Why Digital Transformation and Data Integration Are Natural Enemies – and How That Can Change

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Read more about author Karanjot Jaswal.

Digital transformation represents the ultimate best practice of the modern era – it signifies ongoing change driven by technological advances and expanded capabilities, helps companies and employees exceed their perceived potential, and constantly raises the bar on competition and performance. And, of course, optimal data management is at the heart of that evolution.

So why does it seem that business transformation and data integration are always at odds?

Think of it this way. Today’s typical infrastructure demands new solutions be developed on the fly; there are always new opportunities and new threats, and to meet those challenges, an agile enterprise can develop new applications and execute evolving strategies virtually on a dime. Of course, those technologies can only be built with data, and there’s mountains of it – in-house, incoming, in the cloud.

But that’s when the irresistible force goes up against the immovable object. As many data management professionals regularly lament here and elsewhere, data is too often stored deep inside silos and remains frustratingly out of reach. But the problem is deeper than that. With so much innovation going into building new applications – and so much effort understandably devoted to meeting business needs, building critical solutions, ensuring compliance, etc. – we’ve gradually neglected the most critical element in that equation: data.

While we rightfully praise the “there’s an app for everything” mentality, we should also consider that there’s a database for every app. Even with just a few apps in-house – and even a mid-sized organization has hundreds – those databases morph into silos in a hurry. And there the data resides: distant, hermetic, secure but serving no one.

And with the constant flow of new apps, we don’t only get more data – which is great – we also get more silos, more data management solutions, and, most painfully, more data integrations. At its core, data is inextricably tied to the applications used to create and store it, and the eventual silos must undergo thousands of point-to-point integrations. These inevitably add to the cost and complexity; in fact, functions related to data integration can consume half the IT budget.

Rebuilding the Foundation

“Today’s digital innovation is built on a bad data foundation,” said Susan Walsh, an advisor to the Data Collaboration Alliance and founder of data services consultancy The Classification Guru Ltd. “This affects the speed at which we can do business, compete, and innovate and hinders our ability to take new products and services to market. It’s the opposite of business transformation.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If data can do so much good now, imagine the benefits it can deliver when it’s freed from the technologies used to create and collate it. What if, instead of the app-driven ethos we have now, we build a true data-centric culture? What if we could manage data as a network in a way that eliminates the need to build and maintain point-to-point data integrations?

Most importantly, what if we could de-couple the data from the app so that it exists in its own dimension and is truly autonomous?

Setting data free means that it exists outside systems and applications, cleaved from the technologies that are used to create, store, and protect it. This enables better control and governance and the creation of metadata (data about data), which in turn helps us understand and govern enterprise data.

We can indeed do this. There’s an emerging technology category loosely labeled as dataware – an intuitive construct for the way data is created, managed, broadly accessed, used, and updated. It separates the data from the apps – and by not forcing silos to learn each other’s language, it simplifies and transforms application development. Think of it as true data autonomy: It eliminates the need for copies, silos, and integrations. In fact, it can make data integration essentially obsolete.

A comprehensive dataware platform adheres to the emerging Zero-Copy Integration Framework, a new standard gaining traction in Canada. This approach to digital solution delivery fundamentally invalidates traditional copy-based data integration (via ETLs, APIs) and leads to meaningful access controls that can be universally enforced.

True Digital Transformation

The benefits are virtually limitless. For example, when data is autonomous and accessible across projects, systems and individuals, a technology solution or platform becomes the ideal environment for collective wisdom and collaborative intelligence. A single dataset encompasses personality profiles, LinkedIn updates, customer records, and more, regardless of the origin or format of each data nugget.

Similarly, by separating information from its skin, we can use metadata to create deeper and more valuable experiences. This functionality is limited today, but it has the potential to become another major advance—we pivot development efforts to create richer experiences in a fraction of the time.

Every kind of digital transformation (and there are many) can be hugely beneficial to the enterprise. Imagine what can happen when there are no constraints: All data is easily accessible (when authorized), solutions are developed with astonishing speed and at a fraction of the cost, and we enter a new world of metadata. What seemed unreachable before is within our grasp—and we can get there in stages, if easier, by adopting a data fabric first and then transitioning to dataware.

We’ve long talked about building a data-centric culture to drive digital transformation but instead settled for an app-centric culture. Now, the stars are aligned for something better: A business environment in which data rather than applications is central to the organization. If any data-related activities in your organization are being done the same way they were 10 years ago – and that covers most aspects of data integration – it’s time for a genuine digital transformation.

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