Improvements in information technology can help business deal with vast amounts of information in a way that is economically advantageous
Business runs in the space where information, technology and economics converge. There has been a great deal of talk about the information economy for many years – some of it promising and some of it frightening. Peter Drucker’s important work Management from 1973 predicted the rise of the knowledge worker. More recently, discussions have revolved around the metaphor of the “information superhighway.” While much of this talk may seem to herald a new age of business and information, the truth is that knowledge has always meant power, and power is easily translated to economic success. What makes the current situation different is not a new kind of economy or even new information. The current distinctive change in the IT/business environment is the significant increase in the volume of information available as well as an improvement in the information technology that can truly help people in business deal with vast amounts of information in a way that is economically advantageous.
Businesses are improving their management of the vast amounts of information that they can already store and create with information technology. The potential for information value becomes realized only as the volume of useful information and the velocity (speed) at which it becomes available approach an optimal level for processing and use. Businesses are reaching a critical mass where technology has moved beyond simple leverage (storage or cataloging) of volumes of data, and into the strategic use and availability of that data as well.
Actionable information – accurate data made readily available within context and perspective – offers an undeniable business advantage. Getting to the point where the right people in a business have functional and ready access to the right information within a stormy sea of irrelevant data has long been a goal of business, even before computers were invented. The information society has an ancient pedigree. “…the invention of rag paper and the printing press, are the major historical factors leading to it,” says Tony Cawkell in “The Information Society: History and Futures” (Journal of Information Science, 28(5) 2002, pp. 433-435).
Thanks to technological innovations brought on by computers, people can access and create volumes of information on an unprecedented level. This is both a blessing and a curse. More information may appear to be an advantage at first, but more information without context is simply another time-consuming level of management in which the sheer volume of data or information becomes its own obstacle to obtaining strategic business information.
It becomes clear that having meaningful data in context is a strategic advantage for any business. The evolution of metadata offers some solutions, making information readily available and meaningful to be useful to business. Increasing integration between IT and business has changed the way metadata is used for the dynamic sharing of information. One approach to metadata management is the layered model of the enterprise metadata repository with the concept of the “smart” enterprise metadata repository within the model of business service management (BSM).
Figure 1: The Enterprise Metadata Repository: This model addresses the challenge to design a repository for flexibility, multiple perspectives and changes without rendering it so complex that it is no longer useful. It is driven from the end-users’ visualization requirements, building a metadata structure based on actual use of information.
Hyper-Trends of Information Management
All these topics point to a business and information technology environment in which three significant hyper-trends (trends that surpass typical boundary lines of industry or geography) dominate. In the information society, there are tremendous disparities of availability of information. Unsuccessful businesses and the disenfranchised are left without entry to the information superhighway. Likewise, successful businesses and the information-enfranchised have ready access to large amounts of information and continue to advance towards a real-time IT enterprise, a movement using new ways of structuring how people understand and consume information technology and a systemic restructuring IT around “standards”, including metadata management standards.
These three hyper-trends will dictate the future direction of information technology for business and define how future businesses use information technology to strategically advance. In general, these hyper-trends point to the optimistic potential for empowerment, decentralization and liberation in the future as described by Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital (1995).
The Real-time Enterprise
According to Marianne Broadbent and Ellen S. Kitzis in their Gartner publication The New CIO Leader, “We are less than 150 years removed from the first human beings who were able to have real-time information about events occurring beyond earshot (with the invention of the telegraph). The authors then point out that few businesses truly take advantage of the ability to “detect events as they actually happen.”
Real-time enterprises (RTEs) see the value in this instant information. They use readily available, updated information to gain a competitive advantage. This trend can be seen as part of the movement in business and IT towards reducing the latency inherent in business systems. This “latency” is the time it takes from the beginning of an action to its realization within a business. This window of time in business can be the time it takes in between processing an order and depositing the payment for the order or the time of a typical sales cycle. It is a kind of stimulus to response dynamic.
This works like the nervous system of a human being. By touching something hot, nerves respond by sending a signal to move away. When tasting something delicious, nerves send signals to the brain that register a pleasant taste. In humans, the time it takes from stimulus to response can be measured in nanoseconds. It is negligible. However, in businesses this time between stimulus and response (e.g. from concept to realization or from order to cash deposit) can be significantly longer. The concept of the real-time enterprise suggests that the time between a business stimulus and response should be as narrow as possible, making a business responsive and agile.
