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Postcards from the Corporate Information Factory

  • July 01 1999, 1:00am EDT

Tourists, explorers, miners, operators and farmers ­ each an arbitrary category of business community end users. Regardless of the analogies we use, by understanding the characteristics of each corporate information factory user, we're more likely to successfully and satisfactorily meet their needs. It's simple, really. We just need to understand our cutomers.

This is one article of a series appearing in this issue categorizing the users of the corporate information factory.

Executives are among the most critical users of the corporate information factory. They are critical not just because of their need to get information directly from the corporate information factory ­ they can get information through other means. They are critical because their satisfaction ­ or dissatisfaction ­ can significantly impact the future viability of the factory.

Executives can be compared to tourists that are planning to visit Europe for seven days. These tourists know it's impossible to see everything in a week, and they typically focus on a few cities and a few sites within those cities. Experienced tourists also leave some free time available in case they want to spend additional time at one of the sites. Executives look at data the same way. They typically have key indicators of interest; and when one of these has an unexpected value, they want the ability to get more information.

Tourist Characteristics

It is very important for the corporate information factory architect to recognize the different types of users and to satisfy the specific needs of the executives. They have a broad business perspective, are often experienced Internet users and can predict some ­ but not all ­ of their information needs.

Broad Business Perspective. Seasoned tourists have a broad perspective of the area they are visiting and may have detailed knowledge about specific sites within that area. Similarly, executives have a broad perspective of business in general, the industry within which the company operates and of the company itself. Additionally, they often have detailed knowledge of at least one major aspect of the business, but not of many areas.

Just as the tourist needs to get approximate travel costs and times early in the planning process, the executive needs to have basic information to assess the overall health of the company. Armed with that information, he or she is ready to ask questions. The tourist would get information about cost, time, lodging, etc., and initially only dig further into those items that did not meet his or her initial expectations.

Similarly, the executive first receives information about the profitability or sales volume of the company as a whole. If he or she is satisfied, then the executive would go on to the next metric of interest. If something seemed out of line (for example, sales volume significantly exceeded expectations), then he or she would look further into the sales volume measures, possibly requesting a breakdown by product line or division.

Internet Aware. The advent of the Internet has been very helpful in drawing executives to the computer. It has also been responsible for setting very high expectations with respect to data access. As a user of the Internet, the executive becomes accustomed to a fairly consistent graphical user interface. This interface does not require a lot of typing and provides him or her with the ability to search large banks of data and use information received from one search to trigger another search by finding a place on the screen that is highlighted. When the pointer is over that place, it changes shape and the executive knows that by selecting it, another screen will appear.

Selection Criteria. I attended a project management course many years ago and learned what may be obvious to many. The fastest way to read is not to read. Project managers need to be selective in what they read.

The tourist planning a trip has access to a myriad of books, tapes and Internet sites. He or she cannot possibly read everything available that describes Europe and its history. Using some set of criteria, he or she must focus on a few resources. The focus may be based on previous experience with a particular series of tour books. Once the research has begun, other books may be referenced in the ones being read.

Executives operate in a similar manner. They do not have the time to look at everything and, therefore, need a way to help them quickly identify the items of interest. Through experience they have identified key performance indicators, and they look at these regularly. Other information needs are not as predictable. If they read an article about a competitor in a business magazine, they may want to find corresponding information from their companies for comparative purposes. In addition, they may need to find information from a fellow executive or something to help solidify a theory.

Architecture Implications

The usage characteristics of the executives dictate aspects of the architecture. The most significant areas impacted are the meta data and its meta data interface, the end-user interface and the support. When the executives request information, they expect a very small return set. Thus, an architecture resilient enough to meet the needs of the farmers and explorers will satisfy their volume-related needs.

Meta Data. The executives have two types of queries they usually execute. The first type consists of research related to the key performance indicators. For these queries, once the executive knows how to get to the information, the executive is unlikely to look at the meta data. When the executive receives the requested information, he or she will assume that it is complete and accurate. Therefore, if there was a problem during the load process (e.g., data from one of the regions was not processed) or if there is a quality problem that impacted the completeness or accuracy of any of the requested data, the architecture should be structured to automatically alert the executive of the problem.

The executive may also want to get information in order to satisfy a special request, and the architecture should provide a means to find it. If an automotive executive reads in an industry periodical report that sales of sport utility vehicles to women aged 35 to 44 is on the rise, he or she should be able to locate his or her company's data without needing to start with the sales key performance indicator and drilling down. One approach is to provide a key word search to the meta data and the ability to seamlessly execute the required query so the appropriate information can be obtained. In addition to finding the query, meta data about the query should also be provided. The meta data should provide information about the quality of the data, the subset of the company included (for example, is the information provided for world wide sales or just for U. S. sales), etc.

End-User Interface. Many executives are comfortable using the Internet and are familiar with using icons to get predictable responses, to receive information both textually and pictorially, to search for additional information and to drill down to get more information based on the answer to their initial question. For these executives, the minimum expectations are set. The corporate information factory must provide similar capabilities, and it needs to provide it in a comparable way.

Some executives don't use the Internet and rely on their assistants to retrieve information. These executives will require some training on the concepts of getting information. Once they understand the concepts, the interface must provide them with the capabilities. For some, it may be advisable to introduce the concepts incrementally. Initially, they may be provided with a set of icons (one for each key performance indicator). To receive the indicator metrics, they simply click the icon. Once they are familiar with that concept, drill-down capabilities can be provided so that they can navigate through the information. Eventually, they can be provided with the full search capabilities of both the data and the meta data.

Support. The importance of the executives as users comes partially from their ability to influence future funding for the corporate information factory. The corporate information factory program manager must recognize the perspective of these users. Their commitment to the program is dependent on both their satisfaction with the retrieval mechanisms and their satisfaction with the support provided. While the help desk may provide acceptable service for the majority of users, executives may not be willing to wade through several people (or sets of audio-response questions) to get to the person that can help them. They need a direct line, and the person receiving the call must be able to provide quick, professional service to address their needs.

Technical Design Considerations. Executives who use the corporate information factory typically expect very little data in response to queries, and the interface needs to be intuitive. Some queries (e.g., the constraints or dimensions that will be used to drill down through sales figures) related to the key performance indicators are predictable. These requests should be satisfied using data marts that are based on dimensional models. In some cases, it may be useful to create a multidimensional cube and load it on the executive's workstation.

The unpredictable requests are more difficult to satisfy. For these, the meta data and its search engine hold the key. The executive needs the ability to locate and execute a query that satisfies the information need without loading the query tool itself. The meta data architecture needs to provide this capability. The data itself is likely to reside in a data mart, and the pertinent data mart needs to be accessible to the executive based on the search selection criteria.

Executive users of the corporate information factory need to access information in a natural manner. The advent of the Internet has influenced what appears natural. To the extent practical, the architecture needs to provide search and drill-down capabilities that are conceptually similar to those provided by the popular Internet browsers. While some of the executives' queries are predictable, many are not. Through the meta data, the executive should to be able to find the needed information and be warned about quality problems that exist.

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