Chief information architect: A compass for information management

In a Q&A, author William McKnight discusses the importance of building a robust information architecture -- and having the right person in the lead.

William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group, is the author of Information Management: Strategies for Gaining a Competitive Advantage with Data. In it, he highlights the crucial role information management plays in business operations. He also examines the myriad technologies available to support information management processes in organizations and enable them to generate the most value possible from pools of big data and other information.

In this interview, McKnight explains why it's important for organizations to implement a "true architecture" for information management and discusses how a chief information architect (CIA) can help prepare a business to succeed in managing data as a key corporate asset.

In your book, you mention the importance of having a [CIA] on staff to be the caretaker of information management within an organization. What skills or qualifications does this person need to have?

William McKnight: The [CIA] must be skilled in many varied information platforms -- data warehouses, stream processing, master data management, NoSQL, Hadoop stacks, columnar and in-memory databases, etc. -- with an in-depth understanding of what they're good for; the cost, time and skills required to put data on them; the political savvy and business acumen to get ideas into action; and business analysis skills. The CIA will look ahead at unfulfilled, and often unspoken, information management requirements and at what the vendor marketplace is offering and where it is going.

Can you go into more detail about the problems that can be caused by the lack of an effective information architecture?

William McKnightWilliam McKnight

McKnight: Given the need for data throughout the organization, without attention to architecture, information management will be chaotic. The environment will become inefficient, with little regard for sharing data and processes. There will be little reuse of data extracts, which will tax environments that originate data with widespread interest. There will be mismatched requirements for platform selection, resulting in poor performance. Data will not meet quality standards, quickly eroding trust in the data and all things data architects do. Furthermore, little foresight will be applied to projects, resulting in re-platforming and rework.

How can taking a more top-down approach to managing data help avoid some of those problems?

McKnight: A top-down approach brings the element of architecture into the discussion and the culture, helping to ensure that organizations address it.

What steps should a chief information architect take in leading the technology selection process, given that there are so many options out there?

Leadership can pave the way by bringing focus to architecture, and to data as an organizational asset that must be cared for.

William McKnight, president, McKnight Consulting Group

McKnight: Start by getting into the right platform category, and then drill in. If you truly know the information management world and upper management will not require [a detailed process] for justification, you can move quickly to selection. Otherwise, good old RFI, RFP and POC: request for information, request for proposals and proof of concept.

And what can a CIA and other information architects in an organization do to prepare for the need to make changes in an initial architecture plan as business needs evolve?

More on managing an information architecture

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Read about how a data warehouse architect is helping pharmaceutical maker Pfizer improve its decision making

Discover the growing array of data management technologies available to data and information architects

McKnight: Change is here to stay. New workloads have much higher requirements than in the past -- in terms of volume, performance, concurrency, quality and turnaround -- and that will continue to be the reality. Leadership can pave the way by bringing focus to architecture and to data as an organizational asset that must be cared for. I recommend a program of organizational change management to help break into big data and analytics. This includes stakeholder management, [delineating] job roles formally, training and widespread communication to ensure users come aboard with the changes.

In your book, you state, 'Information management brings organizational change … Most organizations will be completely transformed by information management in the next decade.' How do you think information management will transform organizations?

McKnight: Information management ultimately feeds the asset of information to the organization's many uses for it. If you get the platform selection and the discipline of information management right, so much information can be utilized. If you do not, and the data is hard to access or questionable in any way, the company will continue to operate without robust information, which brings about worse decisions and subpar business processes. Information management sets up an organization for success in the Information Age.

To read an excerpt from William McKnight's book, click here.

Melanie Luna is managing editor of SearchDataManagement. Email her at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter: @sDataManagement.

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