By Jim Fister
In the northern reaches of Alberta, Canada, lie remote inhospitable stretches of earth containing oil-soaked shale. These fields contain more crude oil than the entire estimated reserves of Saudi Arabia and visionary companies are finding ways to cost efficiently extract this fuel. They do this for the most part using tools and methods that have long been in existence. How does this relate to the typical CIO? In his book Only the Paranoid Survive, Intel’s* Andy Grove defines a strategic inflection point as a place where the first companies to break through existing barriers will “win in transition,” setting the course for their industries. This is true whether it means extracting crude oil from shale or crude data from a SAN storage unit. With the right processing methods and the right effort, even the most questionable territory in the world—or the enterprise—can yield gold, be it black, yellow or dollar-green. One particular oily pit in IT managers’ purview is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the regulatory transparency enforced on corporate finance systems.
Sarbanes-Oxley is just one example of a bevy of regulations that daily affect the way a company stores and protects information; other examples include European Union Transparency and Data Privacy directives, International Financial Reporting Standards and Basel II Accord. These regulations share the common trait of enforcing ways to store and update data. This is the oil-laden shale of the IT industry—black gold in a seemingly amorphous block of government and accounting morass. Most of these regulations require transparency on the way financial data is collected and stored. In most public companies the data is gathered with difficulty, and is then warehoused and forgotten until the next cycle. However, this organized collection of key financial data in a known format with a mandated schedule of updates offers the fuel for corporate success if only the tools to mine it can be found and put to use.
Numerous well-known software vendors offer business intelligence tools for data analysis that can be applied to this task. One example is the SAS Institute*, a provider of business intelligence tools to IT and government organizations. Using packages, such as SAS Financial Intelligence* and the upcoming SAS OpRisk Monitor*, an IT team can gather and study the data to analyze cost and profitability, predict future budget requirements and manage risk in the environment. Other vendors, such as Oracle* and SAP, offer similar compliance tools. Many simple uses of these tools offer immediate return. IT compliance managers are often forced by time constraints to enable a large number of control and check points in the data to ensure adherence. Testing of these numerous control points by financial consultants takes time and increases costs. Analysis tools can process the data for redundant control points—reducing the complexity, time required to validate the regulations and cost to the company. In a similar vein, large companies will likely have different internal ways to manage risk across internal organizations. A common set of tools can standardize risk analysis and methodologies across the business silos. This reduces complexity and it positions IT as an enabler of operational excellence for the company—a value not often recognized.
Of course, not all energy is equal. In the case of shale oil processing, many companies have abandoned their efforts because the perceived cost is too high in comparison to other energy collection methods. Others have then used standard tools in innovative ways to reduce costs and extract the crude from the rock. The real value lies in being able to adapt the tools to provide the maximum value for the given environment, which wins in the transition ahead of others in the field. From the CIO’s perspective, this proves the strategic value of IT to the company—an advantage over existence as an execution arm being squeezed for more output at less expense. In the computerized IT environment, data can be evaluated, replicated, analyzed, re-evaluated and otherwise molded into new shapes. With a little work product lines and business strategies could be virtually consolidated from past data, and the analysis could lead to the development of corporate structures that would otherwise be lost in the noise of data gathering. Allocating different budgets to product lines could yield interesting efficiencies that could be brought to other corporate groups and prove of real strategic value. By using business intelligence to improve the efficiency of the corporate engine, the CIO will attract the attention of the both the boss and the board. Financial analysts look at economic expectations and how the company is performing. By finding new efficiencies and analyzing the right approaches to risk, the oily internal data could be the high-octane fuel leading to business success.
The cost of the tools and the people power to drive this new opportunity engine will vary depending on the size of the company and the complexity of the data. Single-product companies, for example, would likely have a much lower barrier to entry than companies with complex product lines. Likewise, a home-grown product line with a single finance system will adapt much more easily than a company with many acquisitions and a variety of systems at its heart. In any case, the value extracted, if properly mined, probably results in a fraction of the cost of the already enabled systems and will provide a high return. A few companies already are experimenting with existing tools as well as internal software to add value to the bottom line. Once established, these methodologies are reusable in many areas where data is collected and stored.
By some estimates the sum total of available fuel coming from shale oil deposits worldwide will be enough to power the projected needs of the world for five hundred years. Eager research to extract the value of the crude will continue for the foreseeable future. In Alberta, the plan is to process the oil from the barren fields and plant new vegetation that will bring new life and value to the land. Likewise, the future value of business analytics to the average corporation is an unexplored territory promising near- and long-term wealth for those who have vision. This potential wealth to the company positions IT and the CIO as a strategic asset for years to come.
Jim Fister is Lead Technology Strategist for Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group. He is responsible for the development of business strategy around Intel platform and product technologies. Jim can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Intel is a trademark of Intel Corporation or its subsidiaries in the United States and other countries. Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.