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Data management: Tapping your most valuable asset

A doctor's office takes an x-ray of a knee. On seeing the results, the physician decides to send the image to a specialist. Rather than packing the film into an envelope and sending it by courier, as was common practice only a few years ago, the office transmits the image digitally. In the process, both medical offices add a large image file to their stored data.

On today's smarter planet, similar scenarios involving connected companies occur every day. It doesn't matter that an organization may have only a few dozen or a few hundred employees. The data a midsize business generates can grow disproportionately to the organization's size. And when a midsize business generates terabytes of data a year, finding a way to access information, extract insights and put it to use becomes a challenge.

As IBM's Anita Chung notes, "Data volume is doubling every two years for the average organization, and a lot of that data must be managed for years." Chung, who serves as Worldwide Market Segment Manager, Database Server Go-to-Market Strategy, continues: "Organizations of all sizes need to rely on their core assets, which include business data—and there is always the need for better performance and higher service levels at lower costs."

In today's highly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent world, organizations often look to business analytics to gain the insights and performance they need from data. But business analytics isn't a starting point—you can't just jump in without laying the right groundwork. You need a foundation of information management applications and processes in place first.

Beginning with a database—and growing from there

Your midsize business may have some of the necessary foundation already established—a database, for example. "The database is the foundation of all information management," notes Richard Wozniak, Program Director, Information Management Marketing at IBM, "and if you do a great job on the foundation, it makes everything that you would want to put on top of it that much easier to erect. And so it all begins by choosing a database that is powerful enough and yet simple enough that it can support your business requirements."

Other data systems also may be in place, typically including an accounting system, customer service and support, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and, if you're doing business on the web, online sales systems. Chung cautions, however, that midsize business should pursue solutions that are both within their current capabilities and scalable enough to allow for growth. "Most midsize organizations don't have their own onsite database administrator or a fully staffed application development team. They buy solutions. And they need to deploy an information management solution set they can manage with limited resources."

Matching management to capabilities and needs

A key step, therefore, is to assess what you have, what you need, what you can do and what you want to do. But don't hold yourself back.

"There's variety in midsize business," says Wozniak. "Some are a little bit more stable in terms of their business focus and some really have jewel-like, perfect IT. And there are others at the point where they need to make a list—they don't even know what they don't have."

An error common to midsize companies, however, is that they seldom realize how much their company might grow—or how much their data will grow even if the company remains the same size. Explains Wozniak: "Companies often think that their IT requirements are only going to expand as the business does, and that the business isn't going to be four times bigger any time soon. But what a lot of companies are seeing is that they need to drive increased profitability, increasing automation and reducing the amount of time that vital employees spend on non-productive tasks."

In other words, they're seeing the need to drive both the internal processes and the externally-facing customer experience of business by managing business information.

"Companies often think that their IT requirements are only going to expand as the business does."

Achieving the benefits of holistic data management

Business analytics can indeed provide valuable insight that helps organizations achieve the goals Wozniak cites. But other key steps should take place first. To set the stage for business analytics, the organization should establish a firm foundation of databases, information management processes for effective and secure data storage, data warehousing for categorizing and segmenting data so it's usable in its different pieces, and enterprise content management for determining whether data should be archived or readily available at various stages of its life cycle.

Taking advantage of all of these capabilities can give an organization a holistic perspective on its data that will make information more available and more useful in all its various forms. Ultimately, the company can achieve the ability to truly analyze its data and to gain insights across the different types of data and the different areas of the business—discovering what the data is revealing, where gaps occur and how the organization can use it more effectively for making business decisions.

A holistic view, however, also can yield specific benefits—cost savings, for example. "The cost savings in the database realm are amplified," says Wozniak, "because it goes through that whole data life cycle from design and deployment all the way through archiving and eventual retirement of data."

Using information to drive business success

In the end, it's the usability of information that is important. "There is really no time to be working with unreliable data," says IBM's Chung. "No matter what the economic conditions are, it is important for businesses and organizations to be smart. There is just no margin for error if an organization wants to survive, much less compete."

A solid foundation for information management therefore becomes critical for any company, whether it is planning to move to business analytics or not. Information and its management, says Chung, "is going to drive your business performance, your service level improvements, and ultimately competitive differentiation."

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