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Chris Gerrard – Exploring the world of Better Business Intelligence

Beware “The Single Version of The Truth”

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This post started out as a response to the LinkedIn Business Intelligence Professionals group discussion:

Start with data warehouse or datamart? A customer wants start a BI project.
Would you advice to start with data mart or data warehouse?

I’ve long been vexed by the promotion of “The Single Version of The Truth” as the be-all and end-all of BI. This is such a ridiculous notion that it’s always been a mystery to me why otherwise reasonable, rational people would fall for it as a serious first principle.

When I started in BI in 1985 one of my first lessons was: “all data is local”, meaning that business data is perfectly relevant to the area within which the systems that capture it operate. As a FOCUS consultant it was my job to help business people understand their data, and in doing so understand their business area. Simple, straightforward, and true.

And then, out of somewhere, came this idea that there is only ONE version of the truth, and that only The Single Version of The Truth was worth knowing, worth putting in the time and effort to understand. The immediate consequence of this idea was that only by building fully consolidated data warehouses could an organization possibly be able to make sense out of its data. So Business Intelligence became synonymous with BI/DW, which has caused enormous grief, strife, and lost opportunities in the past twenty years.

So, on to the LinkedIn response:

Now we’re getting into the meat of it.

The single biggest fraud committed upon businesses that need to understand their data in the past 20 years has been the fabrication that BI is necessarily, and only, valuable insofar as the business can, through the grace of their BI technorati, grok the “Single Version of The Truth”.

This “Single Version of The Truth” is, in any organization with more than one data source, at best a red herring, at worst a pernicious propaganda that pollutes the business’s mindscape, and almost always a justification on the part of Big BI vendors for charging huge amounts of money in the pursuit of a mirage.

OK, that’s harsh.

The truth is that all data is true. Or, all data has truth in it. And all these truths are equally valid. Every business manager who needs to know what’s going on in his or her area or responsibility needs to know first and foremost what his/her data has to say about the state of that area. All BI is local.

Aha! you say. What about dirty data? What about data that isn’t the same across systems? What about data that doesn’t conform to corporate standards? Good questions all, to which I say: “Good questions. Why do these things matter? Do they negate the need to understand the data-from a business perspective-where it lives?”

This isn’t to say that collected, organized, homogenized, regularized, annotated, consolidated, updated, collated, and masticated data that’s all nice and tidy and wrapped up into the corporate abstraction of the multitude of individual truths isn’t important. It surely is. But that’s the surface of the business’s datascape, not the totality of it.

Perhaps the badness is in the term “Single Version of The Truth”. I don’t know its exact origins, but it smells of marketing-speak, created (or hijacked) for the purpose of selling ever-larger BI technology to the top corporate executives. The pitch goes something along the lines of: “You, Mr./Ms. CXO, need to know the half-dozen essential KPIs, metrics, etc. that will tell you exactly how your company is performing, internally and in the competitive arena. In order to do this you need to know “The Single Version of The Truth” and the way to achieving enlightenment is to buy our very expensive BI technology, engage our very expensive delivery teams (not to worry, we use a remote development model to keep costs down), be very, very, very patient, and then, one day in the future we’ll unwrap your big, new, shiny, oh! so very nice Truth.”

What’s a better name than TSVoTT? How about something like: “The Abstracted Companywide Data That’s Been Compiled Into The Cross-Company Common Business Context?” Or maybe not, it doesn’t have quite the same illumination of the secrets of the universe ring to it.

It might come as a surprise that I’m not against consolidated data warehouses that can present the company’s data in a form that preserves it’s salient truths within a common contextual framework. I believe that they’re good things and every company should be on the road to having one.

But the road is long and winding and littered with the corpses of the multitude of failed projects that set out to build them, and deliver TSVoTT as the first outcome.

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Written by Chris Gerrard

December 28, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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