My recent move to Burton Group, where I cover content management and enterprise search, led to what we call in the business "a column crisis." I've been writing about a variety of topics, but with an emphasis on "volume analytics" - what insights are possible if you crunch a huge mass of data, such as in Web analytics. However, my new area of coverage takes me away from that. Hmm, what to do?
In a conference call with DM Review editor in chief Mary Jo Nott and editorial director Jim Ericson, we discussed the issues currently confronting business intelligence (BI). One trend that we all agreed on was that the worlds of structured and unstructured data are merging. Because users now just want relevant information - no matter where it resides - the distinctions between the two are starting to blur. Technologies such as XML and XQuery make the realm of "semistructured data" possible - which, in turn, is going to change the face of BI significantly.
So that's the subject I'm going to write about moving forward: how emerging unstructured technologies will have an impact on the gathering and reporting of business intelligence as we know it. That explains the new column title: Emerging Technologies. Although I'll take a deeper dive on these topics in the future, in this inaugural column I thought I'd give a general overview of what I see as major harbingers of this change.
XML is one of those far-reaching standards that comes along every generation or so. XML, derived from SGML, uses a tree-based structure to describe information. For those old enough to remember, it is a bit like a COBOL copybook leavened with 50 years of experience. Its building blocks, called elements, can be nested. Hence, an Address element can contain Address Line 1, Address Line 2, City, State, Postal Code and Country elements. This elements-within-elements organization can describe both structured and unstructured information, thereby blurring the longstanding line between them. XML can be read by both humans and machines, and it is platform-independent. In short, it's pretty much a universal data translator.
Building on its versatility, groups are using it to build specialized markup languages such as Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA, designed for writing technical documentation), Mathematical Markup Language (MathML, used to represent mathematical symbols and formulas) and Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL, created to describe financial statements). XML and its derivatives are helping businesses structure information, no matter where it resides.
As its name suggests, XQuery is a query language for XML repositories. Although compatible with the earlier standard (XPath), XQuery is more SQL-like. Because of that similarity, it is easy for businesspeople to express the information they would like at a logical level and then translate that into platform-neutral XQuery statements.
Because it can pull content, XQuery can do some interesting things. O'Reilly Media Group is using it to create customized textbooks on the fly. Educators log on to SafariU.com and, via a Web-based interface, drag and drop the material of interest to fabricate a textbook. Behind the scenes, the Web site makes calls to a MarkLogic Server, which executes a series of XQuery calls to create a personalized textbook. Initially, the result is a PDF file; when the author is happy with it, he hits a button and SafariU prints the requested number of physical books.
Enterprises could use this same technology to create soft-or hard-copy briefing books for executives, pulling information from document repositories and multiple BI systems. Due to XQuery, the plethora of BI systems becomes less of an issue; enterprises can retrieve information, no matter where it resides.
Google, the high-tech wunderkind, has certainly made the search text box a familiar user interface to consumers. Given that every worker is also a consumer, this applies to the business world as well. The various desktop search products - blinkx, Copernic, Google Desktop Search, Yahoo! - are also doing their part in training the business world that the search text box is the way to find information.
After initially helping people find information on the HTML-centric Web, search engines have taken to indexing all kinds of content including Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Adobe PDFs and videos. They are even starting to find records in operational systems. Why spend hours in class learning to navigate a BI tool's idiosyncratic interface when you can enter what you're searching for and, voila, it is there, no matter where it resides?
What Does All this Mean?
It is no mistake that all three of the above sections end with the phrase, "no matter where it resides." The application-centricity that we're so used to - Microsoft Word is where we find memos and reports, Microsoft Excel is where we find spreadsheets, a BI system is where we find enterprise reports - is starting to diminish. Due to these unstructured technologies, how data is transferred between systems (XML), how it is retrieved (XQuery) and how users interact with it (search) will all be affected. A lot of BI's assumptions - that SQL is how you retrieve data and that a BI report and dashboard are how you look at corporate information - will be challenged.
This is both a welcome and disconcerting turn of events. It means that users will be better served by their systems and that they will be able to find information more quickly. However, from a BI professional's point of view, it means a new set of technologies to learn. Still, no one expects you to master them in a day. Just having a capsule understanding gives you a leg up on many of your peers. Keep your eyes peeled for articles about XML, XQuery and search. Within three months, you'll be amazed at how much you know and how it will help you rethink what BI is and should be.
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