Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Information as a service?

I see in our customer base the stirrings of a movement to take a more strategic view of corporate information. At present there is rarely a central point of responsibility for a company's information assets; perhaps finance have a team that owns "the numbers" in terms of high level corporate performance, but information needed in marketing and manufacturing will typically be devolved to analysts in those organizations. Internal IT groups may have a database team that looks after the physical storage of corporate data, but this group rarely have responsibility for even the logical data models used within business applications, let alone how those data models are supposed to interact with one another. Of course things are complicated by the fact that application packages will have their own version of key data, and may be the system of record for some of it. Yet how to take a view across the whole enterprise?

organizationally, what is needed is a business-led (and not IT-led) group with enough clout to be able to start to get a grip on key corporate data. This team would be responsible for the core definitions of corporate data, its quality, and being the place that people come to when corporate information is needed. In practice, if this is not to become another incarnation of a 1980s data dictionary team, then this group should also have responsibility for applications that serve up information to multiple applications, and this last point will be an interesting political battle. The reason that such a team may actually succeed this time around is that the technologies now exist to avoid the "repository" (or whatever you want to call it, of master data being a passive copy. Now the advent of EAI tools, enterprise buses, and the more recent master data technologies (from Oracle, Kalido, Siperian, IBM etc) mean that master data can become "live", and synchronized back to the underlying transaction systems. Pioneers in this area were Shell Lubricants and Unilever, for example.

However technology is necessary, but not sufficient. The team needs to be granted ownership of the data, this notion sometimes being called "data stewardship". Even if this ownership is virtual, it is key that someone can arbitrate disputes over whose definition of gross margin is the "correct" one, and who can drive the implementation of a new product hierarchy (say) despite that fact that such a hierarchy touches a number of different business applications. It is logical that such a group would also own the enterprise data warehouse, since that (if it exists) is the place where much corporate-wide data ends up right now. This combination of owning the data warehouse and the master data hub(s) would allow infrastructure applications to be developed that can serve up the "golden copy" data back to applications that need it. The messaging infrastructure already exists to allow this to happen.

A few companies are establishing such groups now, and I feel it is a very positive thing. It is time that information came out if its back-room closet and moves to centre stage. Given the political hurdles that exist in large companies, the ride will not be smooth, but the goal is a noble one.

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