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Getting at what you’ve got – an analogy
Imagine your organisation owns two sources of a precious raw material. Both sources are large in volume and both are growing rapidly. One source is neatly arranged into racks and bins. Each bin is clearly labelled and its contents are recorded every moment in an up-to-date central register.
The other source of raw material is spread all over the place, in haphazard heaps on workers’ desks, in dusty cupboards and in little outbuildings that sometimes don’t even appear on site plans. There is little control over these deposits—each pile is just left where it is—and nobody knows what they all contain.
Now imagine you need to be able to get at both sources, so your colleagues can make productive use of their contents. Doing that for the first source should be easy. All you have do is give people the means to get at the material in its bins and carry out their own processes on it. There’s an army of companies with the tools to help you—and them—do so. You probably already have contracts with at least two of these suppliers.
Dealing with the other source is harder and less predictable. First you have to find all the material, or at least the most important types. Then you have to label it and create a central register of it, similar to that for the first kind of material. This can be tough going. You may need expert help.
Finally, much as before, you need to give people the ability to access the refined material and incorporate it in their own processes. There’s a different army of companies with the tools to help with this. You might possibly have a contract with one or more.
So, is that it—problem solved? Not by a long chalk. Your fellow employees do not want to have to use two different sets of tools and methods to get at these two types of material. They would much rather you delivered it to them in the same way. Not only would this save them time and effort, it would save them having to do any mixing of materials themselves when they want composite results.
Usually, people often don’t even want to know where the refined material comes from, so long as they can make use of it straightaway. They need to be confident of its quality and freshness, of course (although many users are happy with reconstituted stock).
You would think that this problem would have been solved long ago. That is not the case, alas. The truth is that many organisations’ delivery specialists have concentrated on the stuff in racks and bins. It is what they are used to and it is more straightforward to deal with. To be fair, the tools for doing this have been around longer and the market for them is, on the whole, settled.
Dealing with the other, more loosely distributed, material is harder. It does not fit into standard bins, for a start, as it normally arrives in large, amorphous slabs, not the bite-sized bricks of the other material. Also, the tools for making it uniform and machine-handleable have mainly been designed for scientists, not for ordinary workers. This is now changing, which gives rise to the problem.
That, in turn, results in this new opportunity for you to help your colleagues be more inventive and more productive. How is this to be achieved? It is not just a technical matter. It needs you to do more than devise a new materials-handling system or set up better monitoring of stocks and flows. You also need to take into account such ‘soft’ (i.e. hard) matters as project leadership, the effects on users, organization factors, power implications, internal cultures and training. Also, how can you make a business case for all this? Someone will have to pay for it. Out of whose budget or budgets will all this come?
As will no doubt have been obvious for a while, the resource discussed above is data. The first kind is structured data, the kind that inhabits databases, accounts files and engineering records. The second kind is unstructured data, mainly text, that is found in customer records, emails, Web sites and so on. The problem—and task—is turning both sources into an integrated supply of information.
Finding and retrieving information is vital to any organisation, whether to aid decision making, employee education or any other business activity. Users should therefore find it as easy as winking to get at the information they need, when they need it and in the form they need it. That’s a very big “should”, not often matched in reality.
Part of the reason lies in the nature of corporate data. It comes in dozens of formats, sits in any number of places, is often stored higgledy-piggledy and is of variable quality. The range of tools and methods used to get at it is equally diverse. In particular, there is a gulf between the way organisations get at unstructured data and the way they access data held in structured form. Users often don’t know what’s available to them or how to get at it.
How you bring all these elements together to provide users with an integrated and comprehensive supply of up-to-date information, one that is simple to use? That is the question we examine at the Delivering Enterprise Knowledge event, organised by Bloor Research.
Can your organisation afford an information access gap? Will the lack of a merged information supply affect the quality and speed of decision-making by employees? How will it impact customer support? Will your design or marketing people be working in a semi-vacuum, with lots of internal data but with little outside context to place it? Do they know what customers think of existing products or what the reliability record is?
If you decide that you really should integrate both sources of data, who do you go about it? What are the organisational and political issues involved? Who should own the projects needed to make it happen? How do you justify the value to your CEO and CFO?
In addition, there are the questions one should always ask in any knowledge management activity. What data needs to be captured? Is it internally or externally supplied? Who owns it, and who controls it? How good is the data in terms of quality, freshness and relevance? How do you keep the quality up? Who should get access to the resulting information?
Here are some of the technical questions that CIOs, CKOs and other senior IT managers could be asking about this possibility:
- Enterprise search, often with the help of text analytics, puts a computer-readable structure on textual and other free-form data. Is that structure good enough to be used in BI and corporate performance measurement (CPM) tools? How does it relate to enterprise schemas and data models; is there a clear mapping?
- BI gives easy analyses of corporate data, presenting quick—and innumerable—‘what ifs’ and other reports. How easy is it to find existing reports—yours and other peoples? How can enterprise search help here? Will it work on automated real-time reports, such as for scorecards and CPM tools? How will enterprise search and BI handle streamed data, such as voice and video, and present it to users? How will these searches and reports reach the mobile worker? How useful and trustworthy will they be?
- Most searches and reports, of any kind, need to link to business processes to provide the best value. How should you do that? Can those links work on all kinds of data? Can search results feed into line-of-business and supply chain systems? Is all this linking something you should expect of your workflow and business process management (BPM) tools, or is there a better way?
- What combination of search, ECM, BI and other tools will do the best job of getting all relevant information to all relevant people ASAP and in A1 condition? Which is better—a set of different tools from different vendors or one all-purpose tool from a single supplier? Is it wiser to start from one tool and extend out from that, or to invest in a mixed set of software? Is a single tool kit possible, or even desirable?
- Will the best tool necessarily be the dearest, in money and in opportunity cost? Just how much money are we talking about anyway?
This event gives you the opportunity to discuss these and many other questions—business and technical—with suppliers, integrators and your peers.