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Software // Information Management

When Worlds Collide

To meet compliance requirements, gain a sharper view of customers and achieve process excellence, look to new integration technology that can merge separate data resources.

Fear not, fellow earthlings. Although the worlds of structured data and unstructured content are indeed on a collision course, they're drawn together by the forces of good: the urgent information demands of business executives, collaborative partners, customers, regulators and knowledge workers. Energized by open Web protocols and networked computer systems far more powerful and ubiquitous than the "differential analyzer" featured in the 1951 science fiction movie classic, When Worlds Collide, the meeting of structured and unstructured information promises to explode into a new phantasm of universal connectivity. The result: better customer knowledge and interaction, smarter business processes, more comprehensive fraud detection and compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other regulations.

With XML gaining acceptance as the set of rules for universal data description, the role of information management must change. No longer will it be acceptable to tend to data or content stores and allow access only through special applications. Managers must judge their success by how well information flows through the organization and contributes to achieving its objectives.

Executive Summary
Regulatory compliance and the competitive promise of fuller insight into customer relationships and critical processes are raising demand for a convergence of structured and unstructured ("content") information management. Many enterprises are stymied by silos of information that can only be accessed, analyzed and shared through proprietary code and data transformations. However, with Web services and the growing acceptance of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) as the universal data description framework, new choices are at hand for gaining higher return on investment from all information resources.

Search engines and text mining can lower the cost of finding value in content, which will create opportunities for new kinds of strategic business applications. Integration middleware is essential to the convergence of disparate data resources. Organizations should pay close attention to the emergence of software for enterprise information integration, which attempts to give users a single view of all relevant data. EII could prove important as service-oriented architecture and business process management implementations reach for efficiency at a reasonable cost.
As universal data description breaks down barriers, suddenly every piece of information holds potential, whether it's transaction data, e-mail, call records, text documents, images, spreadsheets or video and audio files. Alas, as news of this exciting truth spreads, so too do challenges facing IT professionals. Will relational databases succeed in becoming universal information management engines? What happens to content management? Can enterprise information integration (EII) be the middleware that connects disparate data sources together? And what role will text mining, search and other technologies for accessing and analyzing unstructured information play in enhancing business intelligence (BI)?

This article and its companion piece ("Convergence Up Close") examine the business and technology trends guiding the convergence of structured and unstructured information management.

Faster, Better, Cheaper

Today, faster means driving out latency; businesses want to gain competitive advantage by, for example, reducing the time that inventory sits in one place or the time that it takes from a customer's order to fulfillment. Other organizations, especially those employing call centers, want to decrease the amount of time a sales representative has to work with a potential customer to close a sale.

IT must respond by similarly removing latency from the information flow, no matter what type of data or content, or where it's stored. IT must help organizations use information to synchronize the activities of different internal and partner constituencies. Opening access and ensuring high availability to more data is also crucial for emerging event-driven architectures, which are intended to automatically alert decision makers about material events occurring in business processes as soon as they happen.

As organizations approach the goal of real-time information, marketing, customer service, corporate compliance, product development and other key operational functions must become better at decision-making. For about two decades, the engine of business decision-making has been structured, historical data held in relational databases, spreadsheets and their precursors. However, with more and more vital steps in customer, partner and executive decision-making happening collaboratively, the reach of BI and supporting data warehouses isn't enough.

For example, for a financial institution to gain a single view of customers to determine cross-sell and up-sell potential, or to give customers personalized acces to all their accounts, IT must bring together all relevant information for each business function. Along with a consolidated view of information, decision makers need more than just standard BI query and reporting to access and analyze the data. They need search engines, classification and text mining technologies that have grown up in the unstructured realm.

Finally, there's cheaper. At office supply and services provider Corporate Express, the savings gained by bringing the business online, with the aid of an EMC Documentum content management system, were multiplied by an information flow from the resulting customer portal to downstream BI and other applications. "The portal takes the job of updating the site out of the hands of developers and puts it in the hands of business users," says Wayne Aiello, vice president of eBusiness Services for Corporate Express. "Business users can do updates in real time, using any format they feel will be useful to customers."

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