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Business Intelligence: One Version of the Truth

Getting there takes more than sophisticated business intelligence software. It takes data quality and political battles, too.

December 22, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Talk about chaos. For decades, corporate executives have made strategic business decisions based on information deduced from multiple reports that IT compiled by summarizing sets of frequently conflicting data.

Business intelligence systems promise to change that by, among other things, pulling data from all internal systems plus external sources to present a single version of the truth. This truth can then be delivered to decision-makers in the form of answers to highly strategic questions such as "How many customers spend more than $1 million with our company?" or "Which clients are most likely to respond to our latest marketing campaign?"

By 2005, market research firm IDC projects the worldwide market for business intelligence software will total about $6 billion—up from $2.5 billion this year—signaling a voracious user appetite for the truth. But getting there isn't just about buying and deploying new software tools. Instead, it involves an arduous data-modeling effort upfront, and that can trigger widespread political battles and numerous other challenges. Here's a rundown of not-so-predictable gotchas and how some veteran users of business intelligence systems overcame them.

1. Rarely, if ever, is the truth in plain sight. Truly valuable business information must be mined from disparate and "dirty" data that resides in multiple, incompatible computer applications and databases. Fair warning: It takes many months and requires paying militant attention to detail to combine and prepare the source data that will ultimately get you to a single version of the truth.

Pfizer Inc. needed to pull data from 14 systems, each of which handles a unique slice of the business, to come up with a comprehensive financial picture of the $32 billion pharmaceutical giant. In what turned out to be a false start, Pfizer's IT group began by creating software interfaces to link the 14 individual systems to a data warehouse, which was conceived as a single source of financial information. The problem was that business and financial terms were defined differently within each of the contributing systems.

"You put all the data together and you've won the battle, but lost the war," notes Danny Siegel, senior manager of business technology at New York-based Pfizer. "It took us four months just to integrate a few sources." Lesson learned: Gathering the data in a single place is only half the battle. "We saw that we had to put in place some rigorous data standards. This kicked off a six-month, totally nontechnical effort to devise a set of standards that allows users to slice and dice data in whatever context they need it," Siegel says.

Tony LoFrumento, executive director of CRM at $19 billion Morgan Stanley, which created a database that provides a holistic view of each of the firm's 5 million accounts, advises others to pay more attention to information content than to its delivery.

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