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Business Intelligence:
Creating Islands and Continents of Information

online columnist Jonathan Wu     Column published in DMReview.com
January 7, 2002
  By Jonathan Wu

Successfully managing an organization is impossible without information about its activities and transactions. Managing a multibillion-dollar business might be compared to navigating a transoceanic freight ship: it requires advanced planning and changes in course take time. At least three miles of lead distance is required to turn a transoceanic freight ship. Conversely, a startup business is like navigating a speedboat; it is nimble and can turn instantly. The larger the organization in terms of employees, geographic locations, products/services, revenue or customers, the greater the challenge in managing it and the greater the need for relevant, timely and accurate information.

Oceans of Data

Data is easily captured, or created, by transactional systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM). These applications can process a few to several thousand transactions per day, hour, minute or second. The amount of data that they collect and process can be overwhelming. Adding to the complexity, organizations can purchase credit reports and mailing lists from third-party vendors.

Each data source is a virtual ocean of data and integrating these "oceans" can be a difficult and daunting task. Most business analysts trying to obtain data from these sources end up drowning in the technical complexity of the applications or in the rough waters of data integration.

Message in a Bottle

Think of data captured by transactional systems like a message in a bottle. With referential integrity within the database of the transactional system, each transaction is unique and self-contained; information is "trapped." To get at the data, some people will try to crack the bottle open. This approach inevitably creates disorder and some of the data will be lost. With knowledge of the transactional system and database, one can open the bottle and access the data efficiently and correctly. The data about a transaction is meaningful in the context of that transaction. For example, the time, location, product, purchase price, quantity and customer are important data elements for each transaction. While each message in a bottle is important, most individuals need to analyze more than one transaction or sets of data in order to develop an understanding of the activities, performance and trends of the organization (e.g., the revenue and quantity of a particular product that was sold last week in a geographic area). Aggregated data is information that is needed for decision-making purposes. The desire to make decisions based on information motivates individuals to seek out any possible means of obtaining it.

Formation of Islands

In an effort to obtain and analyze data for decision-making purposes, most business analysts request reports - an extract of data from a transactional system. These single- purpose reports, I'll call them "islands," provide individuals with the information that they need to make decisions. Each island answers one or two business questions. However, each island has its own characteristics (such as data elements, business rules and history) that make it stand alone from the others. The information perspectives from each island are unique and, therefore, do not enable individuals to easily address multiple business questions or to get a global perspective of the enterprise. As business questions arise, islands of information rise up from the stormy ocean of data. Individuals within the organization will find it increasingly difficult to know which island to go to for information. If these islands of information are not documented, charted and managed, then over time redundant information will be developed which will lead to confusion and informational differences between seemingly similar islands.

While islands of information can be charted and managed, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to create a continent of information to meet the enterprise- wide reporting needs of the organization. The notion that stringing islands of information together will somehow form a continent is similar to the 16th century belief in the Northwest Passage (a passage from Europe to East Asia through North America). It can be done, but only if you can get an ice- breaking tanker, a crew willing to cross the Arctic and permission from the Canadian government.

Creating Continents

In the quest to address multiple business questions in an efficient manner, organizations create data marts or data warehouses and employ business intelligence (BI) applications as user interfaces. These reporting systems are the "continents" of information. They can be expansive, addressing multiple subject areas and business processes. Creating a continent is more time-consuming and costly than creating an island. However, creating hundreds of islands can be more time-consuming and costly than creating a continent of information. In addition, it is far easier to manage information in a few continents than in several hundred islands.

Global Perspective

An organization that has developed both islands and continents of information has developed a balanced informational ecosystem. Creating an environment that supports the enterprise-wide reporting needs of the organization requires strategic planning. Planning involves assessing an organization's current reporting environment and then developing a plan, or road map, to create a balanced informational ecosystem for that organization.

The information access road map document charts the formation and progression of all of the islands and continents of information within the organization. By charting the organization's information ecosystem, individuals needing information will know where to go to find that information. In addition, charting the global environment is critical to mitigating incompatibility between information from various reporting sources, or "oceans." A healthy informational ecosystem can address business questions as they arise with relative ease and can evolve with the organization. Understanding when to create an island or a continent is essential to keeping your organization's information ecosystem in balance.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI).

Jonathan Wu is a senior principal with Knightsbridge Solutions. He has extensive experience designing, developing and implementing information solutions for reporting, analysis and decision-making purposes. Serving Fortune 500 organizations, Knightsbridge delivers actionable and measurable business results that inform decision making, optimize IT efficiency and improve business performance. Focusing exclusively on the information management disciplines of data warehousing, data integration, information quality and business intelligence, Knightsbridge delivers practical solutions that reduce time, reduce cost and reduce risk. Wu may be reached at jwu@knightsbridge.com.

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