1. Do people understand the organization of data?
  2. If one understands the organizational concepts and has the right tool, could that individual build their own system to meet their specific need?
  3. Is vertical market software becoming obsolete?

Let me start by explaining that I am a storyteller.  I explain things in the context of an anecdote or personal experience. 

My need to understand data started many years ago working on church staff, while moving member data from hard copy to a digital format, and then needing to develop reports for people.  This was in the late 1970s.  The first system was home grown and all we knew was converting the information collected about a person on a card into a digital system; a person became a record and each piece of information was a field.  All the data made up a database.  Then folks came along that built data systems, sold and supported them.  This is still happening in 2020.

In 2007, I was asked to look at a piece of software and evaluate its application with people’s records in the church.  The software was Microsoft Customer Relationship Management, or CRM.  It is a customizable environment for maintaining relationships.  It is both software and a concept.  While doing this we were approached by several churches wanting a customizable platform.  There were about half a dozen implementations done, but the concept failed because the cost was prohibitive.

Out of that 2007 adventure came a new understanding of a concept about data – how data is organized.  Data is organized as follows:

  1. Records – an individual or person
  2. Attributes – common descriptive information that occurs across records; i.e.: birthdate.
  3. Groups – records are grouped based on commonality of attributes. In the case of a church, the most fundamental group is a family, and the church as a whole is the largest group. There are two types of groups:
    1. Implicit – an implicit group is an implied group; in the case of a church, all the twelve-year-old boys
    2. Explicit – an explicit group is a defined group; in the case of a church, the ninth-grade boys Sunday School Class
  4. Relationships or roles – this is the way that the records by their attributes are associated with a group; in the case of a church- member, visitor, teacher, pastor, mother, brother, aunt, etc.

In 2015 a client asked for an online accounting function built on a customizable platform that could integrate lists of data with another system.  The project landed in SharePoint as a very custom set of lists with approval process automation.

And then, in 2018 my father-in-law passed away.  He was a conchologist with an inconceivably large seashell collection.  It contains roughly twenty-thousand specimens and was distributed throughout the house in special display cabinets, on shelves or just sitting out.  His collection was bequeathed to a museum, which required a catalog of the collections prior to receiving it.  My wife and I became responsible for cataloging the organized and labelled (we thought) collection.  This presented a new opportunity.

Curating a collection requires understanding the collection.  Several things became apparent as we surveyed things:

  1. The collection was organized chronologically in the order it was collected over sixty years,
  2. The earliest specimen labels were not on acid free paper, and
  3. The latest specimens had been cleaned, but not labelled.  

We live in Texas, the collection is on the east coast of Florida, the museum is on the west coast of Florida and the appraisers assisting us lived in New York and Baltimore.  A geographic challenge also existed.

It was at this point I had an epiphany based on my 2007 experience.  This seems simple today, but when you are standing in a room surrounded by cabinets of seashells your perspective is different.  The epiphany was that all data fits into the same concept of Records, Attributes, Groups and Relationships and that if you understand how those apply to your circumstance, you can build a system.

Our geographical challenge determined the system needed to be online.  The fact that we were dealing with seashells and not people steered us away from a true CRM system even though the concept did apply there.  Since most of the people involved had Office 365 accounts individually, we looked first at the tools there.  SharePoint online became an obvious choice.

In 1978 Peachtree software was founded.  In 1983 Intuit Software was founded.  These two companies with a few other accounting software companies building higher end systems helped by and large end the need for vertical market accounting and payroll systems. 

I have dragged you through over forty years of my life lessons to make a point.  The point is not to advocate Microsoft CRM or SharePoint as being the solution to everyone’s data needs.  They are solution options.  The point is:

  1. There are numerous online data and relationship management systems available,
  2. The need for vertical market systems written in a proprietary fashion has diminished, and
  3. The companies who have written proprietary systems need to look to adapting their platforms and using the knowledge gained over their years to help folks use and understand their data better, or risk being obsolete.