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A Challenge for the Telecom Industry: Converging Enterprise Portals and Business Intelligence to Produce a Collaborative Business Platform

Published
  • August 01 2003, 1:00am EDT

"Eerything that Rises Must Converge" is the title of a short story by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor.1 Although the story itself has nothing to do with information technology (IT) or business in general, as I was rereading it the other night, the title struck me as an apt description of the state of data warehousing/business intelligence (DW/BI) today.

More specifically, I think that in order for business to take full advantage of the cornucopia of rising new technologies that are driving the IT industry today – including operational data stores (ODSs); DWs; BI; enterprise portals; extract, transform and load (ETL) tools; enterprise application integration (EAI); and Web services – organizations must work toward converging those technologies. The new technologies must function symbiotically, coalescing critical information from across the organization and delivering it through a single access point to provide a collaborative environment for decision making.

Hard Times for Telecom

The need to integrate ETL, EAI, DW, enterprise portals and BI is especially true for the much battered telecommunications industry. Whatever the political or business reasons, the fates have not been kind to telecom over the past several years. In order to turn their fortunes, many telecom companies are investing heavily in new technologies that will enable them to collect and make sense of the overabundance of data that resides in their organizations, thus turning that data into usable information.

There's a wrench in the works, however. Over the past decade or so, countless vendors have touted their products as all- inclusive or comprehensive solutions to DW/BI problems. As a result, many organizations have sunk copious amounts of money into these panacea solutions. They have built specialized data warehouses, operational data stores, data marts and business intelligence applications on top of these data stores or legacy systems. I call it data mart anarchy.

Yet most of us who work in IT have come to understand that no combination of products, tool suites or technologies can be a complete solution to thorny business and/or technological issues, especially when we don't have a road map to our ultimate destination.

As I've said, some of the pieces­ – DWs, BI tools, enterprise portals, ETL and EAI – are already in place at many organizations. The key is to integrate those pieces – to converge them. Data warehousing expert William McKnight puts it this way, "The use of multiple tools is the standard. The challenge, therefore, becomes how to seamlessly integrate a wide variety of [data management and] BI tools and maintain the technology as well as the environment ... posing a huge challenge to a fragmented BI/enterprise portal integration."2 This challenge must be met quickly and successfully if telecom companies hope to thrive once again.

To complicate matters even further, recent accounting scandals compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. The gist of Sarbanes-Oxley is that there are many more hoops that corporations must jump through when preparing and presenting their financial statements. Among other things, companies must set up new, more stringent business governances, as well as policies and processes for collecting, certifying and disclosing financial information.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act may significantly affect telcos. "Sarbanes-Oxley ... subjects public companies to myriad disclosure requirements and requires them to implement a series of internal policies and procedures," say telco experts Stanley Gorinson and Neil Falis. "This may be particularly true for telecom firms, which may be subject to a higher standard of conduct after the relatively large number of recent industry-related scandals."3 In other words, most telcos, as if they didn't have enough problems already, now have their proverbial feet held to the fire by Uncle Sam.

Figure 1 represents the business drivers that are forcing companies to rethink the way their systems are aligned and used.


Figure 1: Information Integration Drivers

The easy part is stating the problem: In order to survive and thrive, businesses – especially telcos – need to integrate their DW/BI capabilities to form a collaborative business platform that provides accurate, up-to-date, real-time, usable information. It's building the solution that gets a little tricky!

From the Ground Up: Seeing Business Information in a New Way

Again, the problem is not a lack of information. The problem most businesses face today is that they don't use their information to their best advantage. Dr. Arvind Sathi, a business intelligence expert at BearingPoint, Inc., who has more than 20 years of experience in building and researching BI systems for the telecom industry, thinks that the problem lies in the way businesses view and act on their data. "So far we have been looking at static data," says Sathi. "The basic exercise was that you would create a data warehouse or mart associated with static data such as how many customers, how many orders, what products, what's been sold by geo-location."4

However, according to Sathi, information needs have changed with new competitive pressures and governmental regulations. "The needs have changed from being able to collect static data only to now collecting business events," Sathi says. "As we move more and more toward a real-time environment, from a financial perspective, Sarbanes-Oxley contains requirements for real-time information. And, if you're looking at marketing, the trend now is toward one-to-one marketing and being able to reach each customer, creating a micro-market, which is again a real-time issue."

