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Customer Service

Replicating the Business Strategy of Others

  Article published in DM Review Magazine
March 2006 Issue
  By R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

Over the past few years, we have constantly referred to enterprise metadata as a business complete with products, services, solutions, processes and customer service support. This business thought process is formed from the beliefs and principles held within a business model. Business models convert technology to economic value-add components by adding innovation to the economic model of the business itself. So where do you look for business models? Being a bit on the lazy side, I simply steal from other businesses, as the following list indicates.

Dell: Cut Out All of the Crap and Eliminate the Bureaucracy. Dell, a multibillion-dollar manufacturer of personal computers, was founded by Michael Dell at University of Texas and is one of the world's largest corporations. Their success is a result of focusing on improving delivery times, cutting operation costs and maintaining customer service levels. The shorthand version of their business strategy is that Dell cuts out all of the crap and bureaucracy from the business process. How can we eliminate the wasted process steps, quality impediments and the technology hurdles when deploying enterprise metadata? Clearly defining the business processes is a great starting place, then working to streamline them to the highest degree possible. Perhaps we could set up a prize for suggesting the elimination of the stupidest thing we do that gets in the way of progress.

IBM: Add Services and Solutions Galore. IBM proved that you can take any organization, no matter how big, and change the focus of the business from products to services and solutions. Enterprise metadata must do the same thing as technology, standards and methodologies continue to evolve. Our value-add will come more from the services and packaged solutions that address the needs of the business. This change will force us to focus less on increasing functionality and more on the processes and the quality of the solution. While this may sound wimpy coming from a 22-year veteran of IT, the reality is that standardization, outsourcing and innovation will drive you toward IBM's business model sooner or later.

Harley Davidson: Brand Excessively, Tattoos for Everyone. Eighteen percent of Harley owners are willing to get the brand logo tattooed in places that are better left unsaid. Branding is the process of developing, guiding and managing the perceptions of the organization. Selling, marketing and branding metadata management is about creating a perception of value. Metadata management will have a perception, either by design or by default. What does your management or architecture community think of your metadata program? What have you done in the last three weeks to impact or alter that belief? The totality of the metadata brand includes the visual, emotional, rational and cultural image associated with metadata as perceived by your customers, suppliers, management and architecture community. The whole idea is to manage the total package and value-add of the program. No, I have not tattooed "metadata rules" on my arm. Well, not yet anyway.

Lowes: Customer Service - Hire for Knowledge and Service Attitude. Peter Glenn once commented, "We don't give good service, we don't get good service and worst of all, we don't expect good service." The world of IT clearly has a long way to go to get customer service right. While many people look at us as metadata, the product, the reality is that we enable metadata technology. Technology enablement results when you take your products and add knowledge, experience and a service attitude. While not every IT person can be converted to a service specialist overnight, the transformation to the Free Agent Nation (See Daniel Pink) will require us to move beyond the product focus in the near future.1 Recently I was involved with a project to roll out advanced collaboration products to a small community of users. After weeks of discussion on the architecture, technology and infrastructure, no one mentioned the need to actually support the end user. While your vendors or partners may provide hardware and software support, they don't provide very good client support.

Dutch Boy: Design - Don't Be Better, Be Different. You got to love the redesign of the paint bucket that Dutch Boy has done in the last few years. The traditional paint bucket has been around for a very long time, and no one ever questioned why. Why is the bucket so heavy, why is it so hard to open and close, why does the paint always drip on the floor? Finally someone did ask why, and they created a product that is both better and different. Metadata needs to be on a continuous improvement plan in order to develop value over the long term. Expertise in metadata is not about applying known best practices to a well-defined problem set. As one Greek philosopher said, "Anyone can drive a ship in calm water." True innovation comes from applying metadata to new areas where value has yet to be defined.

Home Depot: Self Service - You Can Do It and We Can Help. Many years ago, my father owned an electrical supply store, and I can still remember many of the product lines, like the 5230-I receptacle or the 1451-I switch. Our business was not a self-service organization, and unlike Home Depot, our slogan was not, "How can we help?" We assumed that the customer wanted high-end support and not a do-it-yourself design. That was the 1980s, and most retail stores have moved from the expert-guided model to the self-service model. Information technology has traditionally been pushed out as an expert-driven business model. In the early years of computers, end users were not exposed to graphical user interfaces and personal productivity software. Those days are long gone. The sophistication of the end user continues to grow, which enables us to move toward the self-service model. If an 80-year-old can sign on to Amazon.com, order a book, pay online, track delivery and even post a review, then we can self-serve the metadata environment.

Intel: Destroy Your Business Before Someone Else Does It for You. One comment made over and over concerns how we have taken the frameworks and concepts of metadata and applied them to the entire technology portfolio. Suppose your project/program were to build a solid metadata application to drive ETL transactions into the data warehouse. The value-add for the effort will be enormous and greatly appreciated. What happens after six months in production? You are old news with yesterday's value! Does anyone really care about the success you had six months ago? You must continually develop new value-add results and, in essence, destroy your business model.

