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9/13/2010
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Opinion: Industry Standard Data Models Fall Short

They are billed as a handy shortcut to data warehousing success, but prebuilt data models are more trouble than they're worth.

Industry-standard data models are an appealing concept at first blush, but they aren't the time savers they are cracked up to be. What's more, these prebuilt models may inhibit data warehouse project success.

Vendors and proponents argue that standard, prebuilt models allow for more rapid, less risky implementations by reducing the scope of the data model design effort.

Every manufacturer takes orders and ships products to fulfill the orders. Every insurance company sells policies and processes claims. Every transportation company moves cargo between an origin and a destination. The list goes on across other industries.

Why bother "recreating the wheel" by designing custom data models to support these common business processes when you can buy an industry-standard model instead?

Yes, most businesses in a given industry perform common functions. But if everyone's approach to these business functions was so similar, then why are there so many alternative organizations? Don't most organizations do things slightly differently than their industry peers? And if so, how do these "competitive advantages" get addressed by a pre-defined industry model?

True business intelligence requires the injection of an organization's own intellectual capital. Would you really want to use the identical industry solution as your peers?

In virtually every data warehouse design and delivery project, the vocabulary used by the operational source system's data model needs to be translated into business vernacular. Some might argue that the source system speaks "geek" rather than Greek. Embracing an industry-standard model introduces the need for yet another pocket dictionary.

First, the data in the source system's language needs to be translated and transformed into the industry model's generic language. This is no small feat; while some data will translate without too much compromise, other data will need to be wrestled and coerced into the pre-defined model and invariably some source data just won't fit.

Once the source has been manipulated into the model's supposedly universal language, the data then needs to go through a second translation so that the vocabulary used in the final presentation layer makes sense to the business users. The challenges surrounding these multiple transformations, and the opportunity to lose something in the translations between three languages -- source system, industry model, and business usage -- are extensive but often overlooked when considering a standardized model.

Of course, the transformation effort is less onerous if the source data capture system and industry model are supplied by the same vendor. But there are still some sharp corners lurking even in this scenario. First, you'll need to incorporate any custom extensions or flex field data elements from your implementation into the vendor's generic model. Secondly, you'll need to worry about the integration of any source data that's outside the vendor's domain.

Can you readily conform the industry model's dimensions with other internally available master data? If not, the industry model is destined to become another isolated stovepipe dataset. Clearly, this outcome is unappealing, but it may be less of an issue if all your operational systems are supported by the same ERP vendor or you’re a very small organization without an IT shop doing independent development.

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