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March 2008
New Face of Technology
By Susanne Deitzel

     Gone is the paradigm of IT people as pallid-skinned geeks pouring over lines of code in the back office. Today’s techies are the new rock stars.

     This isn’t just because they can make things look hip on the screen we are currently affixed to or because they make our reports look slicker. They are cool because they have known for a while what a lot of us are just catching onto—that any part of technology we can immediately experience—sound, graphics, animation, etc. is the icing on the cake of technological potential.

    It is the data buried deep in our systems where the real inspiration and innovation lies. The information we collect tells the truth about what is important to us, and where we want to be headed.

     Because of this understanding, technology has emerged less as a tool than a medium. Data exchange is a constant conversation between people, organizations, businesses, economies, governments, sciences—and data packets are the words in that conversation.

     Which is why it’s a good thing that there are folks like Bruce Wilkinson and his team at Decision Support who understand this language and can provide the support to translate it in a meaningful way.

 

Knowledge is Power

     Wilkinson has over 25 years of experience in the IT industry. He is recognized as an innovator in cross-platform data integration and reporting, most recently as a CIO of a $1.3 billion property and casualty insurance carrier. He served as a director on the board of Decision Support for 5 years before deciding to make an offer to purchase the business in 2004.

     Wilkinson purchased Decision Support from founder Herb Verbesey who has retired but remains on the board of directors. When Verbesey created the company in 1984, it was an inspired combination between his love for mathematics and drive toward invention. The result was the formulation of a software product called DARGAL (Data Access, Reporting, Graphics and Analysis Language), which allowed companies to access specialized data from giant mainframes.

     After DARGAL came the company’s second coup, DQ (distributed query) products that access and integrate data from mainframes, servers and desktops to produce fast and vital information. These two components formulate part of the legacy line of the company, a branch called Data Integration & Reporting.

     Within Data Integration & Reporting, however, were nascent buds of innovation waiting for the right leadership to bring them to fruition. Today, Decision Support has two additional business units, Business Intelligence & Reporting and Secure Elections Management.

     Wilkinson explains, “As a director for the company I saw tremendous value in its code innovation and company culture. As CEO, my job is to be the catalyst to take these core strengths and leverage them into new opportunities.”

     Wilkinson is a leader’s leader. He is not a push-and-pull kind of executive, but a modern, culturally-sensitive, people-centric, have fun or go home kind of guy. He’s passionate, he’s committed, and he wants to win. But he also knows that to do that his employees need a life outside the innovation vortex of Decision Support.

     This kind of insight is valuable to more than Wilkinson’s employees, or to the company’s bottom line. It is the lifeblood of the company and its creativity. By acknowledging the human element behind their organization, he and his employees are acculturated to the human needs of their clients, and their client’s clients. It is this human understanding that spurs the technology that drives businesses to next-level results. This is the wisdom that separates the men from the boys in today’s technology.

 

Tech Life Cycle

     Agility doesn’t hurt either. Wilkinson explains, “Software products have always had a very predictable, bell-curved life cycle. What has changed is that a cycle that used to be five to six years has shrunk to three years.”

     Oddly, he sounds excited about this. “That is what makes what we do fun! Coming up with the next way to leverage technology to create a solution for somebody and be the first one to the gate—that is what this business is about.” He adds, “That is our game here; we want to be in and out of a market before our competition even knew there was a market to tap into.”

     Here is one case study. One of Decision Support’s most crucial assets is its cultural mantra: “Delight the customer.” Because of this, the company is able to create and maintain long-term, trusting relationships with its clients. In this case the client was a banking services customer who had been a client with Decision Support for over a decade. In the process of developing a software solution the company requested, Decision Support learned about the client’s business, its customers, its market and its challenges. By listening to nuances in the human element of the business—Decision Support’s multifaceted software developers were able to develop a major reporting innovation for the client.

     This is standard operating procedure at Wilkinson’s company. “Why did the customer say this? Why did they have that problem? Why is this area complicating things for them? These are all questions that could become a potential new product, market or niche,” he says.

