, the transport layer is responsible for making sure that the data is delivered error-free and in the proper sequence. Flow control generally occurs at the transport layer. The transport protocols used on the Internet are TCP and UDP.

5. OSI Model Session Layer

The session layer establishes, manages, and terminates communication sessions. Communication sessions consist of service requests and service responses that occur between applications located in different network devices.

6. OSI Model Presentation Layer

The presentation layer serve as a translator between application and network layers. At this layer, the data become formatted on a scheme that the network can understand. It ensures that information sent from the application layer of one system would be readable by the application layer of another system. Some examples of presentation layer coding and conversion schemes include common data representation formats, conversion of character representation formats, common data compression schemes, and common data encryption schemes.

7.OSI Model Application Layer

It provides interfaces to software that enables programs to use network services. Services provided at this layer include file transfer, file management and messages handling for email.


The OSI model provides a conceptual framework for communication between computers, but the model itself is not a method of communication. Actual communication is made possible by using communication protocols. A protocol implements the functions of one or more of the OSI layers.

A wide variety of communication protocols exist. Some of these protocols include LAN protocols, WAN protocols, network protocols, and routing protocols.

* LAN protocols operate at the physical and data link layers of the OSI model and define communication over the various LAN media.

* WAN protocols operate at the lowest three layers of the OSI model and define communication over the various wide-area media.

* Routing protocols are network layer protocols that are responsible for exchanging information between routers so that the routers can select the proper path for network traffic.

* Network protocols are the various upper-layer protocols that exist in a given protocol suite.

Many protocols rely on others for operation. For example, many routing protocols use network protocols to exchange information between routers. This concept of building upon the layers already in existence is the foundation of the OSI model.

Computers and Communication

Computers are now used to aid communication between many devices and to provide extra facilities that were not available with the old telephone networks.

Voice mail digitises spoken messages and stores them on disk. When recipients access the messages they are converted back into sound.

Digital telephone systems provide many facilities. Because computers can maintain very large databases, it is possible for users to have itemised bills, recall stored numbers and to have accurate timing of calls. Although itemised bills can be sent out on a regular basis, users can, using the Internet, access their own accounts at any time and see what calls they have made and the costs of these calls. These systems also allow the use of voicemail. Mobile phones rely heavily on computers to route calls.

Electronic commerce (e-commerce) is becoming more popular. It is quite common to order goods over the Internet. Many companies use computers to maintain large databases that can be queried by customers online who may then place orders. An extension of this is EDI (electronic data interchange). EDI allows users to send and receive order details and invoices electronically. It differs from email in that the data is highly structured into fields such as sender’s name, recipient’s name, order number, quantity, product code, whereas email is completely unstructured in that it is simply text. The Figure below shows how this works. Many companies insist on using this method of ordering and invoicing.

Teleconferencing allows a group of people to communicate, throughout the world, simultaneously using telephones and group email. Video conferencing is similar to teleconferencing plus the ability of users to see one another. These methods of communication have reduced travel costs as meetings can be held without people leaving their desks. Originally, special rooms were required for videoconferencing. This is no longer necessary as videoconferencing can now be done using standard PCs and a video camera. In this system whiteboards can be used to produce drawings that can be transmitted electronically.

Network hardware and software, and selecting appropriate network systems

Network hardware- Servers

A client-server network is a way of organising computers (clients) so that they can make use of the resources of one or more servers. A server is simply a computer that has resources that can be used by clients. There are a number of different types of server.

* A file server. This is a computer that stores all of the users’ data files. The network NOS (Network Operating System) allows accounts to be set up. Users have to enter in a user ID and password to gain access to the network and to their own files. This system also means that users cannot access other people’s files.

* A print server. This is a computer that allows clients to have access to a shared printer. Print servers usually come with spooler software. Spoolers collect any jobs that have been sent to the printer, queues them and then sends them to the printer. If you sent a file to be printed straight to the computer rather than the spooler program, your computer would slow down because the printer works much slower than the computer. The spooler program frees up an application so you can carry on working.

* A CD-ROM server. This is a computer that has many CD drives (or one drive that can change CD-ROMs automatically). Clients can access the information from any of the CD-ROMs currently in the CD-ROM server.

* A mail server. This manages mail into and out of a network.

* A web server. If a business wants to have an Intranet, or wants to host its own web site, then it will need a dedicated web server. The web server is responsible for storing web pages and distributing them in response to requests.

