Over the last serveral years, the term "competency center" has been described many ways for different purposes. For example, we've heard of business intelligence competency centers, service-oriented architecture competency centers and many others.  

Competencies are characteristics that drive outstanding performance in a given job, role or function. A data integration competency center (ICC) is specific to the governance, skills, roles and platforms/tools necessary for the ways data is managed, fashioned, collected, transformed, integrated, stored and reacquired. Setting up an ICC formalizes the importance of data integration to the enterprise and naturally links to BI, process management, SOA or other enterprise initiatives. An ICC is similar in complexity to other organizational structures and deserves significant attention. 

ICC's Purpose

As the name implies, it's all about integrating data. Maybe that is oversimplified, yet a key purpose is to integrate and deliver information at a significantly lower cost with a higher level of quality and timeliness. Essentials include: 

  • An organizational model to support either a shared or centralized model,
  • Integration technology platforms and integration engines,
  • Staff members with the right level of expertise,
  • Standards and best practices to ensure fidelity of data and delivery of a consistent service and
  • Reusable elements that users of the service can leverage for their benefit.

What it Contains 

The ICC is similar to other competency centers in that it contains people, governance, a platform and tools to support data integration activity.  People. The appropriate skills are needed to execute all aspects of data integration. Roles include:

  • Subject matter experts or data analysts who understand the business data content, usage and quality;
  • Data architects who create the blueprint to fashion data objects; 
  • Data integration architects who shape the integration method and design of data movement;
  • Developers who will use sound practices and tools; and
  • Infrastructure support team that keeps the ICC infrastructure and systems working.
  • Governance. A good governance strategy requires certain basic elements.
  • Data should have rules and policies that guide the definition, use, distribution and content;
  • Data integration should have specific standards, guidelines and practices to ensure consistent, streamlined and maintain-
  • able products;
  • Quality and verification policies and procedures should be in place to govern development of quality and reconciliation processes as well as testing programs; and 
  • Sustaining procedures and guidelines regarding the operation and support of the environment and solutions over time are required.
  • Platforms/tools. Specific platforms and tools are related to data integration.
  • Infrastructure is the central platform of the essentials (hardware, network, operating system and support software) that allow the DI software and platforms to operate;
  • Data profiling and quality tools enable data quality analysis before integration and monitor data quality in an ongoing fashion; and
  • Integration platform tools are used in the development of DI solutions, typically extract, transform and load, SOA, enterprise information integration or other types 
  • of toolsets.

Data Integration Value to the Business

A primary driver to adoption is realizing positive impact to the bottom line. As businesses scrutinize spending, the case for an ICC must be compelling. A list of key benefits, by no means exhaustive, includes:

  • Reduced cost of operations,
  • Boosts in the quality and the consistency 
  • of information,
  • Timely access to critical data,
  • Efficiencies gained through integration practices and reuse of integration elements,
  • Enterprise visibility and alignment, and a
  • Catalyst to data governance.

Reduced cost of operations. A Fortune 500 company opted to build a shared ICC service, standardizing its choice of integration tools on a single platform. The simple fact that several of the business units are in the process of shifting to the new service allows the business to avoid the cost of purchasing additional tools. By increasing the level of reuse, the immediate savings are measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars and maintenance and development costs are reduced. 
Boosts in quality and consistency of information. Poor data quality and inconsistency often cause disruptions in automated business processes and create confusion when the information is used for decision-making. As the business struggles with these issues, an ICC will deal with many of those concerns by deploying the appropriate talent and instituting governance policies and procedures, best practices and technology. 
Timely access to critical data. A common data delivery approach is transmitting data in loosely coupled data chunks that represent a point in time. This approach may be simple, yet is not conducive to accessing integrated data in a timely fashion. The ICC appropriately aligns with BI and SOA initiatives to define the requirement for information integration, access and usage. 
Efficiencies gained through integration practices and reuse of integration elements. It is assumed an integration tool has been adopted; hence, appropriate standards, guidelines and practices will be developed to ultimately streamline and ensure consistency with developed integration components. In fact, it is possible to develop integration practices that can substantially reduce code development through the use of reusable routines and predefined templates. Over time, the team will refine skills and practices and eventually deliver results faster, cheaper and with better quality. 
Enterprise visibility and alignment. This service can achieve improved information consistency often hampered by geographic and organizational disparity. Uses for information often compete across business units; it's better to align data definitions at the enterprise level. The ICC can reconcile these needs with the overall enterprise strategy by rationalizing competing concerns for the greater good of the business.
Catalyst to data governance. A data governance program is a fundamental to any business yet continues to encounter roadblocks. An ICC elevates the need to overcome typical governance issues. 

Where to Start 

A few considerations must be understood before commencing.

  • Understand the roadblocks to success and deal with them. Be aware of turf wars and political wrangling.
  • Build a reasonable cost/benefit analysis. Contrast and compare various data integration efforts taking into account cost avoidance, duplication of effort and synergies.
  • Gain your first customer. The ICC seed often blossoms after that.
  • Leverage efforts to build and refine best practices.
  • Build the team, develop the architecture and acquire the technology assets. 
  • Establish an effective charge-back model when appropriate.
  • Get help. Leverage a consultancy partner, vendor or acquire a set of industry practices.

Continuing Momentum  The first implementation will be difficult, and maintaining momentum and gaining customer adoption is even more challenging. Some considerations are:

  • IT adoption - Competing teams within the IT organization make IT adoption more of a challenge. Various team integration approaches, data regarded as one's personal treasure and fear of losing control can all hinder adoption. A continuous communication plan may be required and tailored for the technical teams. 
  • Business adoption - The ICC must be represented in the process that informs, prioritizes and plans out integration initiatives. Most importantly, the ICC must develop a successful track record. Measure and communicate success - Keep score of the ICC's accomplishments, usage and the benefits provided to the business. Make sure to regularly communicate the benefits and successes it has created.  

As businesses struggle to maintain profit through cost reduction/avoidance and efficiency gains, a data integration competency center is not just a nice concept, it's a viable and crucial aspect of meeting those goals. An ICC can be a practical implementation to meet this challenge, reaping benefits in a relatively short period.

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