Project Practitioners > Information Architecture As the Key To Effective Data Management

Information Architecture As the Key To Effective Data Management

By Niel Nickolaisen

When I first started my career in IT leadership, I could not imagine ever needing a terabyte of storage. I figured a terabyte would take care of my organization's storage needs until my grandchildren were working in IT. And, it was a good thing that I would never need a terabyte of storage because storage was awfully expensive.

Thankfully, the cost of storage has dropped dramatically because our need for storage keeps climbing. We just can't get enough. A terabyte? Even in my very simple business, we can blow through a terabyte in mere months. Three years ago we purchased a storage array that was going to last us at least six years. One year ago, we had to double the amount of usable space just to keep pace.

All of this gets me to thinking . . . Why is our need for storage accelerating?

Could it be that every day we can gain access to both more data and new sources of data? Are we, in effect, now swimming in data? Of course, we have our ERP data. That has been supplemented by our CRM and SFA data. We can also now add in our e-Commerce data and associated web analytics. And that just covers the data we generate internally. Outside of our organizations, we can acquire or access demo- and psychographic data, GIS data, and data from public and private social networks. Like I said, we are swimming in data; terabytes and terabytes of data. With all of this data available, it does not take much for us to stop swimming – and instead start drowning – in data.

All of which gets me to thinking . . . What is the best way for me to manage and utilize this data?

Of all of this data, I can pretty much guarantee that not all of it is usable or relevant. But, how do I know which data to use? Or how to get the data. Or, how to verify and validate the data? Or, how to make it usable? Or, how to put it in the hands of the people that need the data?

These questions beg for what I call an Information Architecture. Just like we have application architectures and network architectures, I have found that an information architecture is essential to effectively managing data. And, just like with application and network architectures, we need to plan for and thoughtfully define our information architectures. In order to ensure that my information architecture serves me well, I use the following approaches:

Remember the Purpose of Information Is To Improve Decision-Making

If it is available, I want to trademark the motto: “Better decision-making is the ultimate competitive advantage”. If we can, over time, make better decisions about markets, products, operations, technology, et cetera, we will, over time, win in the marketplace. The reason to gather, analyze and use data is so that we can make better decisions. Now, not all of the data that surrounds us will help us make better decisions. So, we need an effective way to filter the available data down to the data that helps us make better decisions. My filtering mechanism is to start by asking my organization two questions:

  1. What decisions would you like to make?
  2. What information would you need to in order to make those decisions?

 With the answers to these questions, I can go look for the data that we can turn into the information that would enable the better decision-making. If the data won’t lead to information that leads to better decisions, don’t invest in gathering, analyzing, verifying, et cetera that data.

 Think “Future Perfect”

One of the ways to make sure that our information architecture is flexible and survives through technology changes, imagine that, in the future, technology and the access to information will be perfect. For example, some years ago I helped a specialty retailer develop an information architecture. One of the “future perfect” scenarios we imagined was that we would be able to know the location of our customers. Anticipating this, one of the decisions we wanted to make was to offer loyalty program customers customized specials as they passed near our stores. At the time, we had to back off of our “future perfect” and settle for asking our loyalty program customers to check in at a register to get their special offer. Now that many people carry around smart-phones that include geographical information, this retailer can implement its future perfect decisions without re-designing its information architecture.

Treat Information as a Product and Manage Its Lifecycle

The best advice I ever received from a peer CIO was to think like a product manager. Good product managers stay in touch with the market, understand market needs, develop products that meet market needs, launch these products, and then manage the lifecycle of the products. There are some natural phases in the life of product including launch, growth, maturity, and retirement. As we define our information architecture, we should think like information product managers. What are the decisions our customers would like to make? What is the best way to provide information to our customers? How should we launch our information products? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we manage the lifecycle of our information products? What are the indicators that tell us a product is succeeding or failing? And, when do we know it is time to retire a product and launch its replacement? Effective product management helps us make these decisions and keep our information architecture clean, valid, and relevant.

If I am correct and better decision-making is the ultimate competitive advantage, we must manage data effectively. Keeping decision-making in mind, thinking future perfect, and acting like information product managers have been essential in my data management success.

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