Information integration strategies and evaluation of supporting platforms should be perpetual IT projects as part of continuous improvement goals. These initiatives reflect the creativity of an organization and its commitment to using information as an asset.
The primary reason information needs to be integrated is because there is demonstrable value in connecting two or more disparate data sources: better-informed decisions can be made and more precise actions can be taken if data sources are correlated. In other instances, a new data source may come online (the result of business expansion or acquisition, new application deployment or discovery of a relevant public website), and it is more useful to employees if it is connected to existing information.
Information integration and subsequent unification efforts are more important than ever due to an evolution in the wealth and volume of information. Almost every line of business and support function is experiencing rapid change in their respective applications and data sources; more applications are being delivered via cloud or software-as-a-service; semi-structured applications are being used for everything from content portals to file share replacements; and public content, thanks to social networking and rating sites, is often an influence when making business decisions. Within all of these changes lies a tremendous opportunity to expand how information is used to generate revenue, improve client satisfaction, streamline operations and decision-making and control costs. To maximize this opportunity, organizations must constantly think about new ways to integrate and enrich information while accounting for new data sources and the desire to interact with data in real time.
A Forward-Looking Approach
Supply chain, sales force automation, CRM and a host of other packaged software solutions continue to generate useful information stored in rows and columns. However, there are two major changes to these applications that organizations need to consider as they evolve their information integration strategies. The first is the addition of less-structured application modules, such as freeform text fields, where notes, conversations, audio transcripts and even links to information sources are saved. In some instances, these fields are stored in a database, but many times they are external files linked to a central database. This information provides important context to standard database records.
The second major change concerns how application users consume and interact with data. Mobile devices and alternative Web access (secure portals, custom runtime environments, etc.) make structured application data more available than ever before. Although structured applications may not represent the “latest” technology revolution, the data is still extremely important; now, there are new mechanisms to deliver it to more people who can use it.
“Less” Structured Data Expands
Forty percent of respondents recently surveyed by ESG indicated that their e-mail capacity is increasing by at least 20 percent per year. While this may not be staggering at first blush, it is quite substantial given the amount of collaboration occurring outside of traditional corporate email applications via instant and text messaging. Social networking sites, blogs, wikis, and audio and video-specific websites, are large sources of unstructured data growth that join the traditional corporate network shares and general purpose file-based applications knowledge workers use on a regular basis.
When combined and analyzed on its own or in conjunction with database information, less structured data can help identify and explain macro or specific business trends. This is enabled through innovations such as text analytics that uncover sentiments and multithreaded facets of a topic that help users view all relevant data pertaining to a subject.
The challenge with growth in this data is being able to identify the content that will have value to a specific audience. What is useful to a corporate finance team is likely far different than what’s needed for the customer service department. Another issue in trying to integrate less structured information sources is the frequency with which they are updated or modified. Information is frequently altered or amended several times per day due to mobile devices and near-ubiquitous Internet access, making almost anyone a content creator.
Adapting Information Integration Strategies
The most common information integration process used today is the ETL operation where select data from several different data sources is brought together in new application environments. These environments, usually data warehouses or BI systems, are extremely valuable because distinct data sources have been joined together and can be accessed from a single location.
There are, however, two problems with this approach. First, the ETL operation itself can be costly and time-consuming because data has to be identified, normalized and copied to the new system. This is where IT often prefers to “batch” data loads and updates, and, due to the time it takes to complete such tasks, they can only be completed once per day at most. This means that all analysis is being done with data moved the previous day.
The second issue concerns how integrated information is actually connected. ETL is a “behind the scenes operation,” which means that after data is integrated into a new system, a tool is needed to access it. This means deploying specific business intelligence, reporting and analytical tools to make newly created systems useful. This layered approach works very well when customers interact only with structured data, are not pressed to make real-time decisions with the information, and don’t need to explore trends and scenarios that go beyond the query limits imposed by the data tool.
Existing information integration platforms are optimized for structured data. While some can incorporate unstructured information sources, very few can actually scan and identify relevant data from internal and external websites, email systems and applications. Even if a platform can support some less structured data sources, few can do it as rapidly as the sources themselves are updated.
There is also a risk that some older data integration platforms will not be able to connect to or move data from cloud-based applications. Organizations that never evaluate what information is available and what can be done with it, choosing to only integrate what is currently supported by the existing platform, limit their ability to foster the productivity, early detection and creativity that generate real business impact.
Platform Capabilities to Keep in Mind
An information integration strategy that focuses on bringing information to knowledge workers is only as good as the platform supporting it. Because many organizations have existing ETL-based platforms and designed business processes around them, it might not make sense to start over. As mentioned, information integration should be an ongoing process, and technology should be evaluated and added as requirements change. Organizations should consider adding platforms that address evolving requirements such as real-time access, flexible security, and support of less structured data sources. Other criteria to consider when improving upon an existing information integration strategy include the ability to:
- Connect to and identify relevant data regardless of where it is stored. This includes database applications, SaaS-based solutions, enterprise content management and archive systems, existing content portals, and public and private websites.
- Join multiple information sources in real time without copying data in a separate system. This can usually be accomplished by indexing the supporting information sources.
- Analyze information sources before presenting or displaying to users. The analysis may be simple math or more advanced functions such as scoring “brand sentiment” or trending data points over time.
- Facilitate secure, customizable presentation of data based on audience. The presentation may be done via an integration solution itself or an existing solution/application already in place.
- Optimize workflows. A critical step in helping “information find employees” is the ability to actually update users when information has been changed or added or a metric has reached a specific threshold.
- The ability to integrate with existing integration solutions. Organizations have existing investments with ETL, business intelligence and other solutions to connect information sources. A new solution should, at a minimum, be able to treat existing solutions as an information source so they can be included in any new integration strategies.
Unifying Information Access
When considering all of these capabilities, organizations are not only moving down the path of integrating data, they are unifying information access for long-term benefit. Multiple sources of data can be analyzed in real time without the need for multiple layers of reporting tools or copying data from one system to another.
Customers want unified information access. The foundational element of solid integration is a single index for all data sources, which allows data to be connected without “copy” or “move” processes. With all data being indexed centrally, tasks such as conducting text analytics, facet extraction and maintaining existing relationships (business objects, etc.) can be executed on all of the data. Lastly, a key fundamental principle of unified information access is making data available within the platform that actually executed the integration. Whether it is a dashboard, facet-based menu, a series of search boxes or a comprehensive portal that combines all of these, users experience information immediacy and can take action with it – all from a central location.
Aside from the obvious business benefits, integrating information and unifying its access simplifies operations because, with the right solution, both can be accomplished in a single platform. This reduces the complexity that accompanies managing and maintaining several disparate products, each performing a specific function (ETL, reporting, etc.).
Getting Started – What Data Would Help You?
There are many scenarios where unifying information access could apply to your organization. The real change companies need to make is encouraging employees to think about the data they would really like to have access to and identify what information can be improved when certain data sources are brought together. Information integration platforms have evolved to support, not hinder, this type of free thinking.
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