Holistic Thinking Needs to Start with IT

Loraine Lawson
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You never know where you're going to find enlightenment. For instance, I strongly suspect this marketing VP never expected a lesson in humility from actor Will Wheaton, a woman called the "Bloggess" and a metric ton of Twitter followers. But the universe, it gives, even where you least expect, and even if you least want it - or something new-agey like that.

My own recent bit of integration enlightenment came from an Insurance & Technology article, "The 4 Prerequisites of Business Intelligence." It seemed simple and straightforward enough, if you scanned the four tips:

  • Align BI initiatives with strategy.
  • Create a single version of the truth.
  • Identify the data that matters.
  • Create a knowledge worker culture.
Yawn, right? I mean, of course you want to create a single version of the truth for BI; that's a given and so not particularly helpful on its own. But beyond the subheads, Insurance Tech Executive Editor Anthony O'Donnell builds a bigger theme: If you want to succeed with BI, everything and everybody has to change - from IT to the business executives and users.

Hold on. That's not the good part, because it's still too "big," too ambiguous. What really struck me as significant were these quotes, taken together:

  • "The 'intelligent business' is not something that happens within IT, but rather at each decision point executed by all Zurich people, every day, while doing their work of serving our customers." -- Kelly Byrn, the director of the Business Intelligence Competency Center, Zurich in North America. To reach that point, though, Byrn said the company had to reconcile definitions and meaning to craft an enterprise-wide lexicon. "In the past, information was created in silos, so when you integrate you have to resolve the parochial conflicts of the silos into an enterprise definition," he's quoted as saying. "That drives clarity and understanding in the business and also helps you improve quality."
  • "Silos are much harder to create with holistic thinking." -- Jamie Bisker, an insurance leader at IBM. Therefore, the article points out, intelligent business requires holistic thinking, which means you (or insurance carriers, in the article) "need to avoid being too problem- or line-of-business-specific if they want to succeed on a larger scale."
OK, good. That makes perfect sense if only you - the CIO, the IT manager, the MDM Maven, the Grand Poohbah of Data Quality - could get the business to understand that and stop with the LOB thinking.

And this is when a bit of wisdom hit me: Holistic thinking should start with IT.

If IT wants to stop enabling data silos, it's time to stop talking about data and master data and "product data" and so on. Instead, talk about information (isn't that what the "I" in IT stands for anyway?). Talk about "intelligence." (Who doesn't want to be James Bond and collect "intelligence"?) Use real words that are more holistic than the oh-so-techie terms IT tends to use.

And don't just change your lingo. Change your thinking about integration. Once, data integration was enough - but now, it's not. Business users don't just need you to integrate the data from one set with another set. They need information integration - they need to know, for instance, that you've not just combined databases, but you've resolved the semantic differences so "apple" means "apple" and not "pear," as the Insurance & Technology article points out. Data management is already on the right road with the trend toward "enterprise information management" and an information-oriented architecture. Semantics and meta-data management will be key. Embrace those trends.

Hey - I know it's not earth-shattering. After all, I DID say "bit of wisdom" not Buddha wisdom. But that doesn't mean it's not good advice. Rise above the silos in your own thinking, and maybe it'll catch on, because to quote Byrne from the article again, " the information can go out in multiple channels. But the power comes from the integration."

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