Data Portability Is Your Get Out Of Jail Free Card

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He had previously spent nine years delivering technology solutions to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin' Brands.

On your list of must-haves for a new retail technology, application functionality is essential and ease of use is great. But the absolute top requirement should be the portability of the system's data, even if you don’t need that portability today.

Being able to move data around your enterprise gives the most flexibility in using that data, and data portability also future-proofs your system by letting you bolt on new technology quickly instead of slowly and oh-so-carefully making changes to what you've already got.

When you are evaluating systems, you are judging them by the current functionality each system offers and by a roadmap of each vendor's enhancements weighed against your business needs as you know them today. But we all know that business needs change, a lot. The system you choose to meet your needs for the next six months (about as much visibility as you really have) may not have the capability to meet your needs six years down the road. Let's face it: Three years ago, would you have wanted to let your customers share their in-store purchases on Facebook from your cash wrap? I bet you'd like that now.

Data portability is so important because it often enables you to add technology to meet the company's needs, rather than trying to enhance existing technology. When it comes to enhancing existing systems, you have to fight the long and difficult battle to get your current technology platform providers to develop, test and deploy the new technology. And all this before the executive team decides to replace you with someone who doesn't pick such a crappy system that "doesn't do what you should have known we were going to need."

On a side note, I am on a personal mission to help dispel the myth that retail technology should last seven to 10 years. For every person who tells me that, I am going to grab a 10-year-old laptop, drop it on their desk, ask them to use it for a week and then call me and let me know how it went. "Hey, retail executives. If you get five years out of a technology platform, you've done well. If you manage to get seven years, you've lost money to the guy down the street."

Data portability also gives you a tremendous advantage when it comes to the oh-so-common scenario of not having a single provider, or single generation of system, deployed throughout the field. Being able to combine and normalize data from different systems dramatically improves your ability to plug in other third-party systems without having to ask questions like: "Does your approach integrate with these four POS platforms and those four payment systems?" And for the franchise organizations out there, how cool would it be to not care about the POS platform your franchisees use as long as it provides the data in the way you need it?

It's much easier to find a mobile marketing platform today than it is to find a POS package that has highly integrated mobile marketing.It's much easier to find a mobile marketing platform today than it is to find a POS package that has highly integrated mobile marketing. It's much easier to build an omni-channel approach across your retail, online and call-center outlets by swapping data between these systems than it is to find a single system that meets all the needs of these areas all at once. And most importantly, it is much easier to replace a single retail technology platform if its data feed to the enterprise has been normalized and can easily be customized by the new vendor.

If you think about your current to-do list with retail technology, how much of that list is related to business function needs ("we want the system to be able to do this new thing") versus accessing, changing or reporting on data ("we want a report that shows us how many widgets we sell online versus retail")?

Information and data requirements make up a large part of any retail technology RFP. The problem is that they are typically too broad ("we need to be able to show executives a dashboard of how awesome this new technology is") or too narrow ("we need to be able to see how many widgets we sold online versus retail"). If you set up an infrastructure where those data needs could easily change over time by manipulating the data "someplace else," you are more likely to achieve future success. This applies to both on-premises and cloud-based approaches.

You need to consider data portability critical even if you don't see an immediate need today. I know many retailers are looking to find vendor-partners to take this headache off their plates, and they don't want to build in requirements that say they may someday want to do some of this themselves. Worse still, functional silos within the retail enterprise often hide the problem (and potential answers) that data portability solves. And vendors aren't always chomping at the bit to reduce the value of their application to the business function it plays.

But with the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies we are experiencing, the ability to "glue together" several different vendors through a robust information architecture will become critical as this space gains maturity. The technology and the vendors are changing so rapidly in this space that placing a hard-to-reverse decision on any one technology or platform could be very hard (and costly) to undo, just ask the restaurants and retailers who invested in the Gowalla platform.

Now that's not to say there is not a place for the larger players who offer a multi-faceted retail technology framework that covers many or all of the retail technology stack. Although my approach may seem like a no-brainer for the folks who are building a best-of-breed retail technology stack, I would also argue that it helps the framework players. You may love 95 percent of the framework but worry about its ability to deliver on new and emerging technologies fast enough. Make sure your data is portable, and that will enable you to integrate smaller components into the framework where it makes sense.

So when you start putting your requirements together for your next retail technology decision, make sure you prominently feature data portability. Make sure the vendor has a clean and easy way to extract that data from its system and, if possible, an API for you to reference. Oh, and make sure to drop "future proofing" on your executive team as a way that you are helping to protect your retail technology investments. They love that stuff.

What do you think? If you disagree (or even, heaven forbid, agree), please comment below or send me a private message. Or check out the Twitter discussion on @todd_michaud.