'Enterprise': It's All About Data

By Scott Robinson

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You've certainly heard of (and you probably have one) the executive information system (EIS). The refined pinnacle of decision support, the EIS is the answer to senior management's most fervent prayers: an information source that offers up the most critical decision support data at the moments when it's needed most.

A typical EIS satisfies the two primary requirements of the senior executive: it delivers only the specific information that the executive needs in order to get the job done; and, the executive can call it up at a moment's notice.

The EIS is a stroke of genius. It is senior management's response to the accelerating pace of business and increasingly dynamic interactions between companies. But there's a problem. While it is a powerful tool and worthy of your best efforts to realize in your company, it is folly to assume such a tool is exclusively the province of senior management.

With vision, this level of functional intelligence can and should be made accessible to every employee, from the CEO down to the lowliest junior accountant.

And that is ultimately the point of enterprise.

Defining And Solving The Problem

Functional divisions between an organization's various departments have become barriers to data access in this 'on-demand' era, when performance must exceed all reasonable standards in order to remain competitive.

Your line managers and hands-on personnel no longer have time to request a report from across the hall. Unprecedented strategic planning and tactical process tuning are made possible when logistics and financials not only march in tandem but dynamically impact one another at the transaction level.

The best metaphor for describing the way enterprise will change the flow of data and, therefore, information, in your company is to imagine a lake, surrounded by villages and fed by mountain streams.

Each village sends villagers with buckets to the lake and they haul water back to their particular village. That's your company, pre-enterprise: the lake is your centralized database, the villages are your various departments, and the buckets are application programs.

Enterprise obliterates the lake in favor of aqueducts that interconnect and feed every village directly. Buckets are obsolete, and no one needs to waste time chasing water; the water now comes to them.To create such data aqueducts, here's what needs to happen:

  • New database development assumes cross-database integration of information by applications. SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft or any other major ERP software vendors can put completely new, fully configurable systems in place of whatever you're running today, and even give you staff to maintain them while your in-house team focuses on projects that differentiate your business. Your new databases will all talk to each other, and user/application queries across databases become commonplace. The same apps can access and integrate financial and logistical data (and any other kind) with the same query -- and the databases themselves conspire in this cooperation.
  • Legacy database systems are upgraded to be made integration-friendly with enterprise systems. Those same ERP vendors can, if you like, put software in place between your existing databases and applications that will enable them to work together, and integrate your new, enterprise-friendly development with your old stuff. In addition, a new layer of software -- middleware -- joins the fray, because applications no longer talk exclusively to users, but now will talk to other apps; and this includes your legacy apps, which never had to do that before.
  • Databases are no longer static storage facilities, but dynamic entities communicating with one another and initiating events in other systems. Modern database design is availed of event triggering, stored procedures and other nested operations that are set in motion when data is stored and changed, making your database a living thing that doesn't simply receive data but responds to it. Complex, distributed applications become possible, with sophisticated chains of processing set in motion without human intervention.
  • Database tables and other storage structures are made accessible at multiple levels. Database technology now permits the same table to service a wide spectrum of users, with multiple levels of security built in. Various groups of users can have access to the same table, yet each group sees only the information that is relevant and appropriate. The unprecedented efficiency and flexibility you can derive from this capability, for servicing your customers and partners, is obvious.
  • Data is typed, and records are designed in such a way as to facilitate access not only by in-house apps but by external queries, especially via the internet. The low-level requirements of internet IT are an essential new factor in your database detail design, to optimize the convenience of access for users across the internet.
  • The Beauty In The Beast

    When you alter your database platform in these ways, you create a very different beast. Data storage ceases to be static and passive, becoming very communicative and, in a way, social. Database interface becomes less and less about applications pulling out records, and more about an increasing spectrum of dynamic events, to which your databases must dynamically respond. No more still waters; you've engineered flowing rivers.

    It's important to note that you can achieve these modifications in a number of ways. Here are some of the scenarios open to you:

  • Bring in an ERP software company to convert your databases and install all the fundamental business systems.
  • Bring in an ERP software company and have them integrate your existing databases and apps.
  • Bring in several ERP software companies, and mix and match their various products in order to integrate your databases and applications.
  • Create your own ERP platform by doing your own database modifications; retain legacy databases and grow new, enterprise-based ones as needed, integrating as you go.
  • In today's market, all of these options are very doable, depending on your available resources and level of commitment. Whichever course you choose, remain true to the objectives above, and in particular, remain true to the central goal of placing comprehensive real-time data resources in the hands of all your employees.

    The Really Big Idea

    This next concept is the toughest, especially for those who sit in executive authority. This very high level of data integration, timeliness and access must be extended company-wide if you are to make the enterprise transition successfully. But, more importantly, you must begin extending it beyond your company's boundaries.

    Your partnerships with other companies are increasingly dynamic, as you rely upon one another's performance to trim response times and increase product turns. Now consider how much tighter your operation can become if you begin sharing selective database access as though your partners were in-house users.

    This is a very contextual, even situational proposition, and would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But increasingly sophisticated database technology, along with the unifying power of the internet, have made it possible for you to create selective but direct doorways into your company's informational storehouses.

    Removing the time- and resource-consuming steps of transporting information out of your systems and into your partner's can give you a process-time savings that can increase your collective competitive edge considerably. This is a complex subject, and one we'll look at it in more depth in a future article. But it is a strategic possibility that you should seriously consider.

    Once you've put together a plan for re-working your data storage, you need to put some thought into re-working access; and, by extension, the interfaces by which your users, applications, partners and customers communicate with your company. That's the subject of the final installment in this series.

    Scott Robinson is an enterprise software and systems consultant with Quantumetrics, Inc., a consultant's collaborative. Robinson has worked with such well known organizations as the Dept. of Defense (DOD), Dept. of Energy (DOE), Wal-Mart, and Roche Pharmaceuticals. He is also a regular contributor to TechRebpublic and can be reached at (812) 989-8173, or by email at drscottrobinson@att.net.