Sathi provides a salient example for telecom that is also pertinent to just about any other business that interacts directly with its customers through multiple touchpoints. Sathi paints the picture of a customer service call gone awry. "Consider the scenario where customers slam the phone down because they are not very happy with the service they are receiving from a telco," says Sathi. "Five years ago, we simply tracked statistics on how many people were interrupting the calls. We reported that statistic on a monthly basis to call center managers so that they could figure out how to improve on those statistics."

According to Sathi, businesses need to reduce the time frame from the time they collect information to the time the act on it. "What we need in today's environment is when that customer slams the phone down, that act is viewed as a business event that is captured and fed back to our analysis engines within minutes of the customer slamming the phone down," Sathi asserts.

According to Sathi, failing to act on business events within a short time frame can have serious consequences. "Business events should be acted upon within minutes or an hour, which is when it makes a difference," Sathi says. "If you go to the customer after an event and say you're sorry that the customer service representative didn't satisfy the customer, you have long missed any opportunity you had to rectify the situation with that customer, and that customer may be lost." Obviously, the stakes are very high in this situation. If you miss too many opportunities, churn rates will spiral and revenues will plummet.

Building the Real-Time Intelligent Enterprise

The technological combination that will solve this problem is what I call the real-time intelligent enterprise (RTIE). The RTIE is the convergence of the powerful database solutions, such as NCR's Teradata, coupled with EAI and/or ETL technology, enterprise portals and powerful BI capabilities. I have made it a practice over the last few years to design and build DW/BI platforms that leverage all of these technologies.

This combination delivers tremendous value in the form of a complete, customized desktop environment that includes access to integrated data, as well as access to knowledge management systems, content and document management systems, learning systems, collaboration tools and business process management systems – or, as we once called them, workflow systems. It enables organizations to solve real business problems, and it delivers real returns on their investment.

Business intelligence engines and delivery methods – such as executive dashboards – play a major role in the RTIE by providing proactive alerts and insight into issues that need to be investigated, analyzed and researched. Meanwhile, data mining engines can detect patterns of fraud, churn or risk that activate the alerts. After the EAI and ETL tools have done their work, BI engines also provide the last layers of integration – the desktop environment.

For example, if a pricing anomaly is exposed by the real- time intelligent BI engine, the system can send a proactive alert to the appropriate manager's PDA or RIM so that the manager can review the contract in question – which is, of course, available at his/her fingertips via the document management system inherent in the enterprise information portal.

Constructing the Enterprise Information Portal

So just how is the RTIE environment constructed? It's basically a four-phase process. Figure 2 represents a typical RTIE construction process and its associated tasks.


Figure 2: RTIE Construction Process and Associated Tasks

The first phase, conception, consists of all the tasks necessary to paint the picture of the end product. This is the point at which the project team must determine just who the user community will be, as well as the goals of that community for the system. Once the user community gels, the project team must then define the metrics to be captured and monitored by the system.

When defining metrics, more is definitely not better. The metrics must be only those that are absolutely critical to the success of the enterprise, as well as those that provide insight into prospects to improve the business and generate value.

Once the metrics are defined, the project team can then assess the current state situation and determine the scope of work. This process is accomplished by prioritizing the value of the information that must be collected, transformed, integrated and delivered through the portal. At this point, the project team makes decisions regarding the periodicity of delivery of information – real-time, daily, exception-based – and how the information will be presented to the enterprise.

The second phase, occupying most of the project timeline, is the design phase. There are myriad tasks in this step; but the steps most crucial to the process are the design of the enterprise taxonomy, technical architecture and prototype. With the design of the taxonomy, decisions are made about data standards, organization hierarchies, navigation structure, rights management, and system security and permissions. It's also in the design phase that the existing analytical capabilities are examined; and, if new capabilities are needed, components are integrated into the technical architecture.

