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Using a Common Message Model to Organize Your Organizational Meta Data

  • April 01 2004, 1:00am EST

Meta data. It's a term that can make even the most hardened IT manager howl with frustration. It's often the most quarrelsome issue in any large-scale IT project. No one would argue, however, that good meta data management is critical to the success of any IT project.

There are many definitions of meta data floating around, including the old, trite adage that meta data is "data about data." It is, but it's more than that. I like Gartner's definition best. Gartner defines meta data as "... an abstracted level of information regarding the characteristics of an artifact, such as its name, location, perceived importance, quality or value to the enterprise, and its relationships to other artifacts."1 What this says is that meta data defines the data you have and how it relates to other data. In other words, it's the road map for all the little data cars that run through your organization. Without it, they're lost, and so are you.

How does meta data, or the lack thereof, help or hurt you? In the simplest terms, well-organized meta data can help you organize the data in your systems and answer questions in business concepts rather than IT concepts. For example, you might want answers to the following:

  • How can I find all the bug reports, field notices, defect data, technical documentation and reported customer cases related to the newest version of our product?
  • How can I find all internally and externally published content related to technology X and product Y?
  • How can I enable our systems to differentiate between a document, piece of content, data file and/or database record?
  • How can we find a way to express the core business concepts and vocabularies, classification rules, descriptions and data quality/validation rules of our organization in a system where it can be accessed and referenced by our knowledge-workers?

Those are the questions that business intelligence (BI) and enterprise performance management (EPM) are supposed to answer. They will, if they are built with a solid foundation - a well-constructed meta data architecture.

Unfortunately, this column is too short to go into much technical detail about building a meta data architecture. Thus, I'm going to focus on a key piece of the meta data puzzle: the common message model (CMM).

The CMM resides in the organizational meta data repository and enables an enterprise to centrally define its corporate data standards to support inter-application communication across its diverse systems. The CMM also provides for centrally managed enterprise-shared services, and it is a neutral vehicle for achieving agreements among different systems in the organization, as well as among different organizations that share data.

The CMM begins with a common foundation. This foundation provides a shared view of common organizational data elements such as customer name, account identification information and product numbers. It defines the lowest level of information for the CMM. It defines the name, description and data type for each data element throughout the organization. In short, it provides a well-defined consistent foundation for going forward.

The next feature of the CMM is common data encapsulation. While that sounds like a really geeky term, it simply means that commonly used groupings of common data elements are organized into logical entities. For example, address, order number and customer number may be a common grouping that is organized into a logical entity for representation purposes. This organization provides a structure, which enables the manageability and reusability of information. It's a logical reorganization of data to get the most out of repeated patterns of data use. It organizes seemingly dissimilar data into a common structure that enables an organization to answer the questions posed earlier in this column.

The final piece of the CMM is the use of enterprise application integration technology to send messages that provide common usage specification. The messages provide the mechanism by which information units - be they pieces of data, documents or other content - are exchanged by systems in the organization. They also provide service context to information units. Finally, common usage specification defines how common data elements and CMM subjects are organized for information exchange.

The CMM is only one piece of a well-constructed meta data architecture, but it is an important piece. By using the CMM, an organization can begin to move from a many-to-many interface approach to a common, many-to-one interface approach. The source and target applications exchange data throughout a standard message model, which provides an enterprise-wide view of information.

1. Blechar, M. "What is Meta data and Why Should You Care?" Gartner Research Note #COM-19-7824. 22 April 2003. p. 1

All information provided is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. No one should act upon such information without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation. The views and opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BearingPoint, Inc.

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