Turning information into gold

IT managers are getting buried under mounds of data, but IBM claims to have the tools to help them take data management to the next level.

NEW YORK -- IBM is investing $1 billion in information management tools and services aimed at helping IT managers cut through the mind-boggling mass of data being generated by their businesses.

It's a welcome investment, according to some IT managers who say the job of managing content is weighing heavy on their shoulders.

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"The amount of information we're talking about is overwhelming," said Bob Schwartz, CIO at Panasonic Corporation of North America in Secaucus, N.J., "and it does get frightening."

Lest you think Schwartz is a wuss, consider this: Globalization, mergers and acquisitions, and regulatory compliance have turned the task of managing information into a $69 million business.

"Executives are looking at the CIO and saying, 'Why aren't we doing anything with this?' " Schwartz said.

Schwartz, who in fact is doing something about it, was on the short list of CIOs at an IBM press conference last week. At the event, company executives detailed new consulting services and software tools that bundle several of IBM's existing data-management products and tap 25,000 consultants.

The problem, say IBM execs Steve Mills and Ginni Rometty, is that most of the data within an organization is duplicated 10 times over -- at least -- with each department or business unit having its own version of that information. And typically, most companies do a lousy job of sharing that information. "There needs to be one version of the truth," said Mills, senior vice president, IBM Software. In addition, businesses need to look at "information as a strategic asset" and turn that data into value for the company.

IBM's new services and software offerings "frees data from legacy confines and pulls it out and unlocks it," said Rometty, senior vice president, IBM Global Services. Now, businesses have the tools to figure out how and when to take action.

Until recently, IT organizations have been fixed on applications, according to analyst David Cearley at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. While there's been a lot of focus on service-oriented architecture, moving forward it will be only part of the equation, he said. Enterprise information management (EIM) will be where it's at.

The good news for IT managers on the hot seat is that a perfect storm is happening to address the problem: Hardware is more powerful; information management software is more sophisticated; and they're getting buy-in from top execs.

A logical evolution

It's not as if IT managers are just recognizing data management as a problem. However, the problem is now rooted less in technology and more in operations. CEOs and CFOs are driven by metrics and they're pointing at the CIO to harness this information then spin it into something they can understand.

"Technology is less of an issue than the orchestration," said Joe Monk, CIO at Wachovia Bank in Charlotte, N.C. "How do we get the data to the [employees] so they can better serve the customer? How does information drive that?"

The financial services company has spent the past two years focusing on integrating applications and is now moving "up the stack" to the business processes.

"To me, it's a logical evolution," Monk said. Once you figure out how to clean out all the "noise," you have to figure out how to use what's left to improve your business, he said. Or, as Monk stressed, customer service.

Wachovia no longer works with siloed solutions. "This was an end-to-end process," Monk said. "For the first time, I've seen IT and business [units] come together in a holistic way."

Array of tools

IBM's ability to meet the demand for better data management tools was not accidental. IBM's software group made several acquisitions over the past five years -- each one a linchpin in its information management portfolio, including Ascential, Trigo, SRD Software, iPhrase and Venetica.

Data management tools aren't new, nor is IBM the only one out there with the know-how to manage information -- Oracle Corp., SAP AG and Microsoft all have products available. What IBM brings to the table, besides a boatload of money, is scalable and seemingly boundless offerings -- fitted for specific industries.

Big Blue's offerings address a wide range of specific business information challenges including risk and compliance, business analysis and discovery, business performance and process management, master data management, process innovation and workforce productivity. For example, IBM WebSphere Information Server is software that lets users query multiple data sources at once and then analyze information. Customers will be offered options for managing specific types of information, such as customer records, products or identities.

Another product is IBM's Master Data Management, a "solution" with analytical capabilities that lets businesses forge a single repository for information.

Master Data Management was the answer for Panasonic's Schwartz. A single database of product information was created, which, while managed in Japan, is shared across its divisions worldwide, reducing product development time from five to six months to just one, said Schwartz. The company is about 15 months into the new system and already he's seen significant benefits.

Getting "one version of the truth" is easier said than done. And beyond that how do you harvest that information? This is the root of Schwartz's concerns and his biggest challenge.

"What we're trying to figure out is how we can use [information] and shape it and translate it back into value," Schwartz said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kate Evans-Correia, News Editor

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