vrijdag 24 juli 2015

The Future of Information Systems: Design from the Data

This third post in a series of three on BI programme management looks at a new way of designing systems for both transaction  and decision support to improve the organisation’s effectiveness further. I will examine the concept of BI architecture further and give hints of how BI programme management can evolve towards an ideal architecture which merges transaction and decision support systems in a powerful ensemble, ready for the new economic challenges.
I propose an “Idealtyp” knowing that no existing organisation can achieve this in less than a decade for reasons like sunk cost fallacies, the dialectics of progress and simply resistance to change.

But new organisations and innovators who can make the change will notice that the rewards of this approach are immense. They will combine architectural rigidity with business agility and improve their competitive power with an order of magnitude.

Why a BI Architecture is Necessary


I am a fan of Max Weber’s definition of “Idealtyp”[i], which has direct links with architecture in information technology. BI architecture is an abstraction of reality, and as such an instrument to better understand a complex organisation of hardware, network topologies, software, data objects, business processes, key people and organisational units. All these components interact in –what appears to outsiders- in a chaotic way. An architectural framework brings order to the chaos and provides meaning to all the contributors to the system.
Architecture is used as a benchmark, a to be situation by which the present state of nature can be measured. It is a more crisp and more manageable concept than CMM-like models which express maturity sometimes in rather esoteric terms. For a quick scan, this will do but for in-depth managing of the above mentioned BI assets, an architectural framework is better for BI environments.


CMM Level
BI symptoms
 Principal risks
 Initial
 A serious case of “spreadsheetitis”: every decision maker has its own set of spreadsheet files to support him in his battles with the other owners of spreadsheets. Everyday tugs of war over who has the correct figures.
Your project may never take off because of political infighting and if it does, there will be a pressing need for change management of the highest quality and huge efforts will have to be invested in adoption tracks.
 Repeatable
 The organisation uses some form of project management, in most cases inherited or even a carbon a copy of systems or application development
The project management method may be totally inadequate for a BI project leading to expensive rework and potential project failure in case everybody remains on his position.
 Defined
The organisation has a standard procedure for the production of certified reports. These can connect with one or more source systems in a standardised way: direct connection to the source tables, import of flat files, or some form of a data warehouse.
Resistance to change.
This depends on the way the organisation has implemented the data warehouse concept and how reversible the previous efforts are in a migration scenario.

 Managed
The development processes are standardised and monitored using key performance indicators and a PDCA cycle.
The iterative and explorative approach of BI project management may frighten the waterfall and RAD fans in the organisation. Make sure you communicate well about the specifics of a BI development track.
 Optimising
The development processes only need fine-tuning.
Analysis paralysis and infighting over details may hamper the project’s progress.

Table 2 Example of the BI version of the Capability Maturity Model as described in Business Analysis for Business Intelligence on page 202. In the book, it is positioned as a tool to help the BA with identifying broad project management issues

Why this "Idealtyp" is not Easy to Achieve


Proposing an ideal BI architecture is one thing, achieving it, another. I will only mention three serious roadblocks on the path towards this ideal BI architecture that unifies transaction systems and decision support systems: the sunk cost fallacy, the dialectics of progress and resistance to change.

The sunk cost fallacy is a powerful driver in maintaining the status quo; organisations suffering from this irrational behaviour consider they have invested so much effort, money, hardware, training, user acceptance and other irretrievable costs that they should continue to throw good money at bad money.  And sometimes the problem is compounded when the costs were spent on technology from market leaders.
No one ever got fired for buying… (fill in any market leader’s name)

No matter what industry you look at, market leaders fulfil their basic marketing promise: provide stability, predictable behaviour and a very high degree of CYA (google it) to the buyer. But that doesn’t mean the purchase decision is the best possible decision for future use. Market leaders in IT are also very keen on “providing” vendor lock-in, disallowing the client to adapt to changing requirements.
As a footnote: today, buyers are more looking at the market cap or the private equity of the Big Data technology providers than at their actual technical performance and their fit with the organisation’s requirements. Yes, people keep making the same mistakes over and over…

At the other end of the spectrum are the dialectics of progress:  this law was discovered by the Dutch journalist Jan Romein who noticed that gas lights were still used in London when other European capitals already used electricity.  This law suggests-and I quote an article on Wikipedia-  that making progress in a particular area often creates circumstances in which stimuli are lacking to strive for further progress. This results in the individual or group that started out ahead eventually being overtaken by others. In the terminology of the law, the head start, initially an advantage, subsequently becomes a handicap.
An explanation for why the phenomenon occurs is that when a society dedicates itself to certain standards, and those standards change, it is harder for them to adapt. Conversely, a society that has not committed itself yet will not have this problem. Thus, a society that at one point has a head start over other societies, may, at a later time, be stuck with obsolete technology or ideas that get in the way of further progress. One consequence of this is that what is considered to be the state of the art in a certain field can be seen as "jumping" from place to place, as each leader soon becomes a victim of the handicap. 
(From:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_handicap_of_a_head_start)