Starbucks: Engage All of the Customers' Senses. When you enter into a Starbucks coffee shop, you immediately get hit with sights, sounds and smells. The store layout and color scheme are consistent from store to store. The counter is located just as you walk in and the sounds of the cappuccino machine can be deafening. How can you engage multiple senses when you work in technology? The answer is simple; you deploy metadata as a service rather than a product or technology component. Your online environment, automated business processes, client support, communications and customer service must work together to built a solid picture of quality and reliability. If your customer service is poor or your operational service level agreement (SLA) is rarely met, then what will be the perception of your metadata quality? If you get it right, then maybe you, too, can charge $3.50 for a product that you can get free at the office.

UPS: Grow Horizontally and Vertically, Evolve Diagonally. By now, I am sure you have seen the commercials about "What can Brown do for you?" UPS, FedEx and the other carriers are not asking you to choose them because they have the lowest cost, fastest delivery or the most physical locations. No, that was yesterday's competitive advantage. UPS is asking to take over your entire supply chain. Can metadata take over the supply chain? Perhaps not, but it will be the foundation for business integration in the future. The semantic web will be built upon the concept of e-business, and central to this are the standards, frameworks and methodologies of metadata. They are not going to call it metadata, but will use terms such as ontology, OWL and schemas. Metadata must find ways to evolve and provide value on a continuous basis in order to reach the point where these technologies place metadata back into the forefront where it belongs! (The biased opinions of the author do not necessarily represent the views of management.)

3M: Innovate or Die Trying. Following the previous directive of constant evolution, innovation is also a key to the long-term success of enterprise metadata. Innovation can be a bit of a paradox; customers want more functionality from the repository, more value from the architecture and more integration of the technology. Yet, the demand for quality and ease of use continue to increase as we move to the higher levels of maturity. Being pulled from different directions forces you to innovate and push technology to the limits. Recently, we had one of those character tests between doing the right thing or following the Hurricane Katrina-related corporate red tape. Looking back, we took a chance and pushed the functionality of metadata by delivering value to the business in hours versus days or weeks that the standard process would have taken. Innovation is not easy and may not win you a popularity contest from controlling managers, but you only live once. Innovate or die trying. As Mark Twain commented, "The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds."

Disney: Service Means Exceeding Expectations and Attention to the Details. Disney is the benchmark for customer service. Disney uses the term "guest" to represent their customer base. It doesn't really matter whether you call your customers guests, patients, constituents or partners. The basic idea is that you must satisfy them or they will go somewhere else. Going somewhere else in the metadata space is the utilization of other tools, accepting poor metadata quality, not implanting reuse into the environment or implementing a local metadata store versus a federated or centralized strategy. Quality service is simply exceeding the expectations of the customer, and the good news is that most of us have fairly low expectations of service. The attention to details at Disney is phenomenal, and the stories are legendary. Every task is performed to the highest set of standards. A good example is the attention given to the horse-head hitching posts that line Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Disney paints the high-wear spots on the posts each night, calculating the time they start painting according to the temperature and humidity levels, so that the paint will be dry by the time the park opens the next morning. Metadata must focus on the details in order to deliver the kind of quality required in a large implementation. The tools and standards are not where they should be in order to assume quality metadata goes into every asset. Associative metadata (metadata not embedded into the asset) is the most difficult solution to implement, but today it is the only way to ensure solid metadata across the board.

GE: Online Integration with 75 Percent Activities Digitalized in Three Years. Automation of your business processes is critical to delivering a low cost value-add metadata solution. No one has millions of dollars sitting around so they can integrate metadata from the ground up. You are a service provider, and the more you can automate the processes of metadata extraction, creation, integration and utilization, the better. Metadata is or will become the central point of integration within the corporation, and when the floodgates of demand open up, look out. I like to think of our ability to handle metadata engagements as a pipe. The pipe is only so big, and we can only pump so much information into the system at one time. You can increase the size of your process pipe by adding resources, automating processes and staying on top of the customers in flight.

I wanted to have a little fun discussing metadata and business models in this article. Using the business models from other organizations is very useful in communicating your strategy to the team and executive management. Many of these examples came from authors such as Tom Peters, Seth Godwin, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink and Guy Kawasaki. While they tend to focus on the overall business, we can take many of those principles and apply them to our world. Can you think of how you can apply the business strategies of Ferrari, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines or Amazon to your metadata program?


  1. Daniel Pink. Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself. New York: Warner Business Books, 2002.

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Best Practices/Benchmarking, Metadata and Strategic Intelligence.

R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D. is the director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology and speaks around the world on meta data, data architecture and information technology. Stephens recently earned his Ph.D. in information systems and has more than 70 publications in the academic, professional and patent arena. You can reach him via e-mail at Todd@rtodd.com or to learn more visit http://www.rtodd.com/.

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