It's in the design phase that the integration of the portal, DW, BI, EAI and ETL technologies converge. The power of the RTIE really becomes apparent with the design and testing of the system prototype. The prototype serves to whet the corporate appetite and provide a glimpse of how powerful the actual end system will be.

In the third, or build, phase, the enterprise portal, with all the underlying architecture, is constructed using the designs that were developed and carefully honed in the second phase. The building process must be carefully tracked and constantly tweaked because the enterprise-wide nature of the system makes the construction process incredibly complex.

In the final, or test, phase, the newly constructed RTIE system is put through its paces. The project team selects a group of users – ranging from power users to ordinary, occasional users – to ferret out any problems with the architecture or information delivery mechanisms. Heavy user-community involvement is critical in this step. Developers must not be solely responsible for testing the system. Only business users, who know what information they need, will truly be able to tell the management team whether or not the system really works.

Business Intelligence Custom-Delivered to the Enterprise

All the painstaking effort spent in designing and constructing the RTIE portal really pays off in the form of an enterprise technical architecture that converges all of the organization's resident knowledge and BI capabilities and presents them through the portal. Figure 3 represents the structure of the real-time intelligence enterprise environment that results from the construction of an enterprise portal with integrated BI capabilities.


Figure 3: The Real-Time Intelligent Enterprise

The success of the RTIE rests upon the fact that it uses the knowledge repositories that reside within the organization as the underpinnings of the solution. The architecture collects the data from these repositories and combines it with other pertinent information resident within the organization – tacit information that may not be in a database, but that is critical to the operation of the business. This information includes, but is not limited to, content from policies and procedures, program management, customer relations processes and interactions, published and unpublished methodologies, and training information.

Leveraging the integration of portal and BI technologies, the organizational data and other – mostly unstructured – content is coalesced to form an organization-wide integrated knowledge base. This integrated knowledge is presented via Web services to the enterprise portal, which may be accessed through organizational intranets, the Internet and extranets. Access is based on a rights management system that manages individualized security and user protocols and IDs. Portal users can receive information on their laptops, PDAs and wireless phones (and even their traditional, clunky desktops!).

Users can then customize their information environments to see only the content they need to do their jobs. More importantly, however, they can use the variety of information touchpoints available to them to participate in a truly collaborative environment to solve business problems.

The benefits of this collaborative environment are enormous. First, the RTIE provides users with "one-stop shopping" for information. The RTIE portal presents a single gateway to organizational information and integrates stovepiped information into shared solutions. Second, corporate information is centralized, enabling improved management and development of content (i.e., version control, tracking and archiving).

The system also enables identification of business opportunities, monitoring programs, improved decision making and seamless access to disparate data sources, without the need to implement a worldwide enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) or supply chain management (SCM) system. It also enables the business activity monitoring and immediate response to business events described earlier by BearingPoint's Sathi. With the RTIE, telecom companies can perform badly needed niche and one-to-one marketing, thus getting a leg up on the competition and reducing churn.

More importantly, however, the RTIE fosters the creation of a collaborative environment. The system supports various communities of interest within the organization that come together for a time to solve a cross- functional business issue and disband when the issue is resolved. It also supports seamless communication and standardized access to information for business partners, suppliers and employees. Finally, it supports and encourages the sharing of best practices throughout the enterprise. This information serves to improve business processes and streamline the organization.

The value proposition of the RTIE is clear. It leverages existing IT investments and creates a collaborative, information-rich environment that gives management what it can't get enough of – instant answers to their business questions. That's as close to a sure-fire formula for success as you can get in today's topsy-turvy world.

References:
1. O'Connor, Flannery. "Everything that Rises Must Converge." Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Short Stories. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985.
2. McKnight, William. "Business Intelligence in Enterprise Portals." DM Review. December, 2002.
3. Gorinson, Stanley M. and Neil D. Falis. Accounting, Patriot Laws Raise Concern for Telcos ­ Public and Private. 28 April 2003. Phone Plus Magazine Website. March 2003.

All information provided is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. No one should act upon such information without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation. The views and opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BearingPoint, Inc.

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