An interview with Stefan Berner: ‘The information model is a a semantic reflection of real business and its digital challenges’
Stefan Berner (right) has implemented a great number of digitisation projects using information modelling in the past 30 years.
No one expects an IT expert to proclaim a method to be an elementary tool for managers. This ‘tool’ looks technical at first glance – partially because it does remind one of a database schema. Upon closer inspection, however, the information model reveals itself to be a semantic reflection of real business and its challenges. In an interview, Stefan Berner explains why this model is a necessary tool especially for decision-makers and managers. You can find the free ‘Information modelling’ white-paper by Stefan Berner here.
As foryouandyourcustomers sees it, Stefan Berner has developed a model that addresses one of the greatest challenges of digital projects and therefore of the digital change: it helps people connect the real world to a digital model and make it tangible. The information model is based on language, on a simple definition of terms and their contexts that is understood and accepted throughout the company. A common language is created, which allows the different departments, divisions, offices, regional subsidiaries, and ultimately also the customer to work together more efficiently, and which increases quality and leads to better results. It is for this reason that foryouandyourcustomers always starts strategic projects with an information model wherever possible.
foryouandyourcustomers: Stefan Berner, please finish the following sentence: ‘In order to successfully lead a company through digitisation in this modern era, decision-makers and managers should be familiar with the information model and promote its use, because…’ …because a company can use the model to develop the fundamentally necessary semantic foundation for its digitisation and thereby help everyone involved to connect real business and the set tasks to a digital model. To add to that: it’s a tool that helps reduce costs, generate more business and sales, increase employee satisfaction and above all, gain the loyalty of enthusiastic customers.
A manufacturing company – which has since become a client of ours – once had to stop the delivery of machines because there was a communication problem between the Development, Production and Sales departments – and that had drastic consequences. The customers were all annoyed, the Executive Board found itself in an immensely damaging financial situation and the employees were confused and frustrated: ‘How could this happen to us?’ If they had had a cleanly managed information model, it would not have reached that point.
foryouandyourcustomers: How can you be so sure? In the last 30 years I’ve implemented lots of digitisation projects using information modelling and as of yet not one of these projects has had a consistency problem like the one experienced by this company.
Digitisation means that you want to manage more information better and use it in a faster, more intelligent way. But how can you process information about customers or products without errors and in a way that generates profit if you don’t know – or if there’s no agreement on – what information you’re talking about? What is this information called throughout the company, what does this information contain and what information is needed, processed and distributed by what department?
foryouandyourcustomers: Could you be more specific? With our clients we essentially use our model, the ‘Exploded View’, and tackle terminology and definitions in the course of that. At the uppermost level of this model, for example, I talk about the customer and even at this point there’s usually some discussion: ‘Do we mean here a one-time customer, an occasional customer, an online customer or a key account for a specific branch? And what and who is referred to as a customer by all of us?’ This term must absolutely be defined in a clear and unmistakable way. And then the discussions continue: ‘This customer buys one of my products. But what do we term as a product? Is a service a product, or do we only understand a product to be a specific item from production? Or could a product also be a service feature?’ There are companies that have since banned a number of terms from their corporate jargon in order to avoid potential misunderstandings. You can imagine that if these terms are not clearly defined across all departments and offices, then at worst, digitisation efforts may be stopped short early on.
foryouandyourcustomers: So you see the information model as the missing puzzle piece for protecting digitisation projects from failure? Definitely – and the feedback from our projects proves this. Even just correctly applying the model would have prevented a string of errors like what happened to that machine manufacturer I mentioned. The flow of communication between the manufacturer’s Development and Sales departments was faulty and they hurt themselves in the process, because the necessary information did not get to the right point.
foryouandyourcustomers: If this model is so beneficial for a company, why is the method not already being used by everyone? To a certain extent it is: such as for employee wages. This attribute, ‘wages’, is generally cleanly managed in each company and who has access to it is clearly defined. The information flow works there. But why is it that companies don’t often manage to ensure a consistent flow of information when they produce a user manual, where a mistake can lead to high compensation claims? And why are we at foryouandyourcustomers constantly told that the information model is too complicated to use and should be relegated to the IT department?
foryouandyourcustomers: You see it differently? This mindset can have fatal consequences. If I as a manager for the digitisation process hand over the authority over the information to the IT department, then it should be no wonder when I get a technical solution for my project that other departments then can’t use because there is no common understanding there.
In my book, ‘Information modelling – a method for improving understanding and accuracy in your collaboration’ (which can be purchased in Europe or Australia & New Zeeland) I describe it as follows: ‘IT specialists must understand what users need. Users and managers, in turn, must understand how they use information and what they should expect from IT.’ The information is the basis for all correct procedures; for using the correct data, systems, processes, workflows, organisational structures, media use, communication, marketing, sales and so on. The model, therefore, is the bridge between the functional terms, functional structures, IT and their implementation. It guarantees better quality at all levels and also affects each of these company levels; after all, they all access and use this information.