* A proxy server. A proxy server on an organisation’s network is used to cache web pages. When an individual requests a web page, it is downloaded from the Internet and also stored, or ‘cached’, on the organisation’s proxy server. The next time that site is requested, however, it will be downloaded from the proxy server instead. Retrieving a web page from a proxy server is much faster than retrieving it from the Internet.

The proxy server also usually acts as a security buffer between the main file server and the users on a system. A user requests data held in a file server. This request is intercepted by the proxy server. The proxy server checks that the user is a valid user and is making a request for data that he/she is entitled to. If the user passes these checks then the proxy server gets the requested data from the file server and passes it on to the user. The user cannot access the file server directly – they must go via the proxy server.

Network hardware – additional equipment

In addition to clients, and various kinds of servers, a network may also need additional equipment.

1) Repeater. Repeaters are used when you want to extend a network but where there may be problems with the strength of data signals. This would be because the cable lengths between different parts of the new network have become very long; data strength (i.e. voltage) drops as the distance increases.

Repeaters can be used to connect two segments of a network. It repeats data from one segment to another, enhancing the signal, as shown below. Repeaters do not segment a network and do not partition a network into sub-networks. They simply extend a network.

2) Hub. These are used to connect many computers to one computer. For example, in a star network, all the cables from each individual computer go back and connect to a hub. The hub then connects to the server. Hubs can also boost signal strength if needs be.

3) Switch. A switch is a more ‘intelligent’ hub. It can set up communication paths between different clients and different servers, for example, at the same time. If a user has large files to transmit, or a large volume of data, then switches would be more appropriate than hubs.

Newer technology replaces hubs with switches. This allows greater speed because each station is switched in and thus has full network speed. Switches ‘learn’ which connections are required and join the corresponding ends. If, at the same time, Station 1 wishes to communicate with Print Server , Station 2 with Web Server, Station 3 with File Server and Station 4 with Mail server, this is possible as the switch will set up four independent paths. This means that data can flow at maximum speed along each as the system will be treated as four independent circuits.

4) Bridge. A bridge connects two similar LANs together. Users think it is logically one LAN even though it is physically two. Bridges enable the users of one network to use the resources of the other.

5) Modem A modem provides a ‘dial-up connection’ for a computer. It is used typically to allow a computer (which is a digital device) to communicate with other computers using the public telephone system (which is largely an analogue system). A user cannot simply connect digital equipment to analogue equipment. The latter must convert the signals first. Modems can be used as well in networks to allow each computer on the network to, for example, connect to the Internet.

6) Network card. Each client will need a network card. This enables the client to be connected to the actual network. It is a card that is fitted to one of the free slots inside the computer.

Example 1

A team of programmers all have their own PCs which they use to create programs. The team work on the same projects and share code. A suitable network is shown below. There is no need to use a switch as files tend to be small (usually text) and traffic is relatively light. Also, the data will need to travel between all stations.

Example 2

A group of people work together to produce a catalogue and price list for a large company. The catalogue consists of about 500 pages, each of which may have up to 15 colour pictures. Each picture has a description of the item and its price. A separate booklet contains just the item codes, brief descriptions and the prices. The pictures are held on a large server and all text descriptions to be used in the catalogue and in the price list are on a smaller server.

This is a case where a switch is more appropriate than a hub as picture files can be very large. Also, the people creating pictures will usually be connected to the large server while those creating the price list will mainly need access to the smaller server. A possible solution is shown below.

Example 3

A primary school has two small computer rooms, near to one another, and a single server. A suitable network is shown below

If the computers are to be spread around the school, instead of all in two rooms, and if access to the Internet is required from all stations, it would be better to use either a switch or a hub.

Selecting a network topology

It is important to select an appropriate topology along with any necessary additional hardware for any given situation. The topology selected will have an impact on the amount of data that can be sent, the security of the data on the network, the budget for putting the network together and the potential for future network expansion.

* Bus networks

Bus networks are relatively easy to set up compared to star and ring networks. They comprise of one main cable. These types of networks use packet switching. When a client sends some data it is split up into packets. Some additional information is then added to each packet, such as the destination address and recombination information. All other clients are monitoring the network, to see if it can detect any packets of information addressed to them. The problem with this, however, is that the network isn’t very secure, because packets can be intercepted from any client. When the main cable has a fault on it, the whole network goes down. Also, when a lot of clients are communicating at the same time, the network can slow down. Bus networks can be peer-to-peer or client-server.

* Ring networks

As with bus networks, these types of networks use packet switching. When a client sends some data it is split up into packets. Some additional information is then added to each packet, such as the destination address and recombination information. All other clients are monitoring the network, to see if it can detect any packets of information addressed to them. The problem with this, however, is that the network isn’t very secure because packets can be intercepted from any client. When faults occur on a ring network, they can be difficult to find and one fault may bring the whole network down. They are also slow if there are a lot of clients communicating.

