Recently, I ran across a magazine article written by a former colleague approximately five years ago. The topic was data warehousing for the financial services industry. My colleague extolled the virtues of data warehousing and made predictions about the future of customer service for organizations that didn't build data warehouses. The article piqued my interest and made me wonder if organizations that built data warehouses had reaped the benefits discussed in the article and if the author's predictions for the future had come to fruition. The answers I found surprised me.

"With reports gleaned from combined systems information (the data warehouse), banks can, for the first time, see a total customer picture," said the author.1 I pondered whether or not this statement still (if it had ever) held true. "Not really," I thought. Back in the heady, embryonic days of data warehousing, all of us IT people thought of data warehousing as a panacea for all IT problems. We thought that by building a very large warehouse that culled and aggregated information from an organization's disparate systems, we could craft an accurate picture of our customers.

What we didn't know was that the "customer" consisted of more than just the people who walked through the door to request services. Thus, data warehouses never fulfilled their promise of providing clear-cut, comprehensive customer information. They couldn't; we didn't know who the customer was.

I think what we, as a profession, have learned is that in order to obtain a clear picture of who our customers are, organizations must look up as well as down the value chain. In actuality, every entity that an organization interacts with is a customer – in one way or another.

For example, your organization might have 300 vendors from which you purchase supplies, raw materials, wholesale goods, etc. In order for those vendors to satisfy your organization's needs, each needs information from you. Those vendors are customers; you provide them with an "information" product. If you don't provide them with accurate information, they may not be able to meet your needs, and your relationship may suffer.

Also, consider your internal customers – the myriad departments and business units within the organization that must function cohesively to serve external customers. Again, those internal customers need information from you. Without timely, accurate information, inter-departmental communication is stifled, and external customers suffer. Enterprise data warehouses by themselves don't solve these problems.

To obtain an accurate, complete picture of your customers, your data warehouse must be integrated into larger, enterprise initiatives that extend the intelligence of the organization beyond brick-and- mortar boundaries. These extended intelligent enterprises must integrate and understand information from all trading partners.

Only by building the data warehouse into the overall organizational value chain via the extended intelligent enterprise concept will the promise of data warehousing be realized. Existing data warehouses must be connected with trading partner information systems via best-of-breed enterprise application integration (EAI) tools, and analysis of the information obtained must be conducted with top- notch business intelligence (BI) applications. In essence, the data warehouse becomes a cog in an integrated wheel of value-chain information that truly enables organizations to define and obtain an accurate picture of the "customer."

There's more, however. My colleague made dire predictions about the future of those organizations that didn't build data warehouses. In admonishing those institutions that were not considering data warehousing and/or implementation of online, automated customer service initiatives, my colleague stated, "They [banks] blindly believe that, despite current customer patterns, people would really rather stand in line to see a live teller. They are effectively writing their obituaries."2 It may seem as though that prediction has come true. Has it?

Not really. Automation is a great thing. It speeds handling of routine processes and makes dealing with day-to-day problems easier. However, I believe that in their zeal to implement fully automated customer service systems, many organizations (not just banks) have forgotten one tiny thing – the customer.

These days you probably can't get by without some sort of enterprise information system and at least some level of automation in anything but a small-town, isolated market. However, when you build your extended intelligent enterprise and automate your customer service processes, don't forget that folks still like to kick the tires and see a smile or hear a human voice when they have a problem.

Build your extended intelligent enterprise and automate it where logical. But never, never forget why you're in business. You're there – and you'll stay there – because you satisfy your customers' needs. It's imperative to remember who those customers are.


  1. Sauls, Walter. "Data Warehouses: A Real Catalyst for Financial Institutions." CompetitiveEdge! Magazine December 1996/January 1997. p. 47.
  2. Ibid. p. 47.

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