Metadata? Or Business Metadata?

Metadata? Or Business Metadata?
Unlocking the real value in your business information systems

Before we discuss business metadata, let’s discuss data—and more specifically, structured data, as it is generally the type of data that businesses use as evidence to make decisions. Structured data is the sort you generally find in reports, spreadsheets, dashboards, charts and graphs, and pretty much everywhere. It generally requires three dimensions of metadata to be useful in a report—or at least to be structured: the what, where, and when. In a business sense, this would be something like this:

What: What does the data represent? Revenue? A revenue category? Revenue from a specific product?

Where: Where in the business does the data apply to? Is it for the entire company? A division? A business unit? A shared function?

When: When does the data refer to? Last quarter? This month? Is it ten years old? Today’s data?

These what’s, where’s, and when’s are metadata: data about data. Of course, there are other types of metadata—like in your music playlist, but these additional types are typically a refinement of what the music contains, or the file format, or similar attributes. But in business, and especially in reporting structured data, it usually boils down to what, where, and when—at a bare minimum.

This is all quite straightforward and familiar to most businesses. Charts and tables in reports or dashboards generally represent two of these dimensions, and the chart itself often represents the third. For example, you can have a chart showing a business unit (where), while the chart axes show revenue (what) across time (when). Or the chart represents one reporting period (when), and the axes display revenue (what) per business unit (where). Whether or not you think of data this way, this is most likely how you use it.

Working with metadata

With the rise of analytics, many new dimensions have been added to data, and there are all sorts of awesome interactive visualizations that can display these extra metadata fields. But if you look closely, these tools generally refine the what. We only gain more granularity in what we are looking at. If we look at a fictitious shoe company, that we will creatively name Shoe Company, we can imagine that they have the what refined into product IDs, cost to manufacture, size, color, and all sorts of extra information—for each shoe they sell.

By having this additional information, the company knows the general distribution of shoe sizes to make for men and women. They probably also know from looking at past data, that they should make more of the largest shoes for basketball and make smaller shoes for horse jockeys. They know what colors and sizes sell the best—and in what combinations. They know the seasonality of sales (when) based on sports seasons. This helps them to most optimally plan and execute their production runs (what to manufacture, by model, size, color), when to produce them, and where to market and sell them. It is all done quite scientifically, and a new term has emerged for the people who work with data in this way: data scientists.

The other dimensions of where and when already offer additional levels of granularity – built in, by how the data is aggregated. We already know what week, month, and quarter a specific date belongs to. The where can be rolled up geographically, or through the organizational structure of the business. These are all basic reporting concepts.

Business metadata

Where, what, and when only tell us part of the story. What about the why? And what about the how—and the who? This is where business metadata enters the picture. Business metadata adds context to the data—that is either created or used by business people (the who). Business metadata exists all over the organization. Your employee policy and procedure manual are one example. If you are looking to improve your company’s performance on ‘involuntary turnover,’ your HR policies should define the why and how related to this type of turnover.

Working with business metadata

When it comes to technology there are two major approaches for dealing with business metadata. Traditional business intelligence solutions treat it as other metadata. It is often limited to an annotation in the data that might explain the reason behind a trend in a report. The alternatives to traditional solutions include portals, wikis, document management systems, and various collaboration tools (groupware).

While many of these non-technical alternatives are easy for business people to use, they are isolated from each other—and from the structured data in data warehouses. We often see companies where the C-level mandates a broad initiative, such as company-wide digitalization that aims at increasing efficiency and quality. The initiative is broken down into a portfolio of projects—each with budgets, timelines, and dependencies. The projects are operationally managed in a project management solution, while weekly review meetings are conducted using spreadsheets or Trello boards. Meanwhile, much of the detailed information is contained in emails and chats.

The challenge is quite basic: how easily are successes, failures, risks, and warnings, escalated through the system, where they can be aligned with the structured data that impacts the business? Will it deliver its benefits? Is it cost effective? Will it be on time? And if everything goes pear shaped, how did the company arrive at its poorly-made decisions? If it was a success, what went right about it, and how can those positive lessons learned be shared across the organization? Using a typical ad-hoc collection of productivity tools makes reporting the real story a real challenge.

How can this work?

Corporater Business Management Platform delivers business dashboards – and is designed to freely model, capture, and display your business metadata—as well as structured data. By doing so, you will have a complete story behind the reason for a trend—not a simple annotation. It brings the best of both worlds—in a highly flexible package.

As an example, if a business unit missed its production target, the production results could be displayed on its own dashboard page or report that contextualizes the results. The result would not be a simple value in a table with an annotation, but rather a rich story. You would still have the entire production history (when), broken down as structured data by product lines (what), production locations (where), and whatever else is useful to analyze the structured side of the data. But you would also have advanced commentary (why), a history of projects or activities aimed at meeting the production targets (how), as well as a breakdown of who is responsible or who the stakeholders are.

Corporater offers a business metadata design studio where you define your own business metadata. These properties are linked to the different business objects (metrics, goals, objectives, projects, risks, activities, projects, compliance regulations, processes, etc.) that you use in dashboards and reports.

This allows you to link together all the aspects of your business model. For example, if you run projects, you need both an aggregated view of how the portfolio is functioning as a group, as well as a granular view of how each project is functioning individually. But these projects don’t function in a vacuum. They are usually intended to provide some sort of benefits to your company. And there are risks associated with any project—cost, time, workforce capacity. The project needs to comply with company regulations, as well as local laws.

Most project management solutions are excellent at helping to operationally manage projects, but they lack the ability to easily link projects to other aspects of your business. Why are you doing the project? How did you arrive at the decision to approve the project? What are the intended benefits the project will deliver? By modeling your business metadata, you can answer all these questions. This level of information is highly valuable. It lets you kill projects early—if they deliver no benefits. It lets you reprioritize those that over-deliver benefits. It lets you manage multiple projects in a portfolio view, while adding lenses to evaluate them based on cost, risk, and resources. Business metadata is required to give you this level of context.

In practice, most businesses already do this—or at least attempt to. They likely went through an elaborate process to analyze project needs and requirements. They likely have regular project status meetings that discuss cost, timelines, and risks. In many regards, working with business metadata is less about doing things differently as you manage your business, and more about capturing the data in a single system, so you can work with it and report on it in a holistic manner. Otherwise, you face the daunting task of manually linking all this business metadata together and tracking it. Or worse yet, you lose sight of it entirely, and miss the valuable insights that business metadata can deliver.

With a business management platform that focuses on business metadata, isn’t limited to projects. It can link together multiple and various management frameworks, such as governance, risk, compliance, performance management, reporting, projects, portfolios, processes, and more. And by easily mapping the who dimension, users have dynamic dashboards informing them of their responsibilities, and accountability becomes transparent. By mapping the why dimensions, employees are reminded of their purpose and goals, to align them with strategy. By including the how dimension employees are given a roadmap for success. And by presenting everything within a holistic platform, employees can automate the flow of business metadata, govern it with business rules, and to use it to make more effective decisions that deliver better business outcomes.