Busting down the info silos

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

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Silo-less living

General Mills is hardly alone. Savvy business leaders are starting to recognize the paybacks of enabling business groups -- ranging from marketing and sales to quality control and engineering, to research and education -- to work off the same data. Another goal is to help business users to share and collaborate on the reports and ideas that data generates.

Jeff Hagen
"Voice of the customer means putting information in the ears of people that want to hear it," says Jeff Hagen, General Mills' director of consumer services "But everybody wants to hear something different, so you need a lot of different tools and reporting mechanisms to make it happen."

Enterprises started merging data from different business systems decades ago, starting with the different modules in their enterprise resource planning software, says Bill Gassman, an industry analyst at Gartner. "Now we're in that cycle again," he says, but with a difference: The data is being collected, processed and generated by business groups and end users, often without IT's involvement or even knowledge.

An online survey of 350 corporate decision-makers, commissioned by digital marketing vendor DataXu and released in March, found that only 15% of respondents in marketing involved the IT department in marketing technology purchasing decisions.

While end-user-generated "information stovepipes" can provide great value to business users, they constitute a major data integration challenge, says Gartner's Gassman. This is particularly true of social media data, he adds, because it exists in so many different forms, many of them unstructured.

Vendors have started to address these needs only recently, and in a limited and often proprietary fashion, business sources complain. Respondents to the DataXu survey, for example, identified the lack of a single, cross-channel digital marketing platform as the number one obstacle to the growth of digital marketing.

The technology involved

Integrating all the silos represents a two-pronged challenge for IT executives, says Holger Kisker, a principal analyst at Forrester. On the back end, they need to extract data from multiple sources, transform and, in the case of social media, structure it, before loading it into a cohesive infrastructure. This could be a data warehouse, or a virtualized structure in which data remains on distributed systems.

Often the best strategy is to "bridge rather than flatten" the information silos -- in other words, use APIs or some other source to connect the data sources rather than try and load all of the data into a single system, Gassman advises. "You'll never get rid of silos, they're too valuable," he adds.

End users are building "stovepipes" to social media sites; this allows users to access information "that IT has neither the skills nor the resources to provide," Gassman says. The value of such pipelines greatly increases as businesses engage their customers via social media, he adds.

Business intelligence

For example, marketing departments are increasingly launching ad campaigns on social media sites, which can then be monitored for consumer reactions. A stock trading company discovered, through monitoring, that people who participate in its online social community average 360 trades per year, versus 200 trades for those who don't, Gassman reports. "So they're encouraging customers to participate in the community."

Connecting all the stovepipes into one big smokestack is neither practical nor necessary, says Gassman. Rather, business and tech leaders need to figure out what types of data users need to share, then "bring it together either by bridging silo A and silo B, or by bringing specific data within both silos into a classic data warehouse."

Maryellen Abreu, director of global technical support at vacuum maker iRobot, agrees. "Certainly you don't have to reinvent a whole infrastructure, but rather take relevant data you want to analyze," she says. In the case of customer data, individuals' privacy is also a serious concern, she adds. IRobot's recently completed voice of the customer platform provides a wealth of information about each vacuum cleaner unit, but not the customer's name, email address or any other personal information.

Fitting the pieces together

BI vendors have been fielding self-service BI tools that enable end users to create their own reports and views of data, once it's collected from various information silos. However, they've been slower to work with unstructured data, particularly social media data, which typically needs to be structured and scored for sentiment before it is useful, says Forrester's Kisker.

This leaves IT staffs with the job of cobbling together various vendors' tools and platforms. Take General Mills' VOC platform, for example.

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