As always, resistance to change plays its role. New tools and new architectures require new skills to be trained, new ways of working to adopt and if one human species has trouble adapting to new technologies it is… the tech people. I can produce COBOL programmers who will explain to you that COBOL is good enough for object oriented programming or IMS specialists who see nothing new in the Big Data phenomenon…


What is BI Architecture?

Here’s architecture explained in an image. Imagine Christopher Wren would have disposed of modern building technologies. Then either the cathedral, based on the architecture “as is” would have looked completely different, with higher arches, bigger windows, etc… Or,… the architecture could have evolved as modern technology would have influenced Wren’s vision on buildings.
Exactly this is what happens in BI architecture  and BI programme management.

Figure 5 On the left: architecture, right: a realisation of architecture as illustrated by Wren’s Saint-Paul’s Cathedral


Architecture descriptions are formal descriptions of an information system, organized in a way:
  • that supports reasoning about the structural and behavioural properties of the system and its evolution.
  • These descriptions define the components or building blocks that make up the overall information system, and
  • They provide a plan from which products can be procured, and subsystems developed,
  • that will work together to implement the overall system.
  • It thus enables you to manage your overall IT investment in a way that meets the needs of your business.
It is also the interaction between structure, which is requirements based, and principles applicable to any component of the structure.

What is the Function of BI Architecture? 

BI Architecture should reflect how the BI requirements are realized by services, processes, and software applications in the day-to-day operations. Therefore, the quality of the architecture is largely determined by the ability to capture and analyse the relevant goals and requirements, the extent to which they can be realized by the architecture, and the ease with which goal and requirements can be changed. 

Figure 6 The Open Group Architecture Framework puts requirements management at the centre of the lifecycle management. The connection with business analysis for business intelligence is obvious. 


Reality Check: the Two Worlds of Doing and Thinking

Now we have established a common view on BI architecture and programme management, it is time to address the murky reality of everyday practice.
Although Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol’s ideas of separation between doing and thinking have been proven inadequate for modern organisations, our information systems still reflect these early 20th Century paradigms. You have the transaction systems where the scope is simply: execute one step after another in one business process and make sure you comply with the requirements of the system. This is the world of doing and not thinking. Separated from the world of doing is the world of thinking and not doing: decision support systems. The business looks at reports, cubes and analytical results extracted from transaction and external data and then makes decisions which the doers can execute.
What if the new economy were changing all this in a rapid pace? What if doing and thinking came together in one flow? That’s exactly what the Internet is creating, and I am afraid the majority of organisations are simply not ready for this (r)evolution. Already in 1999, Bill Gates and Collins Hemingway[ii] wrote about empowering people in the digital age when they gave us the following business lessons:
  • q  The more line workers understand the inner workings of production systems, the more intelligently they can run those systems.
  • q  Real-time data on production systems enables you to schedule maintenance before something breaks.
  • q  Tying compensation to improved quality will work only with real-time feedback of quality problems.
  • q  Task workers will go away. Their jobs will be automated or combined into bigger tasks requiring knowledge work.
  • q  Look into how portable devices and wireless networks can extend your information systems into the factory, warehouse and other areas.

I am afraid this advice still needs implementation in many organisations. The good news is that contemporary technologies can support the integration of doing and thinking. But it will require new architectures, new organisational and technological skills to reap maximum benefits from the technology.

The major and most relevant BI programme management decision criterion will be the answer to the question: “Which quality data yield the highest return in terms of competitive advantage?


Bringing IT Together: Design from the Data


What if we considered business processes as something that can change in 24 hours if the customer or the supplier wants it? Or if competitive pressure forces us to change the process? What if information systems would have no problem supporting changing business processes because the true cornerstone, surviving any business process is data? This could be a real game changer for industries that still consider data as a product of a business process instead of the objective of that process.
The schema below describes a generic architecture integrating transaction and decision support systems in one architectural vision. Let’s read it from left to right.
Any organisation has a number of business drivers, for example as described by Michael Porter’s generic strategies: be the cost leader, differentiate from the competition or focus on a niche. Parallel with the business drivers are decision making motives such as: “I want complete customer and product insight” and finally, the less concrete but very present knowledge discovery driver to make sure organisations are always in the lookout for unpredictable changes in the competitive environment. These three drivers define a number of business objects, both static and dynamic. And these entities can be endogenous to the organisation (like customer, channel, product, etc..) or they can be external like weather data, currency data, etc…. These business objects need to be translated into data objects suitable for transaction and decision support

Figure 7 This is the (condensed) target architecture of an integrated  “Big Data Warehouse”: combining batch and stream processing using low latency for operational intelligence and aggregate data for tactical and strategic decision making. Built from the ground up using data in stead of business processes as the analytic cornerstone.