     Decision Support proposed a prototype for the banking services client that served as the inspiration for a completely new product and became the springboard for Decision Support’s Business Intelligence & Reporting unit. “Based upon what we were able to learn about the company by cultivating a trusting relationship, we helped to define their objective and create a reporting tool around it. It ran seamlessly and invisibly within their application, without creating user problems for tellers or their customer. That was a huge accomplishment.”

     It was also this kind of vision that precipitated the Secure Elections Management unit of Decision Support. “Some people are reluctant to embrace the introduction of new technology into the voting check-in process—some reasons more valid than others. But after researching the reality of the voting process, we saw not just a business opportunity but a deep need for this technology,” says Wilkinson.

     The EViD system, Electronic Voter Identification System, is the delivery method that Decision Support proposes to drastically reduce a troubled process. Wilkinson says, “For example, we found that to run a county election involves hiring 1,000 temporary employees for one day, most of them elderly, provide them a couple hours of training, have them work for 12 plus hours straight without a break, and expect them to execute detailed tasks and carry off a perfect election in front of cameras, lawyers and the news media. It is a Herculean task.”

     Decision Support leverages its data collection, integration and reporting expertise to streamline the registration process, and speed up the results and reporting. “Speed and accuracy are critical in an election. Delays undermine the perception of fairness. We like to think that our work will create great strides in assuring the accuracy and integrity of the democratic process in the U.S. and other countries as well.”

 

The Calculus of Success

     But, says Wilkinson, don’t forget that it’s all about the data. “We aren’t after all of IT. But if it involves data—accessing it, integrating it, or assembling it so that it provides measurable results for our clients—then we are on it.”

     One of Decision Support’s clients is the General Services Administration (GSA), and the software is used by hundreds of end users with little technological expertise to cross-reference requests for automobile purchases with government-contracted vendors. “Our software reaches between several different data sources to provide a report on the most cost-efficient purchase of, for example, a white truck, with specific features, in specific locations, from approved vendors and sends that back in a report. It is quick, doesn’t require hours of labor, and gets the ­­­­best price.”

      And this is perhaps the merging of two of Wilkinson’s great passions, people and results. He forges relationships with clients, employees and suppliers to create partnerships to move things forward for everybody. Then he demands—you guessed it—data, to show where the company has made a difference.

     “It is great to be to be told we are doing a good job, but if the service or product I am providing is not worth more value than what the customer has paid for it, I haven’t achieved my purpose. If I am not increasing your revenue or decreasing your cost, I want to know what I have been doing for you. What am I providing—speed, flexibility, decreased risk? I need to know so that I can determine my efficacy,” provides Wilkinson.

     At this stage of the game, Wilkinson gets an A. He has a profitable company with three business units functioning off of the same core competency; discrete software products that can be combined to yield innovative if not quantum shifts in business reporting and functionality; and a business development unit dedicated to the primary objective of rolling these pieces into new entities.

     Wilkinson says his vision is to make his employees so financially independent that they don’t have to come to work—but still do. But he also says that beyond financial incentive, the crucial component to a creative, motivated and inspired team is to allow them room to take care of all of the important areas of their life—especially their family—so that they have the mental freedom to perform on the job. “If I leave here at 6 or 7 at night, I want to be the last one out. People have to have balance to be happy, and to perform at the level our people perform.”

 

The Future is Now

     Wilkinson says the Decision Support team has a top-quality management team dedicated to innovation, and technology developers that demonstrate two difficult qualities to find in the same package—flexibility of mind and extensive experience. “The two together is nothing short of sheer brilliance,” says Wilkinson.

     Today’s business leaders demand nothing less. CEOs and their teams are so dependant and fluent on their PC software that they demand more and more from their business applications. Wilkinson says that while there are good reasons for why the two don’t work the same way, he says there is not a good reason for why they should stay that way.

     Says Wilkinson, “This is how people, businesses and technology work together to create and make strides in every area of our lives. We push each other further to open possibilities, and this is one of the most exciting games in town.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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