Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Operational BI and master data

In an article in the beye network Mike Ferguson makes an interesting observation which many seem to have missed. A current "theme" is that business intelligence needs to be embedded into operational systems. This innocent sounding notion is of course entirely unrelated to the need for BI vendors to sell more licenses of their software in what has become a slightly saturated market. As I have written about earlier, it is by no means clear that everyone in an organization needs a BI tool, whatever the wishes of BI vendor sales staff. So trying this new tack of bundling BI in with operational systems (which many people do need, or at least have to use) is a cunning ploy. However, as Mike Ferguson notes, if this is done without a basis for common master data and common business rules, then all that will happen is that we will get lots of competing BI reports, all with different numbers and results. The whole notion of data warehousing was created in order to resolve the differences in definitions that exist between operational systems. Each separate ERP implementation will usually have slightly different data, never mind all the other operational systems. By going through a process of trying to get to an enterprise-wide common subset of definitions (Mike calls it a "shared business vocabulary") then these differences can be understood, and data quality improved back in the source systems. Without such an underlying basis we merely have snapshots of operational data without resolving the data quality issues, and without resolving the inconsistencies. In other words, we will be pretty much back where we were before data warehouses.

There certainly may be valid examples where it makes sense to embed some simple BI capability on the top of operational data, especially in the context of operational reporting where you are only interested in the data in that particular system. However as soon as you want to take a cross functional or enterprise view, then that pesky data inconsistency and data quality has to be dealt with somehow. Putting complex BI tools in the hands of the front-line staff doing order entry is not going to resolve this issue -it may just confuse it further.

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