‘The model is a fundamental part of the company infrastructure and therefore also a fundamental part of the management system. For this reason, it’s important for the Executive Board to recognise its relevance and benefits and encourage, support and authorise the use of information modelling in relevant projects by decision-makers and managers.’
foryouandyourcustomers: Correspondingly, all departments should be involved in correcting and improving terminology beyond just the channels they use. We’re potentially talking about thousands of terms that have been used there for decades. That sounds like a mammoth project – surely it can’t be done without a significant investment of time and money? In the case of one of our clients, an international company, we’re talking about approximately 400 terms. After our last client workshop, the CEO said to me, ‘We weren’t able to sort out this problem in three years with the help of two external agencies, and now we’ve managed to solve it in an afternoon in just one workshop.’ I think that says a lot. The model is surprisingly simple, groundbreaking and well-thought-out and can be learned and applied in no time. You just need a quarter of an hour to read through the material. And a two-day workshop is enough to be able to create a model yourself and use it.
foryouandyourcustomers: How should a company proceed with using the model? Who are the key people for that, and what do they need? The model is a fundamental part of the company infrastructure and therefore also a fundamental part of the management system. For this reason, it’s important for the Executive Board to recognise its relevance and benefits and encourage, support and authorise the use of information modelling in relevant projects by decision-makers and managers.
But responsibility for setting up and maintaining the model lies elsewhere. The respective quality manager should take over maintenance of the model. This person is supported by a core interdepartmental team of business analysts, business architects – two, three people who take care of modelling and its application at the individual company levels and in the departments. They get the input for this, in turn, from a larger team where all functional divisions are represented, and where they submit their requests and requirements. So depending on the size of the company, something like six to twelve people working on it are needed, and I think when you realise the benefit of the model, the cost factor shouldn’t stop you from introducing the method.
foryouandyourcustomers: You speak of benefits. Does the model take some time to reveal its full effect or can a company benefit from it in the short term as well? In just one workshop we can clarify terms in an afternoon, and these terms flow directly into the business. One company used our advice and the information model to create its own data model and then generate a database from that, which is still working today with no maintenance and above all, no errors.
Plus, the model generally triggers a domino effect and its full power is unleashed piece by piece. Clarifying terminology is usually the beginning. The knowledge and insights gained from the subsequent work on the model have for many of our clients been the basis for utilising synergies, developing modern business models, changing the way work is distributed and breaking up old organisational structures and recreating them.
foryouandyourcustomers: Due to the ever increasing speed of development in the course of digitisation, a company should be able to act quickly to adapt or change offers and services. Does this mean, then, that a new information model will be needed on a continuing basis? Quite the opposite. The information model and its structures are the most stable part of a company. Take, for example, a traditional taxi company and Uber. Uber uses 90 per cent of the same information that taxi companies have been using up to now. What is rapidly changing are the technologies, media and speed with which the information must be collected, processed and linked.
With an information model, it’s easier and faster to take on the digital change because the model is media and technology-neutral. With this foundation, I as a company can invest a lot more time in developing new and stable channels rather than fixing mistakes in old ones before I can address new ones. This saves time and money.
foryouandyourcustomers: And this step of applying the information model, is something that any company, any organisation can initiate in a successful and profitable way? Absolutely, because the information model is universal. It’s all about the basics of communication: syntax, terms, semantics. It doesn’t matter whether the model is about jurisprudence, about a public administrative office, a manufacturer, a bank, insurance firm or an association – the model is useful anywhere where digital information is processed and interpreted. As soon as you have a situation where digital information is processed and interpreted, this information can be described using my model. That’s why I say that any company not using this model is throwing away the opportunity to successfully shape its own digital change. Many successful managers have already recognised this and are using the model.
Thank you, Stefan Berner, for your time. The interview was conducted on 27 May 2019 in Uster, Switzerland.
Business Analyst & Modelling Expert At foryouandyourcustomers
As a business analyst and modelling expert at foryouandyourcustomers, Stefan Berner helps his clients take advantage of a wide range of benefits of using correctly modelled information for their own business model. Stefan Berner has held various roles in IT for 40 years. As an Oracle database expert he has supported or executed the specific implementation of many projects. Nevertheless, his passion lies in uniting customer wishes with their technical implementation. This is where he sees the greatest potential for improving the quality and efficiency of digitisation. Two years ago he put his experience to paper in the book ‘Information modelling – a method for improving understanding and accuracy in your collaboration’. As a developer, database architect and project manager, he knows that IT specialists must understand what users need. Users, in turn, must understand how they use information and what they should expect from IT. He and his family live in Bern, Switzerland.