* Star networks

These are the fastest and most secure of the three networks topologies. This is because when a client wants to send information, it sends it from itself to the server, which then redirects it directly to the destination client. In addition, the server can provide extra software security. Each client has its own link with the server. That means each client needs an interface and connection with the server. This is a more expensive connection method than for a bus or ring network. However, if one client goes down, the other clients can carry on.

Collision avoidance and detection

Clients will often want to send data at the same time. Networks can’t cope with more than one client’s data on the network at once. One of the jobs of a computer’s network card is to continuously monitor the network. It looks for times when the network is free. When it detects this situation, it can put it’s own data onto the network if required. This is collision avoidance.

If two clients, however, see that the network is free at the same time and both put their own data on the network at the same time then the data will ‘collide’. Collision detection is the term used to describe when clients’ network cards detect a collision. When this happens, both clients will be asked to re-send their data again in turn.

New Business

The Internet allows communication on a world-wide basis. This means that advertising can be relatively cheap. Organisations can advertise all round the world from a single site. There is no need to advertise in each individual country. It also means that it is easier to sell goods throughout the world. Organisations can create Web sites that advertise their goods and let users have access to their product databases. It is also possible to allow users to order, and pay for, goods on the Internet. This means that people will be needed to create Web sites, to keep them up-to-date and to manage large databases of goods and customers. Users can transmit their details and orders over the Internet at very little cost. The main problem is security of information and people are needed to create secure systems for EDI.

Another area of expansion is in providing information. For example, medical advances can be posted on the WWW that can then be accessed world-wide. Indeed, doctors can request advice using the WWW.

The use of the Internet by media reporters can mean that news can be quickly updated and that information is in electronic form. This means that it can be manipulated for use on other media.

Estate agents can set up sites that enable them to sell property throughout the world. The applications are endless and you should keep abreast of modern developments as they are published in the media.


Commerce is all about business, about the buying and selling of goods and services. Consider buying a new computer. The functions that need to take place by the buyer of the computer include:

* Searching for the right computer.

* Asking for information about different products from retailers.

* Agreeing to buy a computer.

* Paying for it.

* Taking delivery.

* Getting support and having problems dealt with.

A traditional business

A typical computer retailer (not yet using e-commerce) will need to provide the following to be involved in commerce:

a) A set of products. Customers want to be able to look at a range of products with different specifications and prices. The retailer must provide products to view, provide technical information, provide a catalogue and be able to offer assistance.

b) A place. Retailers need a place to work from and customers need to know where to go.

c) Marketing. Customers will not know of the computer retailer unless the shop advertises. This can be done in a number of ways such as paper adverts, word-of-mouth or flyers, for example.

d) Accepting orders. The retailer will need to process orders, either face-to-face or via fax or the phone.

e) Payment. Different methods of payment need to be accepted and processed.

f) Delivery. The products paid for by a customer must be packaged up and delivered.

g) Warranty. Products that have a guarantee and prove to be faulty need to be dealt with. The retailer needs to accept returned faulty goods, and replace them or refund the customer’s money.

h) Support. Customers may need help to make changes or buy extra parts for their computer. The shop needs to be able to provide this.

All of the above comes under the banner of ‘commerce’. Whatever the product or service, then, the above elements in any business need to be present.

How is e-commerce different to traditional commerce?

A business using e-commerce will need to provide the same facilities as one not using e-commerce. It is how they provide those facilities that is different. Returning to our computer retailer, to become an e-commerce business, they will need:

a) A set of products. As before, they will need a set of products. The information about each product will be held in the web site. Customers will need some way of searching for products in the online catalogue, perhaps using a search engine.

b) A place. The place of business for the customers is now a web site. They can search for products, get information, contact the company, make selections and pay, all from the site. As far as the retailer themselves goes, they can be anywhere. For example, there would be no particular advantage having an expensive-to-rent shop in a London high street. They could have the actual base in a far cheaper part of the country, away from high rent areas.

c) Marketing. This can still be done using traditional methods but now the possibility of paying sites to include hypertext linking to a company’s commercial site is opened up. Pop-up boxes to advertise could also be used as could email to mailshot customers directly. Companies could also allow affiliate sites to be set up by other organisations that then market and sell their products for a commission.

