Information Agenda: A strategy shift from applications to information

Stuck between business challenges on the one hand, and information management systems on the other hand which simply limit your ability to respond. IBM's Tom Inman wants an easy way to spread your information across the board.
Written by Tom Inman, Contributor
Commentary--As the CIO of a flourishing business, you are happy to report that current information projects are going well. The new call center is up and running, the new data warehouse is online, and the new customer loyalty systems have been deployed successfully.

Things seem to be going well until the CEO asks, “Who are our most profitable customers across the business and which channels do they prefer?” Although the new systems have a lot of information – often across different parts of the business, they cannot immediately produce the requested information. The information the CEO needs will take time and effort to extract and may delay other projects. Your information projects, each successful in their own right, haven’t created the ability to respond to this question rapidly. Worse, the CEO will only ask more questions like this in the future, so he or she can address new and business opportunities.

You realize that you need a more unified approach to leverage the information you already have. You need an Information Agenda.

Take the example of Irish Life and Permanent (IL&P), a leading provider of financial services in the Irish market. The company faced the challenge of integrating several acquired businesses into its portfolio and expanding its growth in a market in which it already had leadership. To help improve its business performance, the company decided to make a strategic shift away from a product focus to a growth-based focus on customer service and loyalty. Among the first steps it took was to establish a “Customer Data Council,” which brought business and IT leaders together from across its various operating units, to define a common vocabulary, and create a roadmap to align the delivery of information to business strategy across the enterprise. IL&P created an Information Agenda to define how best to use company information to service clients and create new business opportunities.

What is an "Information Agenda"?
Today’s business leaders find themselves stuck between intensifying business challenges on the one hand, and information management systems on the other hand which simply limit their ability to respond. Businesses are faced with increased competition for an ever more empowered set of customers, while simultaneously responding to an intensifying regulatory environment, and an accelerating pace of globalization. They need to achieve information agility, where they are able to leverage trusted information as a strategic asset for sustained competitive advantage. The most successful companies are developing an Information Agenda to do just that.

An Information Agenda is an approach for transforming information into a trusted source that can be leveraged across applications, processes and decisions for sustained competitive advantage. It allows organizations to achieve the information agility that permits sustained competitive advantage by accelerating the pace at which customers can begin managing information independent of applications or business processes.

If you have lived the last three decades of technology evolution, it is ironic that despite the word "Information" being used in terms such as Management Information Systems (MIS) and Information Technology, the focus has been on automation of business processes via software applications, which one could define as an “application agenda.” While investments in automation through the broad deployment of packaged applications delivered competitive advantage in the short term, it was not sustainable. For example, retailers who have implemented one of the big supply chain automation applications, run the risk of erasing any short term advantage. Forward thinking leaders have moved beyond investments in automation through an application agenda, to investments in business innovation and optimization based on the delivery of trusted information, independent of applications and business process, across the enterprise.

These companies are transforming their organization into an Information Based Enterprise – an enterprise that has the flexibility to rapidly deliver information as needed to optimize processes and business decisions so that companies can quickly respond to market conditions. They are now focused on the Information Agenda.

Transforming your business to an information-based enterprise
Transformation to an Information Based Enterprise doesn’t imply the replacement of existing systems and information sources. It requires only that those systems are able to expose insightful information in with speed and flexibility. Making this transformation can seem like a daunting task and it is often difficult to know where to start. However, with the right tools, the right processes, and the right environment, creating an Information Agenda is straightforward.

The key to building an Information Agenda is to bridge the gap between the information demanders in your enterprise, and the information suppliers; between the LOB executives who are facing enormous business challenges, and the IT execs responsible for providing the information they need to succeed. Like in the IL&P example, it is critical to success to get these leaders together, to start a conversation and get a common understanding of business strategy, vocabulary and semantics. To facilitate and capture this conversation, you’ll need an open standards-based set of tools that:

• Help you identify which information is important to your organization;
• Create a common set of vocabulary to define this information for use across the enterprise
• Allow you to make information available to the people and applications that need it;
• Assist you in managing your information;
• Help you create governance practices and processes that are needed to put an information management plan into action.

The most successful companies have walked through a four step process which can serve as a best practices guide for creating an Information Agenda to turn your organization into an Information Based Enterprise:

Uncover hidden information - Information Management is at the same inflection point that applications were about twenty years ago. A multitude of local information projects like data warehouses, data marts, business intelligence and master data management often located across many different parts of the business – in the case of IL&P across different acquired companies – have been created with little information consistency. New requests for information cannot be delivered with speed and flexibility. To begin creating an Information Agenda, you must use analysis tools to discover what data you have in these disparate systems , and connect the pieces in a meaningful way, That allows you to comprehensively view information across your organization.

Through business and IT collaboration, IL&P was able to identify common customers between its acquired companies and then begin planning how to eliminate and consolidate these redundancies for more efficient access to information.

Create your information agenda - Now that you have a view of what data exists across your enterprise, you will be able to rationalize any inconsistencies. The set of tools you chose at the beginning will help you automate much of this step, accelerating the process. You will then be able to plan a course of action, based on business priorities, outlining the steps you need to take to address future business needs rapidly. This allows you to plot a roadmap for your Information Infrastructure.

Business priorities can range from mastering product information to connecting customer information from multiple acquisitions. Business executives and IT will work together to create a project roadmap to address these business goals. The roadmap becomes the set of information intensive projects aligned with business strategy designed to deliver short term and long term ROI. In the case of IL&P, the company wanted to reuse customer information to provide integrated experience to common customers on their Web site and in call centers.

Build your information infrastructure - This is the step in which you bring your plan into action. To do this you must understand what specific business issues exist in your unique situation and then find the right set of industry accelerators (Industry Guides, Models, Software applications) to speed your implementation. The base of your infrastructure will be tools such as a Master Data Management, Business Intelligence, Content Management or Data Warehousing assets. —

Choosing and tailoring the key tasks according to your industry will keep the transformation focused and efficient. Going back to the example of IL&P, by starting with a series of incremental projects, each that addressed its Information Agenda, the company moved toward a single view of all its customer information. As a result, it can now tailor products and services for clients across multiple touch points such as the Internet, call-centers and various sales channels; create more effective targeted sales campaigns; improve customer self-service; and maintain continuous records of customer transactions and service satisfaction across the business.

Maintain and constantly improve your success – Now that you have achieved your goal of a flexible Information Agenda, you have to figure out a system to expand your success to sustain the competitive advantage you created in the above steps. As such, you will need to bring together the right people, skills, processes and technology to create an Information Competency Center. The Competency Center fosters continuous learning and improvement on your Information Agenda. Any issue can be effectively addressed and your agenda can be quickly and easily modified to fit the ever-changing needs of your organization.

It is important to understand that you must govern and evaluate your work, not just at the end of your implementation, but at every step. This will help you identify and fix any inconsistencies or roadblocks as quickly as possible through construction and use of your Information Agenda. The result will be an Information Agenda tailored specifically to your business needs that will convert your organization into an information based enterprise ready to effectively and efficiently tackle new territory using your information as a strategic asset.

As we saw from IL&P, an Information Agenda can help your organization use its information to increase profitability, customer satisfaction and operational efficiency all while spurring effective communication and collaboration between business and IT executives.

Tom Inman is IBM’s vice president of Information on Demand acceleration. He is responsible for business strategy, offerings and vertical market focus for the company’ Information on Demand strategy, which is designed to help clients make better use of all their information.

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