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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

In my last post, I shared some thoughts inspired by the Decision Intelligence article written by Claudia Imhoff and Colin White. There, I suggested we need to really begin to consider all information as a single resource for the whole business. This entails stepping beyond our traditional IT-bounded view of our systems and looking at them with a renewed business vision. If we do this, it will also quickly becomes clear that our view of process needs reworking too.

Claudia and Colin have drawn a box on the left of their architecture picture that arises directly from the insight that operational BI really is a different beast from the traditional BI we've all known and loved over the past 20 years or so. When you deeply consider the implications of building an operational BI system, as Claudia and Colin clearly have, it becomes obvious that operational BI has many of the characteristics of traditional operational or transaction-processing systems. Therefore, from a systems architecture point of view, you put them in the same box, in this case called "Business process intelligence".

There are also some differences, of course. The most important is how the business users interact with these two related types of system. The value proposition of operational BI is that human decision-making skills can improve operational processes. How? Well, there are two very distinct threads here.

One is the proposition that we can apply advanced analytics technology automatically to parts of the operational process. Fraud detection is a good example. Applying advanced analytics on the fly to credit card transactions gives better detection of fraudulent transactions. Note that this type of operational BI is almost completely invisible to the business users: they see the results of more fraud detected or less false positives, but how that happened is both unknown and uninteresting.

The second thread brings users very directly into the loop. Here, the operational BI technology is made part of the users' visible process. Business users are presented with decision support technology that displays trends or exceptions in near real-time data, so that they can potentially choose a different course of action to that embedded in the normal flow. In effect, business users get to change the business process on the fly, rather than doing little more than data input as was previously the case.

Now, keeping this in mind, here's the million dollar question. What's the difference between an operational system and an informational system; how do you distinguish between an operational process and an informational process? In the good old days, it was easy! The operational side was nearly or actually real-time, dealt with individual transactions or data elements according to a predefined process where the users had minimal freedom to act intelligently. Informational systems, in contrast, were centered around users who were expected to make intelligent decisions based on historical data without any clear process to turn those decisions into action.

So, what is the answer today? When we in BI start building operational BI and the operational world starts implementing adaptive SOA-based systems, the distinction between operational and informational more-or-less disappears. This puts operational BI and operational systems together in one box of the architecture. But the deeper and probably longer-term implications of this bold step have not been explicitly called out. In fact, these implications are obscured by the naming of the new architecture as "Decision intelligence", because the top level of this architecture is no longer confined to the world that was formerly BI; it actually becomes the single, common process or interface through which all business users will interact with the underlying IT systems.

Is that scary? Absolutely! But it is a clear and logical consequence of the paths that BI and operational systems are currently on. It means that we in BI are no longer in total control of our destiny. But the same is true of the operational systems. And, although I've not covered it here, collaborative systems (e-mail, office support, etc) are also being drawn inexorably into the same converged path.

It's time we all started to talk to one another! And that does imply that decision intelligence may be too narrow a term for us all to agree on. May I propose again the "Highly Evolved Business"?

Posted September 14, 2008 12:26 PM
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