d) Accepting orders. This may now be done using an online ordering system. Customers fill in an order form. A popular method of selecting goods involves mimicking shopping in a real shop. Customers select the goods they want. These are then transferred to a shopping trolley. When the customer has finished selecting items, they go to an online checkout web page. They confirm their order and make the payment by secure server.

e) Payment. Payments could still be made by sending a cheque but the e-commerce retailer would make use of a merchant account. This is a part of the web site that accepts online credit card payments and securely transmits payment details.

f) Delivery. The retailer still needs somewhere to store physical goods, have them packaged up and then delivered. Of course, if the product is MP3 music or software, the retailer could simply allow the customer to download the files once payment had been cleared. Another feature of the e-commerce trader is that the customer can be kept informed at all times about the progress of an order. For example, a confirmation could be sent when an order is placed. An order number could be issued to the customer. The customer can then use this to access a database that keeps details of that order. They could use this to see if something has been sent, or part-sent, for example. If you ever order a textbook from www.amazon.co.uk you will see this system in action!

g) Warranty. The retailer needs a method of accepting returns and dealing with them, much in the same way as a traditional business.

h) Support. Online support can be provided. This might take the form of providing bulletin boards for customers to discuss problems amongst themselves, FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) so customers can see if their problem has occurred before and what the solution was, or email support, so they can ask specific questions of the technical and support team. Of course, they could also provide a phone helpline, perhaps at a premium rate, for those customers who want an immediate response by a human.

Training and re-training

It cannot be assumed that when the latest new technology is introduced into a workplace, the users of the technology know how to use it. Neither can it be assumed that, just because someone has been taught or trained in some new technology, they are using it effectively. (Witness, perhaps, your own experience. Sometimes teachers show you how to do something new and guide you through some exercises yet you still cannot confidently do a question on the topic in an exam)! Re-evaluation and re-training must take place periodically for learning to be considered effective. In addition to this, re-training must take place regularly because software and hardware is constantly being upgraded with more functions being added to the latest versions. Re-training is needed to help users make good use of these new functions.

It is also important that courses provide sufficient time for the learners to practise new skills and to be provided with sufficient notes to enable them to redo tasks, set during the course, at a later date. Online help is not enough; most people prefer to have their notes in printed form. This is because they need to look at their work and their notes at the same time. Adjusting the size of windows so that the work and the notes are both on the screen at the same time is often unsatisfactory. Also, learners like to flick back and forth through their notes and this is much easier when the notes are on paper.

IT is an ever-changing subject, which means that users continually need retraining. Application packages are continually being upgraded and new applications are being created daily.

IT is changing the way things are done all the time. Robots weld cars, what is to be done with the people who used to do the welding? They will have to be retrained to do a different job. Bank clerks used to add up columns of figures, now they press keys on a keyboard. However, they are now expected to provide new services to the customer other than handling cash and cheques. They have had to be retrained as sales persons as banks now sell mortgages, insurance and other services.

Organisations are setting up help desks for customers to contact when they have a query. At present, most of these help desks involve large numbers of people. In future a lot of this help will be provided electronically by means of databases that hold data about frequently asked questions (FAQs). This means that the operators of the help desks will have to be retrained to create these databases.

Training in the use of IT is not sufficient in itself. Employees can be trained to use email but also need training in how email can be used to enhance their work. Instead of groups of workers meeting, say, once a week, the workers can keep one another informed of progress when it happens. This means that all workers on a project know the current stage of development of that project. This speeds up the work. However, training is needed in these new working methods, particularly to prevent an overloading of email communications.

Training programs

Careful thought needs to be given to training programs. Individuals learn in different ways. How a child learns is not the same as a teenager, which isn’t the same as an adult, which isn’t the same as a pensioner. Age isn’t the only consideration, however, when designing training for someone. Other considerations include:

* The prior experience of the users.

* The educational background of the users.

* The motivation of users.

* The time the users have available to train.

* The facilities available so that effective learning can take place.

Changing roles

Secretaries have seen their roles change dramatically over the last decade or two. Managers often no longer need letters typing up – they can compose and send an email immediately or else use voice recognition software to compose letters themselves. Secretaries have become far more flexible personal assistants but that has required re-training. For example, they would have needed re-training so they can maintain contact lists and contact groups in email programs. Their role may be extended to producing the company newsletter. This would require training in a DTP package.

Of course, some workers might find that their jobs have been completely replaced with new technology and these people will need to be re-trained to fulfil a different role completely. This can be very difficult if you have been doing the same thing for many years and will require a carefully thought through training program. For example, if you are a telephone operator and automated computer-telephone systems have been introduced then you will need to be re-trained in a new area.