The Stimulus-Response Model for IT in Business
Building upon this metaphor, it is clear that there are many levels of stimuli and responses among living things. There are stimuli that require little brain processing to produce a response (as in touching a hot object) and there are other stimuli that require a more complex response from the brain (as with the savoring of a delicious meal). There are also varying levels of complexity of stimuli and response mechanisms in the animal kingdom – ranging from the fight-or-flight instinct of a cornered insect to the careful posturing of a lion on the hunt. In either event, timing is crucial. Time to process should always be negligible to help avoid danger or to catch a vital meal (as the situation may require). Likewise, with a business, some stimuli require a minimum of processing or resources while others may require complex processing to reach completed response. As in the animal kingdom, the real-time enterprise measures a great deal of its success on the speed and agility with which it completes both responses.
There are some differences in how successful creatures respond in nature and how many businesses respond to stimuli. In nature, there is no distinction between operational behavior and management behavior. Both responses are one, clean matrix of activity wherein a stimulus brings about a response almost instantly. In business, these elements are often spaced apart by procedures that take time and slow the business. One of the most important factors in this slowing is the often clear line of demarcation between operational or tactical activities and management or strategic activities. The line between these two areas is not often crossed, creating isolated areas of IT and business information. On top of this complication, the emergence of process frameworks that limit and ossify procedures can create islands of siloed information within business and IT.
However, not all differences between the nervous systems of animals and the management of business place business at a disadvantage. Unlike the creatures of nature which are made a certain way and must cope with their inborn makeup, businesses are flexible and mutable constructs that can actually radically change how they deal with their environment (including information) by human engineering.
While all of these procedures and practices that produce information silos are ostensibly designed to reduce business risk, they may actually contribute to that risk in many circumstances. As layer upon layer of siloed, isolated pieces of information develop within a business or IT structure the level of complexity involved in making that information useful greatly increases, pointing back to the perils of Moore’s Law. If systems get too complicated, people do not use them. If people do not use information resources, there may be a greater business risk overall from not having critical information or overall perspective than from avoiding lesser risks.
For example, an IT engineer may decide that taking down a server for maintenance at a particular time would be advantageous from his perspective. What he might not realize is that by doing so, he will disrupt critical business activities that take place on that server when he takes it down. In business, ignorance at any level poses a risk. In fact, there is a risk to corporate IT that the demand for information accessibility conflicts with the imperative for risk avoidance. To avoid this situation IT information and business intelligence overall must merge at some level.
Figure 2: The Value Chain: In many businesses, IT is viewed as a separate support entity for business rather than an integrated and strategic part of the enterprise. This situation results in the placement of IT further back in the value chain of the business than may be appropriate, artificially limiting both the business and IT. (Chart credit: Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance by Michael Porter, 1985)
IT Information Management and Business Intelligence
This convergence of IT information and business intelligence has a number of fringe benefits, including the better positioning of IT within the corporate enterprise overall by helping to redefine IT in terms business can understand – return on investment (ROI). Return on IT investment in most businesses is unpredictable and usually disappointing because the people using information assets are not well supported with:
- Semantic information
- Contextual information
- Perspective information
about these assets. In other words, they are deprived of the real relationship (and value) these IT assets have to the overall business. This is only the beginning of the benefits of a unified approach. It is important to review the stimulus-response model for business and IT.
Building a Brain for Business and IT
In a real-time enterprise, technology can be used as a productivity tool — to shorten the time between stimulus and response — bringing together the operational and management levels of business into one clean activity, like nerves in a living thing cooperate with the brain. The management cycle in a real-time enterprise is a dynamic feature – not a stagnant process. However, this model for business depends upon both management strategies and technology to be successful. Truly integrated IT and business demands uniform metadata management capabilities.
Just as the nervous system in living things relies on smaller nerve cells working in unison in groups controlled by a central brain that can manage the higher functions of cognitive reasoning, so should the new model for business and IT combine an operational level of information with a management level. In business, the use of a metadata-driven business service management model brings together operational metadata resources and information with other, more overtly strategic business information to help manage the real-time infrastructure in a way that is strategic and functional.
Figure 3: Metadata Management Unifies IT and Business: Metadata management is the link between strategic models for bringing together business/management and IT/operational management. The ability to build unified semantics, context and perspective across a business enterprise leads to both faster response and more informed decisions.
