The column this month is about expanding the impact of your data warehouse by sharing it with a larger audience via e-mail, fax, Web access, intranets and extranets ­ whatever vehicles people need to do their business.

Value Equals Vision

Expanding the impact, and thus the value of your data warehouse, is primarily a matter of your vision of your warehouse as you define, design, build and ­ most importantly ­ operate it. The key part in successful data warehousing is not building the data warehouse; it's evolving the data warehouse in a fast-changing business world. The warehouse itself ­ if it's successful ­ will cause change in your business. Data warehouses are in constant motion.

You should carefully define what you think a data warehouse is and be sure you're in sync with your users' expectations. Don't expect them to state their expectations in technical terms, and you should avoid it too. Imagination is the key element, and it comes from vision.

There are two basic views of what a modern data warehouse is ­ or should be.

The "Sit-and-Wait" View

A DW is a place to do ad hoc queries.

The process:
  1. A user poses a question.
  2. A user waits for an answer.
  3. Repeat.

The speed of a DW reply then becomes the only metric, and raw performance of technology becomes the governor. Those who sell bigger, faster, better technology continue to push this vision ­ for their own benefit, not for your users.
IT is then seen as back to its old tricks, playing with new technology toys instead of helping the business people beat the competition. Real business value is lost in the technology discussions.

The "Information Facility" View

A DW is a mechanism to deliver higher quality information. It encompasses when, where, how, to whom ­ all the definitions of "higher quality" ­ not just speed. The old definitions of EIS, DSS, MIS, etc., are long forgotten, because they're artificial and counterproductive. The DW provides up-to-the-minute data if that's what is important, as in a ladies' ready-to-wear company. It supports deep analytical processes for research or academic needs. It undergoes constant change in content, scope, users and delivery mechanisms, because it is an active tool, not a "system."

The new DW process:
  1. The DW pushes useful decision making and analytical information onto the desktop, laptop, e-mail queue, Web site, fax, voice mail, intranet page, virtual private network (VPN), extranet site or whatever other destination or storage site is available.
  2. Users access it whenever and however they want.
  3. Users change it to adapt to their needs for different quantities, forms and perspectives of information.

When users begin their day, the information they need ­ key performance indicators and the details routinely required to perform their daily functions ­ appear as icons on their PC screens, or the equivalent in other mechanisms. Pre-organized information is updated and available through a Web browser or other simple user interface. Users know that others that they interact with will have the same up-to-date information as they do, when they do, so they don't have to manage the communication process ­ they can use information immediately to do business.
The information they see isn't just summaries and roll ups of yesterdays transactions. It's better than that, because it's also exception data when something unexpected occurs; and it's timely enough that they can do something to take advantage of the information, either by capitalizing on an opportunity or preventing a problem.

When users need more information, they can access the DW directly to "drill down" (or sideways or up) for more detail. They can post these requests and retrieve them when they want. They don't ever have to "sit and wait."

They can ask never-before posed questions. Or they can browse around in an unstructured manner, looking for patterns in information with visualization or other graphical tools. When they identify a useful new query or report, they add it to the "DW library" and make the results available to whoever needs it. It immediately joins the set of useful information the DW provides.

How to Build It?

You don't have to build all these functions into your first data mart. You don't have to support every digital technology known to man. But you do have to use your imagination and work on your vision of what a real information utility should be in your company, so you can expand the impact ­ and thus the value ­ of your data warehouse as time goes on.

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