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Which Comes First – The Chicken or the Egg?

  • September 01 2001, 1:00am EDT

Which application did most companies build first – the data warehouse or the meta data repository? The obvious answer is the data warehouse. Most Global 2000 companies have a data warehouse (typically several). Conversely, many companies still do not have a meta data repository. A much more interesting question is, "If a company only has time/money/resources to build one of these applications, which should it build first?" Before we address this question, I want to make sure that it is clearly understood that both a meta data repository and a data warehouse are critical applications that almost every company needs to have. Companies that neglect these applications or do not build them properly will be replaced by their competitors that do.

Over the years, I have given more than a hundred keynotes/seminars on data warehousing and meta data. During these talks, I've been asked many times which should be built first. After giving it careful thought, I have come to the conclusion that a corporation's optimal approach is to first build its meta data repository. Let's examine the reasons behind this conclusion.

IT Applications Failure

When a corporation looks to undertake a major information technology (IT) initiative, such as customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), data warehousing or e- commerce, the likelihood of project failure is between 65 and 80 percent, depending on the study cited. This is especially alarming when we consider that these same initiatives traditionally have executive management support and cost many millions of dollars. For example, I have one large client that is planning to roll out a CRM system (e.g., Siebel, Oracle) and an ERP system (e.g., SAP, PeopleSoft) globally in the next four years. Their initial project budget is over $125 million! Consider this: When was that last time that you saw an ERP or CRM initiative delivered on time or on budget?

Enabling All IT Applications

When we examine the causes for project failure, several themes become apparent. First, the projects did not address a definable and measurable business need. This is the number one reason for project failure – data warehouse, CRM, meta data repository or otherwise. As IT professionals, we must always be looking to solve business problems or capture business opportunities. Second, the project teams that fail have a very difficult time understanding the existing IT environment in their companies. This includes custom applications, vendor applications, data elements, entities, data flows, data heritage and data lineage. A meta data repository (and specifically, technical meta data) allows a corporation to decipher its IT environment and reduce the systems development life cycle for ERP, CRM, data warehouse and e- commerce applications.

For most of these systems, and especially for data warehouses, a meta data repository is a critical project enabler and long- term sustainer of the application. However, in their enthusiasm to build a data warehouse, many companies did so at the expense of architecture and quality. They also did so without a meta data repository supporting it. Not surprisingly, most Global 2000 companies will spend the better part of this decade completely rebuilding these systems.

Vendor Tools

As I previously mentioned, most companies have selected their data warehousing tools and built their data warehouses prior to implementing their meta data repository. While data warehousing tools have certainly matured over the years, the companies that selected their data warehousing tools without addressing their meta data repository requirements will most likely have tools that will not support their meta data repository. Conversely, the tools that are used to build the meta data repository typically do not hamper the development of the data warehouse (but an incorrectly built meta data repository does).

Often, a corporation will not want to wait to attain the substantial benefits of a meta data repository and a data warehouse, and will look to build both of these applications in parallel. This approach makes sense as a meta data repository is an absolute necessity for the success of the data warehouse. Data warehouses and the tools that build them typically provide some of the most valuable meta data for the repository.

The number of companies looking to build a meta data repository is growing more rapidly than ever before. While meta data repository initiatives are certainly not without their fair share of project failures, those companies that have worked hard and methodically in their approach have built repositories that are providing a tremendous competitive advantage.

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