Conclusion: an integrated view on transactions and decision making will improve BI programme management supported by this architectural vision. The major and most relevant BI programme management decision criterion will be the answer to the question: “Which quality data yield the highest return in terms of competitive advantage?” And thus, which project (whether on the transaction or decision support systems need the highest priority in allocation of resources? 



[i] According to the excellent website http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/weber/  this is the best description of Max Weber’s definition:
“The methodology of “ideal type” (Idealtypus) is another testimony to such a broadly ethical intention of Weber. According to Weber's definition, “an ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view” according to which “concrete individual phenomena … are arranged into a unified analytical construct” (Gedankenbild); in its purely fictional nature, it is a methodological “utopia [that] cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality”. Keenly aware of its fictional nature, the ideal type never seeks to claim its validity in terms of a reproduction of or a correspondence with reality. Its validity can be ascertained only in terms of adequacy, which is too conveniently ignored by the proponents of positivism. This does not mean, however, that objectivity, limited as it is, can be gained by “weighing the various evaluations against one another and making a ‘statesman-like’ compromise among them”, which is often proposed as a solution by those sharing Weber's kind of methodological perspectivism. Such a practice, which Weber calls “syncretism,” is not only impossible but also unethical, for it avoids “the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals”.”

What is less known is that Weber used the concept also in decision making theory when he analysed the outcome of the Battle of K├Âninggratz, where Von Moltke defeated the Austrian-Bavarian coalition against Prussia and its allies in 1866, an important phase in the unification of Germany.


[ii] “Business at the Speed of Thought” Bill Gates and Collins Hemingway, Penguin Books, London England, 1999 pp 293 -294

dinsdag 7 juli 2015

The Eternal Business Intelligence Conundrum

Finding an Optimum between a Manageable BI Architecture and Business Agility

This is the second post in a series of three about programme management in Business Intelligence (BI). In the previous post we positioned project- and programme management in BI and the latter’s relationship with BI architecture.
In this post, we discuss the universal and eternal problem, conflict, dialectics,… (call it what you want) between the business who wants a decision support solution here and now, no matter what the consequences for the IT department are and the IT guys who want to steer the team and the infrastructure into calm waters. “Calm waters” meaning a strict architectural, TOGAF based approach to managing the BI assets. 

Head for the Cloud!

I won’t describe the situations where the IT guys –according to the business- waste time with the introduction of new tools and the business strike a direct deal with a vendor, using the tool completely outside the managed environment. 
DataMaestro, for data mining in a browser
Figure 2 The data mining tool Data Maestro is an example of a powerful cloud based tool

Needless to say that many cloud based solutions offer a solution with a small IT footprint: all the business needs is a browser. Well, that’s what the business thinks. Issues like data quality, data governance and data security are not always handled according to corporate standards and legislation on data privacy and data security is becoming stricter and more repressive every so many years.

What Business Stakeholders Need

As I pointed out in the section “Managing Strategy” (Business Analysis for Business Intelligence p. 66 – 71) business stakeholders need decision support for their intended strategy as well as emergent strategies (note the plural in the latter). To support analysis and monitoring of intended strategies (i.e. the overall business plan or a functional strategy as described in a marketing-, HR- or finance plan for example) a balanced scorecard (BSC) does the job. If well done, a BSC aligns all parties concerned around a well-designed causal model breaking down strategic priorities into critical success factors and key performance indicators as well as a project plan, a data model and an impact study on the existing analytics architecture. But to capture, evaluate, monitor and measure the impact of emergent strategies is a different ball game. The business intelligence infrastructure needs an agile approach to produce insights on the fly. Some vendors will suggest that all can be solved with in-memory analytics. Others suggest the silver bullet is called “Self Service BI” (SSBI) Yet even the most powerful hard- and software is a blunt and ineffective weapon if the data architecture and the data quality are in shambles.
Sometimes new tools emerge, producing solutions for niches in finance, marketing or production management which cause the business to urge IT for adopting these tools. This ends with either a mega vendor acquiring the niche player or the niche player broadening its offerings and competing head on with the established vendors. In any case, if the IT department happens to have standardised on the “wrong” technology partner, there will be bridges to cross for both…
Other than issues with new software “interfering” with IT’s priorities, most of the troubles are found in the data architecture. The reason is simple: if not all BI projects are backed by an enterprise wide data architecture that is connected with BI programme management, new information stovepipes will emerge. This is quite ironic as the initial reason for data warehousing was to avoid the analytic stovepipes on transaction systems. So here’s my advice to the business:

Whatever business you are in, make sure you have an enterprise view on the major information objects for your analytic projects
Without it, you are destined to waste money on rework, on incomplete and even false information.

What IT Stakeholders Need

IT management has many constraints do deal with. Keeping up with business requirements, while getting the biggest bang for their buck means pooling skills, facilities and technology components to optimise license cost, education and training and hard- and software performance. The final objective is to provide high service levels and keeping their customers happy at a reasonable budget. But if ”happy customer” means: acquiring new, exotic software, training new skills and insourcing expensive tech consultants from the vendor to explore new terrain without experience or knowledge of best practices, then IT management may be at the short end of the stick.
Take the example of data visualisation ten years back. Business had a point that the existing vendors weren’t paying too much attention to good visualisation to produce better insights in data. Even the most common tools had problems creating a histogram, let alone sophisticated heat maps or network diagrams. Then came along vendors like Tableau Software selling end user desktop licenses at affordable rates, educating the business to enjoy the benefits of visual exploration of data. The next step in this “camel’s nose” or “puppy dog approach” is getting the organisation to acquire the server for better management, performance and enterprise wide benefits of the technology.
So here’s my advice for IT Management:

If a new technology becomes available, it will be used. Make sure it is used in a managed and governed way instead of contributing to information chaos.
Don’t fight business intelligence trends that have a pertinent business case, fight BI fads only.

A Governance Decision Model for Conflicting Interests

I don’t like dogmatic thinking in management but when it comes to governance in BI, I will defend this dogma till the bitter end: only duopolistic governance will produce the best results in analytics.

That a business monopoly won’t work was clear after a consulting mission where I found a data warehouse with no less than six (6!) time dimensions. This extreme situation can only be explained by what I call “the waiter business analysis model”. Without any discussion, counterarguments nor suggestions, the analyst-waiter brings the ordered tables, cubes and reports to please the business. If the business funds the projects solely, then accidents will happen.

Business Analysts need to interact with the business requirements
Figure 3 The BI Waiter Model: don't argue with the customer, bring him what he wants, no matter what...
But IT monopolies also are a recipe for failure in BI. At another client’s site, the IT department repeats over and over “x unless…” (x is a well-known BI tool provider). As it happens, this tool provider is lagging seriously in data mining and visualisation functionality so the business is wasting money on external service providers who do the analytics off line. Another source of waste are business managers installing software on their private PC to explore new ways of analytics at home.
In a duopolistic governance model, decision makers from both sides have to consider five key governance decisions. This will result in a better mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and priorities as well as provide a roadmap towards a managed analytical environment.

The Five Key BI Governance Decisions

(from my book Business Analysis for Business Intelligence, page 300 -301)

1.       BI Principles decisions:
a.       In what measure do we value data quality in the transaction systems?
b.      If we have a trade off between security issues and potential gains from better distribution of information, which direction do we choose?
c.       Do we choose a proactive or a reactive attitude towards our BI users, i.e. do we deliver only the required information or do we make suggestions for enhancements?
2.       BI Architecture decisions
a.       Do we follow the general architecture policies or is there a compelling reason to choose an alternative route?
b.      If we need alternatives, where will they be of importance: in databases, ETL tools, BI server(s), client software,…?
3.       BI infrastructure decisions
a.       What are the shared IT services the data warehouse will use?
b.       What part of the infrastructure will be organised per department or business unit?
c.      What are the access methods for the information consumers: local client PC, PDA, web based, VPN,…?
4.       Business Application needs
a.      Specify the business need
b.      Specify the urgency
c.      Present alternative solutions
5.       Prioritisation of investments in BI
  a.        How will we evaluate the priorities?
  b.        Who will handle conflicting interests?
  c.        Which user profiles will be served first?
  d.        Which subject areas will be tackled first?

Bert Brijs' book on Busines Intelligence governance, business analysis and project management
Figure 4 More on BI Governance in this book, available in all major bookstores

In the next post I will have a look into the next generation of information design and architecture. Comments are welcome!