Applying a Business-Centric Model for Information Technology
So how can business actually apply this model? Businesses are able to describe exactly what they have needed to reach the goal of the real-time enterprise. They need to combine all elements of a business service into one management unit and correlate them within a management structure that is a real-time paradigm of the service itself. That way management and operations are one continuous process. This concept is often referenced as business service management or BSM. BSM takes a business and combines the disparate IT components that make up a business service (such as order fulfillment) and link these items together into one management unit. All of the people, networks, telecommunications resources and applications that help a business fulfill a particular service are a part of that business’ service structure. This management approach clearly draws a powerful relationship between all parts of a business’ IT makeup and how those elements relate to critical business activities.
It sounds simple but the technology that can deliver on this idea has been slow to emerge in a way that addresses the larger tensions between real business and real IT. Traditionally, IT has been heavily siloed and divided into departments based on IT function rather than business service. These siloes are made even more complex by a larger distinction made between operational and management information.
Typically, business intelligence information has been stored in an enterprise repository, a kind of library of what is seen to be strategic business information and metrics. The enterprise repository provides the necessary context and perspective for the “higher functions” of business without the details from the operations realm. Likewise, the configuration management database (CMDB) is often described as a database of information only on configuration items offering only context and perspective for operations and IT management issues. In many businesses, these stores of information are wholly separate and difficult to correlate, leaving a blind spot in both business intelligence and operations management.
The Merging of the Enterprise Repository and the Metadata CMDB
The deep rift between operational and what is typically seen as more strategic information combined with the current merging of business services and IT can make the dream of bringing together business services appear to be quite distant. With key data living in two separate houses – the enterprise repository and the Metadata-based CMDB (the MetaCMDB) respectively — the correlation between key information is difficult or impossible. In this situation, the concept of readily available, time-critical information within context and in perspective also seems far-fetched.
Business service management on a large scale requires the ability to monitor IT throughout an enterprise, maintain the information from this monitoring and provide context and perspective for this information at all levels. So how can business do it? The current landscape argues that the merger of the MetaCMDB and the enterprise repository (along with other trusted metadata stores such as directories, identity management systems, et cetera) can present a solution in a single, unified information storage system that enables real-time, easy access to all critical information in context and with perspective. To borrow from Negroponte’s description in Being Digital, it is a pulling technology rather than pushing technology. Information is available for use as needed rather than pushed out into distribution (1995).
This model also addresses issues of humanizing technology as explained by Donald A. Norman. In his complementary viewpoint, Norman describes “Being Analog” in a chapter from his book, The Invisible Computer (1998). He describes that the future direction of technology should work towards more collaboration and complementary interaction between the digital and analog (human) worlds. In this approach, it is easy to see the benefits – both technological and human – to considering the human, holistic view of business offered by the convergence of the enterprise repository and the MetaCMDB.
Figure 4: The Enterprise Repository and the MetaCMDB Unite: Bringing together management and operational information into one semantic, contextual and business perspective using metadata offers benefits to business and IT by providing strategic and operational views as well as the relationships between this information.
Such a connected, unified approach can provide a unique semantic layer to the MetaCMDB, adding real business management meaning to what might have otherwise been overlooked as mere technical details. The use of tags to classify configuration items with categories like “production”, “development”, “test”, or “current/obsolete” add levels of meaning that might have been impossible otherwise. The use of a common language and information “library” for management and operations can produce surprising results. Queries can allow paths to be defined from one item type to another — through any logical connection path — and allow results to be filtered so that only required steps on the path are shown, and only selected qualifying results. Searches can be by name, according to a pre-defined model, or according to a predefined topic. Suddenly the real-time enterprise seems possible and plausible.
Within this model, the overall nervous system of a business – based on the inner wiring of its IT and managed by the combination of readily available, contextualized information and good management by human beings – is complete. The “brain” of management can now interact transparently with the “nerves” of IT. While this technology is available today, the good management and implementation techniques, including changes in business and IT corporate culture still pose substantial challenges. However, for businesses to continue to compete as technology continues to advance and the global economy continues to quicken its pace these changes must take place.
Business information must be transparent, available, in context and timely. The gap between management and operations is quickly closing and can be based on accurate and accessible metadata. Businesses who realize this and make adjustments accordingly will ultimately win out by being more agile, intelligent and strategic than their more siloed competitors.