In my column, I have discussed how to create an information-empowered business community, focusing on achieving the delivery of accurate, timely and actionable performance information. The data discussed has been structured: numerical data regarding finance, customer, employee and product/services from operational systems. In my next two columns, I would like to advance our thinking. Assuming such structured information is now available, I will discuss how to transform it into meaningful business results and what additional information may be required for the transformation.

 

Contextual Understanding

 

Structured internal data provides a wealth of information regarding business performance. It gives a clear indication of what happened, but it often leaves out contextual understanding. For example, an operational dashboard might provide a key performance indicator (KPI) for sales trend analysis by region, giving insight into potential opportunities to improve sales in specific areas. The sales trend alone, however, does not give all the information needed to correctly assess each region and store’s situation. Building in external structured information, such as jobless rates, as well as targeted unstructured information, like weather conditions and other economic influences on the locations, provides context related to sales that did or did not happen.

 

Web 2.0 Technologies

 

Customer commentary or other textual information is often labeled unstructured. Unstructured data refers to masses of (usually) computerized information which either do not have a data structure or have one that is not easily readable by a machine. Examples may include audio, video and unstructured text, such as the body of an email or a word processor document. Merrill Lynch estimated in 2003 that more than 85 percent of all potentially usable business information originates in unstructured form.1 With the accelerating use of the Internet, the volumes of unstructured data such as blogs, wikis and social networking have also expanded exponentially.

 

In order to begin addressing both old and new forms of unstructured data, it is important to understand the technologies that generate them, including the concepts of Web 2.0. According to Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Enterprises, “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as a platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform.”2 The participative nature of the Internet platform fosters collaboration and the capture of network communication. There are many types of Web 2.0 technologies; I’ll describe a few of the most common ones.

  • Wiki software enables collaborative authoring of Web pages and the content contained within them. Some online dictionaries, encyclopedias and other references are created in this manner.
  • Web logs, or blogs, are typically maintained by an individual to share experiences and knowledge over the Web, and the format allows other participants to comment or ask questions.
  • Social networking software includes online social communities with shared interests. Networking sites exist for both professional and personal use, each of which has hundreds of communities within them.
  • Prediction markets are speculative markets used to make future predictions of events and outcomes.
  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a Web standard feed format that consumes content from different Web sites and applications.
  • Tags are keywords or terms that describe a piece of information to enhance the searchability of the content.

In order to begin to leverage the information that is generated from Web 2.0 technologies, one must first revisit the optimal information architecture for internal structured data and begin to expand it to include newer, less structured assets.

 

Next Generation Information Architecture

 

 

Many of the components that comprise a world class enterprise information architecture as depicted in Figure 1 have matured over time. Larger vendors in the marketplace have made tremendous progress in tying these components into a single technology platform. As technology continues to advance, our thinking and culture in how we interact with employees, customers and competitors must advance with it. Keeping up with change can be daunting and at times can be seen as ambitious, but businesses that welcome and adopt change gain competitive advantage.

 

Attempting to leverage data from nontraditional, Web 2.0 data sourcescan be likened to searching for a needle in a haystack. The challenge presents itself in three parts. The first is determining the right process and method for distinguishing needles among hay. The second challenge is aligning the right technology to the needed information. Finally, the third challenge is determining the right integration methods to ensure the information can be presented in a meaningful form that drives thoughtful decisions.

 

For success in today’s competitive markets, it is critical to make the best decisions possible and to be proactive, and that requires the consideration of both structured and unstructured information. Next month, I will continue to explore unstructured information by taking a deep dive into the three-part challenge: how to identify critical information, align the right technology to interpret it, and integrate it with the overall corporate performance management strategy.

 

References:

  1. Robert Blumberg and Shaku Atre. “The Problem with Unstructured Data.” DM Review, February 2003.
  2. Tim O’Reilly. “Web 2.0 Compact Definition: Trying Again.” O’Reilly Radar, December 10, 2006.

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