The philosopher Aristotle did not have a database – not an electronic one, anyway. But he believed in the importance of differentiating and analyzing data. In his work “Categories,” he presented 10 ways of describing a thing. These included quantity, quality, place, time, position and action. He was prepared to group data, determine its inter-relationships and come to conclusions. Such a penchant for classification – which Aristotle applied to biology, among other things – was a driving force in creating the analytical mindset for all of Western civilization. He believed that how we approach data is important.
While ancient Greeks surprisingly seem to have calculated astronomical data with amazing analog computers such as the Antikythera Mechanism, we are not aware of any that stored or analyzed data. But if it were possible, the ancients might well have been happy to employ a database management system to put their good thinking to good use. There are many reasons to support the idea that you too could use a good database management system in your life and work.
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1. A database management system (DBMS) is an extension of human logic
You may wonder why I reference philosophy and biology in an article about databases for technical professionals. Well, as much as we love digital machines and what they can do for our lives, we have not yet melded with them. And the computational powers that we as flesh-and-blood data technicians endow to our computers is merely the extension of the reasoning power of the human intellect. The database that you create to manage human knowledge will enhance your abilities to correlate, query and report the collected information of your organization. Managing your company with a well-developed DBMS is the logical thing to do.
2. Computers can quickly answer lots of questions
Susan: “John, may I have your email address please?”
John: “Sure, it's email@example.com.”
Meanwhile John is getting a little peeved that this was the fifteenth time that he has been asked for his email address during his first week of employment. John is shocked to find out that there is no central database where he works, and everyone seems to have developed his own spreadsheet with varying levels of accuracy and completion. Even simple collections of data like a master contact list or database table are sometimes neglected by organizations in a rush to put out fires and be seen as productive.
The cumulative waste of time throughout the entire organization by individuals seeking out such information could be quite surprising. But a centralized database, easily accessible by all, can provide quick answers to questions that sound strikingly similar to the categories of our analytical ancient philosopher.
- How many units were sold last quarter?
- What colors does the product come in?
- Where is the conference located this year?
- What time is the meeting with the client next week?
- What are the actions required to meet our targets?
3. Some questions can be really complicated
Being able to delve into data and discover insights is the reason for such new-fangled ideas as data mining and analytics. But conventional databases have been answering complex questions for decades. You may want to know how many employees are qualified in a certain area. A simple query of a spreadsheet or a search of data in a directory might easily give the information that you need. But what if you need to locate only qualified employees of a certain state who have five years of experience, are willing to relocate, and speak a certain foreign language? To query data based upon multiple criteria, you need a database management system. The more complex the query, the more robust your DBS will need to be. A good system tells you everything you need to know with a couple of mouse clicks.
4. We are easily overwhelmed with information
Keeping it simple is a good idea in any area of life. No one wants to be bogged down with unnecessary requirements or additional busywork. But a good database generally has a simple front end that is intuitively understood by the user. And it structures the data in such a way that we humans can grasp without too much difficulty. While the terminology and concepts in the data may be specific to the user’s own core competency, the user experience itself makes it possible to focus on the data rather than the intricacies of the database links and forms. A well-organized database makes a large treasure of information more manageable, and gives the user only what he needs at the time to do his job better.
5. Automation is the key to efficiency
Normally you look to automation to perform repetitive tasks that would take you much longer by hand. The ENIAC created firing tables for military planners in a matter of minutes in comparison to the weeks required for human labor on a similar task. Charles Babbage cried out for a steam-powered solution to the calculation of navigational charts. You count on your personal computer to handle menial tasks that might have been time- and labor-intensive for previous generations. (To learn more about Babbage, see The Analytical Engine: A Look Back at Babbage's Timeless Designs.)
Compiling a wide array of inventory or other such information and making it available for queries and reports is a necessity in today's business world. A quick search of the Google database gives nearly instantaneous results based on analysis of perhaps millions of sources. As your collection of data grows, you will need more sophisticated automatic processes to find the level of efficiency that you desire for your company.
The exception to this might be when it would actually take longer to create the automated process than to perform the manual operation itself. It is quite easy to become absorbed in the development of a digital tool so much that it really becomes overkill. Suppose that in the time that it takes you to develop that killer app, the old-school admin who manages the office supplies could have cranked it out and headed on home for dinner. A DBMS is a tool that should be used over the long term.
6. A DBMS is better than manual processes in so many ways
Data environments are comprised of data, hardware, software, people and procedures. The advantages of using databases have been espoused by many, and can be tagged to particular characteristics of the DBMS. For instance, while Excel spreadsheets and Access databases are generally used by only one person, true database management systems allow for the simultaneous access of multiple users. A database is a single software application that may use many tables, forms and reports, rather than a plethora of spreadsheets owned and managed by people throughout the organization. A good database is a one-stop shop to bring people and processes together. It even provides for such mundane things as consistency of spelling and syntax and the elimination of so much duplicated effort. (For more on spreadsheets, see How Spreadsheets Changed the World: A Short History of the PC Era.)
7. You’re interested in making and saving money, aren’t you?
We should all be happy for ways that database management systems can improve our lives and our work. But so much of corporate activity is concerned with making more money or reducing excessive work hours in pursuit of particular objectives. The efficiencies produced by your DBMS will likely be well worth the time, money, and effort spent to bring the database to completion.
Sound logic is helpful for any facet of life. It is also an integral part of database management. While you may be more inclined to get to work on your own DBMS after reading this article, there is a corollary to the claim that you need a database management system. You also need a good database designer. This is a person who can sit down with pen and paper and sketch out diagrams showing the ideal flow of data and the best ways to input, capture, analyze and report information. After all these years, we still need categories and classifications to crunch the data properly. Good database experts make good databases. Life is complicated. Sometimes you need all the help you can get to find the right approach to the data that faces you every day. You need a database management system.