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Information Brokers: The Missing Link?

Information brokers could play a critical role in the design and adoption of a business intelligence system.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

In my previous article, SAP Business Intelligence and the Conservation of Complexity, I introduced the concept of an “information broker.” I made the point that a major reason many companies fail to realize the full potential of the information housed in their various application systems is because end users are unable to effectively deal with the high level of complexity presented to them. Even in a warehouse environment such as SAP BW where data has been cleansed, sanitized, de-normalized, and supposedly made fit for human consumption, it can be a daunting task for the rank-and-file user base to access mission-critical information.

If we can accept the premise that users are being forced to deal with too much complexity when accessing corporate information, then what can and should be done to rectify the situation?

One obvious place to look for improvement would be in the technology being used – the “front-end tools.” There has been no lack of effort over the past few years by all the bigbusiness intelligence (BI) vendors to provide “the holy grail” of front-end tools – a tool that can be effectively used by the uninitiated end users. Some recent examples fall under the heading of “natural language” query tools, such as Intelligent Question from Business Objects. The promise of these tools is to provide a way for ordinary business users to ask a question and actually receive an answer (e.g., “What were my five top selling products in the southern region last quarter?”).

The purpose of this article is not to argue the merits of these tools and debate their relative effectiveness in providing real answers to business users’ questions. I have not personally had the opportunity to use one of these tools at a customer site and, therefore, cannot provide any real-world observations. And while I certainly agree that it is important for all BItools to become more “natural” and simple to use, there’s more to solving this puzzle than simply putting the right tools in the right hands. As with many business problems, it can be more of an organizational/people issue than a technological issue.

As I’ve worked with companies through the years, I’ve noticed that certain people tend to function as “information magnets” in any organization. They are usually fairly easy to spot: all you have to do is follow the tracks worn in the carpet leading to their cubes. One thing they have in common is that everyone else around them looks to them for answers to their questions. These are the keepers of the infamous “spreadmarts” and, quite frankly, we should all be thankful for them because without them, commerce as we know it would grind to an immediate and screeching halt. 

While I would agree that these spreadmarts are not the most ideal method of disseminating information, we should all recognize that they have served a very important function that, for whatever reason or reasons, was not (and is not) being performed elsewhere – they have functioned as information clearinghouses where raw data is brought in and usable information is produced and delivered to decision makers. If we think of this in terms of a transaction of goods or services, then we could say that the keepers of these spreadmarts operate as “information brokers,” connecting the right piece of information with the right person in order to produce the best possible business outcome.

Although this method of collecting and disseminating information has proved somewhat effective and useful, it is not without significant issues. Perhaps the foremost is lack of control over corporate data. Because this process involves downloading data from corporate data stores into either Excel or Access, the data can therefore be easily manipulated – a feature for some, but a cause for concern for anyone responsible for corporate governance. There is also the issue of distribution of the information. These local spreadmarts and Access databases do not offer the secure distribution and auditing capabilities of a true enterprise reporting system.

The idea I would like to propose is for IT to deliberately identify, engage and empower these individuals and help make them part of an enterprise reporting solution. In most of the reporting projects I’ve been a part of, there is – at best – a sort of “us vs. them” mentality among IT staff. Instead of being viewed as potential allies, these “keepers of the spreadmarts” are often seen as part of the problem and are frequently ignored or otherwise shoved to the side while the “real” enterprise business intelligence solution is being implemented. However, by leaving these individuals out of the loop and not giving them a central role in the design and implementation of the enterprise business intelligence system, the entire project can be jeopardized. They are the ones who truly understand what the business needs and where to find the answers to questions in the data.

How could this be practically implemented as part of an enterprise reporting project?

  • Early on in the process, there needs to be a deliberate effort to identify these individuals in an organization. The scope of the search would depend on the scope of the reporting system deployment. This could be accomplished using a simple survey of end users: Who do you go to in your department to get answers to your business questions?

  • Once these individuals have been identified, include them in the early stages of design. They can offer invaluable assistance in identifying deficiencies in the data and common analysis “themes” requested by end users.

  • By providing these individuals with early ownership of the new solution, they will feel less threatened and therefore more likely to adopt and promote it rather than resist.

  • It is important that these individuals be officially recognized as the critical link between IT and the user base at large. I would even recommend going as far as giving them an official internal title, such as “HR Information Broker” or “Sales Information Broker.” 

  • Lastly, these individuals need to be empowered with the training and guidance they need to fully understand and adopt an enterprise business intelligence system. They need to be shown how they personally will benefit from moving to an enterprise system and how they can better serve their end users (through developing end-user reports, creating meta-layer views, creating business logic/formulas, etc.). 

One common flaw I’ve noticed in many IT departments is a lack of real understanding of the business needs and how information is really used in an organization.

This is understandable as IT does not work as part of the business, but rather in support of the business. By identifying existing “information brokers” and bringing them into the fold early on in the project, IT can help insure that the new business intelligence system will be designed correctly and fully adopted by the end-user community. And you may also find the “missing link” between your data and your users.

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