Editor's note: DM Review would like to introduce Al Moreno and Greg Mancuso who will coauthor this monthly column focusing on business intelligence data integration. We welcome them and hope you will enjoy the expertise they have to share.
In the world of information technology everything has an acronym. While recently at a client site, it became evident that many companies today share a common business predicament which can best be described as D.R.I.P. Companies today are "Data Rich, Information Poor." Through acquisition, expansion or sheer lack of cohesive design, many enterprises have numerous operational systems that fail to share common key identifying elements which would allow their data to convert to tactically and strategically usable information.
In the client situation described above, the enterprise has six operational systems that are responsible for dispensing products for similar types of customers, locations and end users. While all the systems use a common information base, all six systems have different data types and identifiers for the same customer and product data elements. In every case, the end user is a person or business, therefore, a unique identifier - social security number (SSN) or employer identification number (EIN) - for each user already exists. With this common link, the data would allow a true CRM view that would be meaningful and provide key information to the enterprise. Instead, the current setup provides many processing headaches, since key pieces of information are free form entries creating a matching nightmare of fuzzy logic that yields a 40 - 50 percent match rate on name and address.
If you look closely at some of the base issues, the answer seems very easy and logical. Add the common identifier to all systems! Yet enterprises today fail at solving such trivial sounding operational issues such as common customer identifiers across their operational systems. Why? Because the answer requires forcing hard operational choices and mandates that end users change their organizational business practices, cultures and current business practices.
Cleansing, merging and converting large volumes of data into true information requires three key components. Organizations struggle daily recognizing that progress is only achieved when you bring together: 1) people, 2) business processes and 3) technology.
Many companies try to force data organization using only technology. Technological solutions that do not take into account the other two components typically fail since the answer to many of the operational data issues involve changing the way individuals and business process change. Very few problems are actually solved by throwing more hardware or upgraded software at the issue. In many instances, companies fail to move forward because they fear that the required changes will either slow the existing operational flows or will severely impede daily operations that impact cash and sales flow. Thus, companies see themselves caught in the endless dilemma of knowing they have a problem, understanding the fix, yet reluctant to implement the fix and live with the deficiencies that rob them of the very information required to improve profitability.
In the example mentioned, having all of the operational systems implement and capture either the end-user's SSN or the company's EIN would suffice to create true data usefulness. This effort would be included in a rework rollout of all the operational systems along with a mandate that the information be entered. This requirement would likely be enforced programmatically by preventing data with the missing required information from being entered into the system(s). Granted, this would slow some processes down in the short term. But, eventually the data entry personnel will become accustomed to gathering the required information and the various entry systems will be updated to accept and validate this information. Once the personnel and systems are in sync with the requirements for common identifiers, the process will again flow smoothly and the long-term gains would definitely outweigh the short-term pains.
If everyone in the organization is made aware of why the information is being gathered and can understand the long-term benefits, the resistance to the requisite organizational change is minimized. It is naive to believe that an individual's behavior doesn't affect anyone else in the enterprise. While organizational change is sometimes painful, explaining fully what strategic benefits can be achieved through the implementation of some minor process changes will ease the pain and sometimes speed compliance.
Everyone understands that having terabytes of data doesn't further corporate goals of converting data to information, if the data cannot be organized and made useful to facilitate appropriate decision making. Storing operational data for historical purposes may satisfy reporting requirements but using the information to gain competitive advantage and advance profitability is the true value of vast data storage.
The cure for DRIP seems a no brainer; but, in practice, it is one of the most difficult issues that an enterprise will struggle through. It involves someone who will take a giant step backward and generate a big picture view of the enterprise. Someone has to carefully analyze what key performance indicators (KPIs) are required to strategically manage the organization, and then decide what data is required to make those KPIs a reality. This exercise will generate a GAP analysis that details what the enterprise's operational systems currently are capable of, and what the systems need to do in order to transform volumes of data into meaningful information. Once the GAP analysis is in place, the next step is the creation of a master organizational plan that reworks the source systems. The rework is not limited to technology, but also requires review of what personnel activities may need to change as well as what business processes must change in order to make the systems complete.
Once the master organizational plan is implemented, the various systems and information repositories must be constantly monitored to ensure that the business needs stays in sync with what the operational systems can deliver. Especially in today's ever-changing business environment, avoiding DRIP is imperative and will become a very iterative process requiring careful and ongoing monitoring. Through careful planning and continual modification and enhancement, a company can easily dry the DRIPs out of their systems.
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