RESEARCH & RESOURCES

How Information Excellence Can Be a Competitive Advantage

Some day, companies may talk about "information excellence" as a key competitive differentiator, but what does a commitment to information excellence mean?

Industry veteran William McKnight says he looks forward to a day when companies talk about "information excellence" as a key competitive differentiator.

Not "data management," not "information management," but information excellence.

Believe it or not, we're getting there, argues McKnight, who is president of information management consultancy McKnight Consulting Group.

"Information is only growing in importance for companies. We thought it was pretty important five years ago, but now we're seeing [its importance] in the way organizations are aligned -- or realigning [themselves]," he says.

"[These companies] have different information management groups and central information management groups, and it's hard to imagine any application that isn't revolving around the information it manages, that it serves, [and] that it distributes to users."

It isn't simply a question of how companies manage information, McKnight stresses; it's rather an issue of how they think about information in the first place.

In other words, is information a part of their strategic planning, or are they still stuck in the mode of half a decade ago, when information was viewed as a byproduct?

"We're seeing the emergence of a new breed of information management leader, one who integrates with the business, one who understands the business, one who knows that architecture is important for the sake of the business. It isn't an IT thing. That's a huge change: the shift from [architecture] being viewed primarily as an IT thing to architecture being viewed strategically -- as integral to the business. It's definitely time. It's almost really necessary, to survive and thrive."

McKnight's view isn't an outlier, though it isn't yet mainstream.

Chris Twogood, product marketing manager for platforms with Teradata Corp., claims that his company's customers have always competed on the basis of something like information excellence.

"The competitive aspect as to how companies have used their data ... [has] differentiated and driven Teradata's success from the beginning," Twogood told BI This Week late last year. What's new, he allows, is that an increasing number of companies are competing largely (or even solely) on the strength of their information assets or analytic programs.

"Look at eBay [Inc.]. They don't carry any products, they don't store any products, they don't manufacture any products -- yet they are offering a 100 percent money back guarantee. To do this, they spend a lot of time analyzing ... risk [and] exposure. [Their's is] a data-driven product. Or [look at] a company like LinkedIn: [theirs is] a data-driven product," Twogood explained.

"When you had a top-tier player who recognized that data was a competitive advantage, that was one thing," he said. Such customers used to be exceptional, the stuff of case studies, Twogood argued; he invoked the example of WalMart Inc., which tapped famously Teradata to power a decision-support system (Retail Link) for supply chain and inventory management.

Even though companies are still innovating, the concept of competing on information and analytics is not itself innovative: it's become an established best practice. That said, Twogood stressed, you can't just buy information excellence. "It's not just about the technology. You have to have the people, you have to have the culture, you have to have the imagination of how am I going to use this data? How am I going to extract new value from it?"

McKnight, for his part, says he's encouraged by what he's seeing among his clients.

This month, he'll be a keynote speaker at TDWI's World Conference in Las Vegas. He says the subject of his keynote address -- "Capitalizing on Chaos" -- was inspired by his experiences with clients. "We're in a highly chaotic period because there's a lot of different products and possibilities being put on the table, and it can be incredibly confusing [for companies] because a lot of them do have a place in a shop that's pursuing information excellence," he explains.

One point he expects to make is that a commitment to information excellence means a commitment to a kind of architectural vision. This doesn't mean a monolithic technology prescription on the order of the service-oriented architecture (SOA) of old, to say nothing of the COM and CORBA architectures of the 1990s.

On McKnight's terms, "architecture" is a lot like vision: it means a commitment to certain core concepts -- e.g., to a universal access layer, enabled by means of a combination of data integration technologies; or to using fit-for-purpose platforms for specific workloads, in place of the RDBMS kitchen sink -- that are consistent with the principles of resilience and adaptability.

"Information excellence takes vision. It takes that knowledge that you're building this [architecture] for the future -- and you have to have a 'true north' for that future," he explains.

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