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Busting down the info silos

Some companies have discovered that the benefits of sharing data more widely are well worth the costs and effort.

By Elisabeth Horwitt
June 7, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - More than a decade ago, General Mills developed a CRM system called International Contact Entry (ICE), which collects consumer contact data from phone calls, mail, email, and the Web and puts it all into a single Oracle database and a SAP BusinessObjects reporting system.

"We now have a single database for global consumer contact information that spans the various silos of division, plant or country," says Jeff Hagen, the food giant's director of consumer services. The business analytics group develops dashboards and reports to serve not only his group, but also the Quality and Regulatory Operations (QRO) group, whose job is to ensure product quality and safety.

This was only the start of Hagen's decade-long voice of the customer (VOC) crusade to provide different business groups with the customer intelligence they need. A few years ago, he convinced management of the value of giving sales and marketing access to customer intelligence, through ICE.

While end-user-generated information stovepipes can provide great value to business users, they constitute a major data integration challenge.
Bill Gassman, Gartner analyst

Here's one example of why breaking down the silos paid off: A product locator on General Mills' website allows customers to find out which stores in their ZIP code area carry, say, a particular Yoplait flavor or type of cereal. They can also enter which store they prefer to shop at.

Hagen's group compiles and analyzes such queries to determine which products consumers are hunting for the most, and which they are having trouble finding in any given region. Salespeople then use the reports to convince store buyers to purchase more of those products.

Another example is an early warning system that lets General Mills' QRO group know when customer complaints about a particular product begin to escalate, so they, as well as consumer services, can deal with the situation quickly.

A couple of years ago, it became clear that General Mills needed to extend its VOC platform to include social media. More and more business groups were signing up with social media data mining services, creating silos of valuable information that only they could access, Hagen says. "We wanted to provide a single pipe for all [social media] conversations for all our brands, not just for groups that could afford to do it themselves," and ultimately make that data sharable, he adds.

Meanwhile upper management, alarmed at well-publicized viral disasters that had befallen other firms, wanted Hagen's team to build a system that would "enable us to keep our finger on the pulse of social media," says James Bell, an IS staff consultant who works with Consumer Services and developed ICE.

Last summer, the company deployed the system, which, combined with ICE, "allows us to provide our brands' teams with a more complete picture of the desires, needs, complaints, praise and frustrations of our consumers," Hagen says. Still, the VOC initiative is still very much a work in progress, he admits.

Beware, though; this type of project isn't meant for those who are watching their pennies. Hagen says General Mill has invested in "the hundreds of millions" of dollars in these systems "over the years."

(Next: Silo-less living)

Building just-in-time data at NYU

New York University is in the process of redefining itself as a "Global Network University" that will encompass not only its New York-based medical, research and academic facilities, but also a growing number of satellite campuses around the world, says Thomas Delaney, the university's vice president of global technology.

GNU will be a true global network that helps different members of the community reach out to each other, share information and collaborate, Delaney explains. "Students, faculty, researchers and alumni generate a great deal of valuable data and ideas."

To accomplish this, the university is using open-source frameworks, APIs and standards whenever possible, says Heather Stewart, associate vice president for NYU's partnership initiative. Open standards "provide us with extensibility and flexibility," Stewart says.

"Our objective is to transcend information silos," she explains. "We want to personalize community members' experiences so they easily see data that is meaningful to them, in the right context, just when they need it."

In one example, NYU is migrating from a single-source, proprietary learning management system, or "blackboard," to the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment, an open-source framework that is being designed and deployed by a growing community of academic institutions.

The university is also using OpenSocial, an evolving standard for building Web-based environments where trusted and semi-trusted entities can interact and share information.

An open social framework could ultimately be used to present self-authorized profiles of faculty, students, researchers, alumni and administrators. These profiles might include past and ongoing research, areas of expertise, publications and other relevant data, Delaney says. Other members of the NYU community could access those profiles to locate information and expertise for their own research projects and classes.

Other potential uses of an open social fabric include researchers building affinity groups and interdisciplinary teams. Faculty members could collaborate on joint-teaching opportunities that are accessible to students at campuses around the world.

This is already starting to happen. A marine biologist in Abu Dhabi wanted to teach a course on the effects of shoreline urban development on marine life. This would involve parsing a great deal of geo-coded data, an area in which the biologist had no expertise. Using NYU's then-rudimentary matching system, he was able to connect with a colleague at NYU's New York campus who had 15 years of geo-coding expertise. The two collaborated in a "wildly successful" New York - Abu Dhabi paired course, according to Delaney.

"We are looking at our environment in a new way, as an ecosystem, built on identity management, user profiles, dynamic group management, role awareness, content management and collaboration," Delaney says.

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