DM Review Published in DM Review Online in October 2005.
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Strategic Information Infrastructure: Rules for Building a Successful Information Architecture

by Kevin Quinn

Editor's note: DM Review welcomes Kevin Quinn as the newest online columnist. He will outline culture-based (not technology-based) rules  on how to be successful in developing an information architecture. Watch for his columjn to appear on the second Friday of each month.

This column is the first in a series on building a successful information architecture - a synergy between cultural and technological forces within a company that makes it easier for information workers to pursue, access, share and discuss information in a way that supports their decision making.

Each column is intended to arm readers with a fuller understanding of business culture and the psychology of information workers as you make a major contribution to the information architecture of your company.

Each column will present a set of rules. If followed, these rules will significantly enhance your chances of creating of a successful information architecture. These rules have been developed by the author over the past 22 years while working in the information technology industry testing, designing, product managing, marketing and selling information technology related to business intelligence software.

Surprisingly, the rules are based on cultural factors that affect the acceptance and use of information technology. Even though it takes smart technologists to build an information architecture, you must have an understanding of the capabilities and needs of the information workers before you can go down the path of success.

Well-designed network architectures have failed to support the needs of their users. The most dedicated warehouse architects have failed to find more than a handful of users. The "easiest to use" business intelligence software has failed to reach more than 5% user penetration. Why? More than likely, the reason for all of these failures will be described to some extent in forthcoming columns.

So, let's begin. First off, building an information architecture for any organization is like developing a mass transportation system for a city. Bringing users to information is like transporting travelers or workers to their destination. A successful transportation system doesn't bring only some of the travelers to their destination but all of them. Neither does it discriminate between classes of travelers by transporting the executive to work before the assembly-line worker. In the same way, a successful information architecture will not satisfy only the needs of the executive user. It recognizes that everyone in an organization makes decisions and needs supportive information to make those decisions. The decisions made on the front lines of the enterprise at an operational level can have as critical an effect on the overall success of the enterprise as the decisions made by an executive.

The analogy doesn't end there; it runs much deeper. A mass transportation system can take many people to a common location and then allow them to walk or transfer to a different mode of transportation for the remainder of the trip.

One alternative to a well-designed mass transportation system is to give each traveler their own car and say, "Go! Find your destination on your own." Actions like that would lead to excessive traffic, lost travelers and the potential for the biggest traffic jam in history. The result could be that nobody reaches their destination.

The most important goal for any traveler is to reach their destination. The trip itself is not important. If a traveler could simply snap their fingers to reach their destination without experiencing the journey, then they would. The designer of the transportation system may want riders of the various modes of transportation to have a pleasant experience, but the designer should never think that the ride is part of their overall goal. It is more of a necessary evil.

It should be apparent at this point that designing an information architecture is not about figuring out how to put a business intelligence tool in the hands of every information worker and giving them access to a data warehouse. Ninety-five percent of them would look befuddled and not know where to begin because business intelligence tools, as easy to use as they have become, are still too difficult for most users. And, more importantly, using them is equivalent to the "trip" in our transportation analogy. You must never lose sight of the fact that the users' overall goal is getting their information.

Believe it or not, most organizations have a good idea about the kind of information that they need to judge the health and direction of their business. In other words, not every question a user wants to ask is ad hoc. Like the transportation system, you can take most users 90 percent of the way to the information they want or need with a well-designed report, just like a train or subway route can take a traveler 90% of the way to their destination. Flexibility designed into a report gives each user the slight customizations that they will need to take them the remainder of the way to their specific information.

As the key designer of your company's information architecture, you need to remember a few things from our transportation analogy:

  • Everyone in the organization is a decision-maker and they all need information to do their job, just as every traveler has a destination - and no traveler's destination is more important than another's.
  • You don't need to give every user their own business intelligence tool to get the information they need to do their job, since you wouldn't give each traveler their own car to get to work in a city.
  • As an information architect, you need to figure out the key foundation reports that will serve as the hubs to take users to their information, just as a designer of a mass transportation system will know the key spots around the city that will serve as the hubs to the traveler's final destination.
  • Don't worry - you don't have do this on your own. People around the organization can help you compile the list of key reports that you need to develop. And, many of the rules in subsequent columns will show you how you can leverage technology-savvy business users to help continually develop new routes to information that all business users, technical and nontechnical, can utilize.

    Think of the foundation reports as subway routes to key destinations. In the same way that many travelers can walk from the station to their destination, many users will be satisfied with the information contained in the key reports you provide them.

    A smaller percentage of travelers may rely on taxicabs to take them to more specific locations. Think of the technical business users armed with business intelligence software around the enterprise as the taxi cabs waiting at subway stations to take travelers with special needs to their destinations.

  • In a city of 1 million travelers, there may be 10,000 taxicabs - only 1% of the number of travelers. Only a small percentage of users actually need access to business intelligence tools that will answer special ad hoc questions.

My next column will examine the technical skill levels and roles of business users in a common organization.

Kevin Quinn, vice president of Product Marketing at Information Builders, researches new technologies for acquisition or adoption and defines the strategy and road map for the WebFOCUS business intelligence platform. In his 22 years of experience in IT, Quinn has helped companies worldwide develop information deployment strategies that accelerate decision making and improve corporate performance. Quinn is also the founder of an interactive sports statistics Web site that leverages business intelligence functionality. You can reach him at

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