Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book Review: Data Modeling for Business

A couple of weeks ago, I book-swapped with author Donna Burbank. She has a new book entitled Data Modeling for Business. Donna, an experienced consultant by trade, has teamed up with Steve Hoberman, a previous published author and technologist and Chris Bradley, also a consultant, for an excellent exploration of the process of creating a data model. With a subtitle like “A handbook for Aligning the Business with IT using a High-Level Data Model” I knew I was going to find some value in the swap.

The book describes in plain English the proper way to create a data model, but that simple description doesn’t do it justice. The book is designed for those who are learning from scratch – those who only vaguely understand what a data model is. It uses commonly understood concepts to describe data model concepts. The book describes the impact of the data model to the project’s success and digs into setting up data definitions and the levels of detail necessary for them to be effective. All of this is accomplished in a very plain-talk, straight-forward tone without the pretentiousness you sometimes get in books about data modeling.

We often talk about the need for business and IT to work together to build a data governance initiative. But many, including myself, have pointed to the communication gap that can exist in a cross-functional team. In order to bridge the gap, a couple of things need to happen. First, IT teams need to expand their knowledge of business processes, budgets and corporate politics. Second, business team members need to expand their knowledge of metadata and data modeling. This book provides an insightful education for the latter. In my book, the Data Governance Imperative, the goal was the former.

The book is well-written and complete. It’s a perfect companion for those who are trying to build a knowledgeable, cross-function team for data warehouse, MDM or data governance projects. Therefore, I’ve added it to my recommended reading list on my blog.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Data May Require Unique Data Quality Processes

A few things in life have the same appearance, but the details can vary widely.  For example, planets and stars look the same in the night sky, but traveling to them and surviving once you get there are two completely different problems. It’s only when you get close to your destination that you can see the difference.

All data quality projects can appear the same from afar but ultimately can be as different as stars and planets. One of the biggest ways they vary is in the data itself and whether it is chiefly made up of name and address data or some other type of data.

Name and Address Data
A customer database or CRM system contains data that we know much about. We know that letters will be transposed, names will be comma reversed, postal codes will be missing and more.  There are millions of things that good data quality tools know about broken name and address data since so many name and address records have been processed over the years. Over time, business rules and processes are fine-tuned for name and address data.  Methods of matching up names and addresses become more and more powerful.

Data quality solutions also understand what name and addresses are supposed to look like since the postal authorities provide them with correct formatting. If you’re somewhat precise about following the rules of the postal authorities, most mail makes it to its destination.  If we’re very precise, the postal services can offer discounts. The rules are clear in most parts of the civilized world. Everyone follows the same rules for name and address data because it makes for better efficiency.

So, if we know what the broken item looks like and we know what the fixed item is supposed to look like, you can design and develop processes that involve trained, knowledgeable workers and automated solutions to solve real business problems. There’s knowledge inherent in the system and you don’t have to start from scratch every time you want to cleanse it.

ERP, Supply Chain Data
However, when we take a look at other types of data domains, the picture is very different.  There isn’t a clear set of knowledge what is typically input and what is typically output and therefore you must set up processes for doing so. In supply chain data or ERP data, we can’t immediately see why the data is broken or what we need to do to fix it.  ERP data is likely to be sort of a history lesson of your company’s origins, the acquisitions that were made, and the partnership changes throughout the years. We don’t immediately have an idea about how the data should ultimately look. The data that exists in this world is specific to one client or a single use scenario which cannot be handled by existing out-of-the-box rules

With this type of data you may find the need to collaborate more with the business users of the data, who expertise in determining the correct context for the information comes more quickly, and therefore enable you to effect change more rapidly. Because of the inherent unknowns about the data, few of the steps for fixing the data are done for you ahead of time. It then becomes critical to establish a methodology for:
  • Data profiling in order to understanding what issues and challenges.
  • Discussions with the users of the data to understand context, how it’s used and the most desired representation.  Since there are few governing bodies for ERP and supply chain data, the corporation and its partners must often come up with an agreed-upon standard.
  • Setting up business rules, usually from scratch, to transform the data
  • Testing the data in the new systems
I write about this because I’ve read so much about this topic lately. As practitioners you should be aware that the problem is not the same across all domains. While you can generally solve name and address data problems with a technology focus, you will often rely more on collaboration with subject matter experts to solve issues in other data domains.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer. The material written here is copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Sarsfield. To request permission to reuse, please e-mail me.