Garbage In, Gospel Out – Why Relevant Education Matters

The most common phrase I hear when talking about ERP or CRM system success and failure is “garbage in, garbage out.” Project managers use this phrase to install a sense of urgency related to training. It drives home the point: your system is only as good as your data. This is a very valid axiom for managing your system; however, it is not complete. Even with perfect data entry there is almost always a point of data manipulation or custom reporting used for decision making. After all, the system is model of your business, and it is built to help make business decisions. What happens when you have perfect data entry, but an imperfect representation of that data in a report? You make an imperfect decision. Since the system models your business that has very real consequences.  A currency conversion or decimal point placement can mean an employee’s job, losing a valued customer, or not knowing where your payments and debts stand. With a comprehensive ERP and CRM system it is much more than “garbage in, garbage out”, it is actually “garbage in, gospel out” since decision makers rely on the system to steer the company and need to trust reports, dashboards, and custom automation.

So how do we ensure that our representations and manipulations of data are as accurate as our input? The answer is knowledge. Knowledge extends beyond training fostering a depth of understanding and critical thinking skills related to the area of focus. Typical training shows you “click here, do this”; knowledge explains why something happened.  Here are what I believe to be the three key points to a successful education initiative:

  1. Relevance. Hands down this is the number one item on the list. If the content is not relevant then the participants will not invest their time or energy into working with the material. We’ve all attended generic training sessions and walked away asking “great, so how does this apply to me?” Keeping content relevant requires quick thinking and normally generating examples on the fly. This is to conceptually deliver but also engage the audience. For an ERP or CRM implementation the examples should be deliverable requests when possible if they will adequately convey the desired topic.
  1. No magic. Every education program strives to fully explain a concept. My view is that no explanation should be taboo due to complexity. There are definitely times where it is appropriate to take a discussion “offline” or do additional research into something particular vexing, but every component of program should have a thorough and thoughtful explanation. As an instructor it is a very challenging problem. You need to be honest with yourself about your knowledge, and find someone willing to incessantly ask “why?”  (as well as force yourself not to answer “just because!”).
  1. Complexity through simplicity. As an instructor you need to keep the view that complex issues are normally compounded simple issues, and then explain them simply. Complex systems – biological, computational, or conceptual – normally get their complexity as an emergent property of combined simple mechanisms. Flocking in birds or neural networks are great examples (I’m a science geek at heart). The key here is to keep both the macro-complex view and the micro-simple view simultaneously. By understanding the components at each level you can really start to transfer knowledge. Training would teach only the surface of the macro-view, knowledge teaches both levels and gives people the tools to create their own complex systems from existing simple components.

People require knowledge. It’s that simple. Since people really determine the success or failure of your project the knowledge they gain is all the more critical. I would encourage you to change your mantra from “garbage in, garbage out” to “garbage in, gospel out”. Keep the perspective that an ERP or CRM system impacts real decisions in the real world. It is an abstraction of your business. With an ERP or CRM system it’s about more than your data; your system is truly only as good as the knowledge of the people who use it, make sure you have invested in their education.