Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the computer revolution on business has been the data explosion. Whether it's an hour-by-hour cash position or sales of widgets in Wisconsin, information that once was buried deep in account ledgers or mainframe databases now is available on the desktops of decision makers.
The revolution is far from complete, however. Even something as simple as a monthly look at widget sales requires sifting through a mountain of information to find what you're looking for. Customizing database software to your needs has long required the skills of a computer whiz. Small-business managers, with no computer staffs to turn to, are at a particular disadvantage.
PROBLEM SOLVER. Salsa for the Desktop, a new Windows program available from Wall Data (800 987-2572), could be the breakthrough that finally creates a database manager for the rest of us. It walks you through the hardest database chore, which is organizing the information in the first place. Then it can solve some sticky problems. How do you track which customers are buying which products so that you can get the most bang for your marketing efforts? How are you supposed to arrange payroll, benefits, and personal information about employees to keep your workers motivated and comply with various regulations?
Conventional database software can answer those questions. But most people are clueless about how to design a database that will handle these chores efficiently. And that's only the beginning. Unless the information is linked properly, getting the reports you need is always going to be a nightmare. Programs such as Micro-soft Access and Borland Paradox require that you learn the arcane formal concepts of databases. Ever heard of such things as inner joins, outer joins, and normalized tables? But Salsa allows you to create your database in a process that you can understand, then gives you the tools for extracting the information in ways you can use.
Let's say you want to keep close tabs on customers' buying habits and reward or prod the employees who take care of those customers. You can start with a template called "Company" and modify it, using easy drag-and-drop tools, to make it a customer list. Drag in a template called "Employee" and you have the beginnings of your human resources and payroll database. And drawing lines between "Employee" and "Company" lets you associate workers with the companies they deal with. Entering and extracting the information you want then becomes fairly routine.
SIMPLE VIEW. Salsa, available at an introductory price of $149, provides a large number of templates for basic tasks, such as keeping track of phone numbers or generating invoices and expense reports. For $49 each, you can buy "starter kits" that provide templates for specialized functions such as human resource management or inventory control.
Salsa is so committed to simplicity that it has no printed manual. This may be a mistake. The built-in tutorials and help system, while excellent, are no substitute for a hard-copy reference. I found myself printing out lots of help screens to get through the trickier parts.
For a real-life testimonial, listen to Scott Moberly, the general manager of Dick Campbell Co., a small Seattle manufacturer of traffic-control equipment. He couldn't get by with information extracted from his accounting programs as he added new products and distributors as part of an expansion plan. He found a test version of Salsa to be ideal for his added information needs. "I knew nothing about databases," Moberly says. "But I know about my business, and this is helping me manage my business." You can expect to run into more Scott Moberlys soon.