Changing Work Patterns

At one time a sales person went to a customer with a catalogue and a price list. If a customer wanted something unusual, the sales person had to go back to the office to get details. Now a laptop and a modem can allow the sales people to access the company’s database from customers’ premises. This allows them to spend more time with customers.

A similar example is that of selling double-glazing. At one time someone went to the customer’s house and measured all the windows. The next step was to go back to the office and prepare a quotation which was then sent to the customer. Now, the sales person can use a laptop, with suitable software, to prepare a quotation on the spot.

It is quite common for people to work on a project in the office, email it home and continue working on it later at home.

Like banks, factories have seen major changes in working patterns. Fewer people are needed in the assembly process but more technicians are needed to maintain the automated plant.

Office personnel use computers to produce invoices using databases of orders, delivery notes and customers. The company payroll is fully computerised with money being transferred electronically from employer’s bank to employees banks. No longer do wages clerks have to calculate wages and count money into pay packets.

Hotel receptionists have access to a database for all the hotels in a group. This means that they can now book hotels for customers other than the one in which they work.

Staff in stores only take stock a few times a year instead of weekly. Stock levels are kept on computer databases and need to be checked occasionally in case stock is removed without passing through point-of-sale terminals. (This may be due to products being damaged or stolen.)

Teachers and lecturers often set assignments using computer networks. Students then post their work to their tutors electronically. Tutors view the work on screen and return the marked work, with comments, electronically.

People expect much higher quality in documents, whether it be posters or letters. Students expect teaching materials to be of a higher standard. This book has been produced in electronic format so that you can read it on a screen and print it off for later use. This means that your school or college only has to have one copy of the book and it can be shared using a computer network.

Products can be manufactured to a much higher standard because of the use of computerised machines and robots. This increase in accuracy has lead to an increase in quality. Self- assembly furniture is easier to put together because the parts are made more accurately. Children’s building toys look much better because the components are more accurately made and are of better, more consistent, quality.

This increase in quality has led to fewer faults in end products such as motor cars. This means that, in the case of motor cars, mechanics spend more time servicing vehicles and less time correcting errors in manufacture. However, the increase in quality has also led to a reduction in the need to service motor vehicles.

Managers now write fewer letters because they can use email. This is especially true for younger managers who have grown up with new technology. Voice recognition is decreasing the need for the traditional skills associated with secretaries. Their role has changed as a result.

Video-conferencing means that managers can spend less time travelling to meetings. For example, a one-hour ‘very important meeting’ in Tokyo can now be done in one hour. Before, a manager might have been out of the office for three days just to attend that one hour meeting. This was because of the travelling involved.

Some workers can work at home for at least some part of the working week. For example, an Environmental Agency inspector can do all the paperwork at home and email them to work when she is finished. This is good for the employee but also helps the environment because less travelling in cars needs to be done and good for the Agency because they do not need to provide so much workspace at their headquarters. They could rent/buy a smaller building and save money.

Universities can set assignments over a network, send out reminders, receive assignments on the network which have been date and time-stamped, mark it and return it, again online. Results can be logged on a database which can then be accessed by students. This has reduced the need for paperwork, has meant that work cannot get lost; there is an audit trail of when work was handed in, marked and returned and the lecturer can retrieve, mark and return work from anywhere.

Supermarkets’ stock is now monitored and re-ordered automatically using computerised stock control systems. This has removed some of the tasks that used to be done by workers, for example, making a decision about when to reorder. The collection of sales information has also led to the growth of data mining and data warehousing. These industries have helped companies maximise their profits.

Kitchen designers now design kitchens using sophisticated 3D design software. You take in your kitchen measurements, they tap them in to their software and you can then get a very good picture of what your final kitchen would look like from a variety of angles. This has decreased the likelihood of misunderstandings between sales staff and customer and has helped the customer to picture exactly what they will be getting.

The use of automated speed traps to catch speeding motorists has helped reduce the number of police hours tackling this particular problem.

Improved quality

Computerised technology has not only bought about changes in the way people work but also in the quality of work produced.

The flat-pack kitchen manufacturing process has improved over the years. Sophisticated computer technology has meant that self-assembly furniture is now manufactured very accurately. This means not only greater customer satisfaction but also less time and money spent.

The increasing use of robots in the car manufacturing industry has meant that less time needs to be spent correcting human errors. Robots can produce work to a much higher standard than humans. They can work to finer tolerances and can produce higher quality work consistently.

The quality of animation used for entertainment has improved considerably. If you compare the animation in Jurassic Park or Toy Story, for example, with that from films made a few decades ago there is a world of difference.

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