Mining gold from data silos

A representative from Canadian Tire told attendees at IBM’s Information on Demand conference in Anaheim, Calif. last month how the outfit used software from IBM and Cognos to give users BI insight from its data silos like Santa while saving like Scrooge.

While best known for its Canadian Tire retail storefronts and their distinctive Canadian Tire money, the company actually includes several other retail “banners,” including Mark’s Work Wearhouse and PartSource.

Kimi Walker, director of BI in the enterprise IT division, said the company’s IT strategy was confined to each of those business silos, with no enterprise-wide view of company performance.

“We were very successful in each of our business units, but we didn’t really leverage across our business units,” said Walker.

Tools like Microsoft’s Access and Excel were being used on the front end for reporting and analysis. The lack of a robust front-end tool prevented the IT department from knowing how data was being used, which made back-end changes a risky proposition. On the infrastructure side, the data warehouse was on a large, inefficent, expensive mainframe.

Deciding to tackle BI and data management at the same time, Canadian Tire implemented an enterprise-wide system that included IBM’s Retail Data Model, IBM’s WebSphere Information Integrator, and Cognos 8 BI as the front-end tool.

“We didn’t want to remove the access and hands-on capability the business had, but instead give them better capability,” said Walker.

When selecting vendors, Walker said the fact Cognos and IBM came to Canadian Tire as a unified team was a key competitive differentiator. Some vendors had said they weren’t willing to work with other vendors.

“We knew we’d have enough challenges,” she said. “If dealing with the technology integration was something we could get rid of, that was advantageous.”

Another major challenge was finding and hiring people with the right IT skills. She noted it took 18 months to find and hire a data architect, and Cognos skills are also highly in demand. Canadian Tire relied on its strategic vendors, and looked to partners to help identify people with desirable skill sets.

A key part of Canadian Tire’s exercise was governance, working with business units to define terms and responsibilities for data groups. It was a similar exercise for BMO Financial group, which also shared its experiences at Information on Demand.

Richard Livesley, BMO’s head of knowledge management, said in 2004 information architecture went from being an afterthought to a priority after the bank’s board of directors declared information a strategic asset. Previously, he said information assets were largely unmanaged, siloed, and BI was viewed as an add-on.

“When the board of directors said it was important, it became important to everyone,” he said.

An enterprise-wide information management group was created to develop a core data warehouse and data mart environments. It was important, said Livesley, to make it a business exercise, not an IT exercise.

A key factor was assigning responsibility within each department to a person who, in addition to their other duties, would act as a data steward.

“No one wants to be in the information business, they’re in the business of making money,” said Livesley.

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