‘The DNA of a company’. An exposition by Christoph Gerber, CEO Core Information Consult, on the information model
Christoph Gerber advises decision makers in companies to read Stefan Berner’s book on information modelling.
‘It is not the processes that differentiate one company from others – these can be changed at any time; rather, it is the information about the business cases which makes a company unique,’ writes Christoph Gerber, CEO of Core Information Consult AG, about the information model by Stefan Berner. In his commentary, he explains why he recommends that companies and their decision makers use information modelling. You can find the free white-paper on the information model here.
In his standard reference ‘Reference model for industrial business processes’, the renowned Professor August-Wilhelm Scheer writes: ‘The design of logical data structures with the help of the entity relationship model (ERM) is the first steps towards establishing a database. In the next step, the data structure must be reformulated into a data model of the data processing concept.’ That is no doubt correct. However, with ERM you can go much further than merely computerising the world through abstraction. If you ensure that ‘a model in the ER representation is relatively easy to understand for data-processing laypeople’, the model will be able to offer further important services, particularly in requirements analysis. This is in no way a new insight by Stefan Berner; in fact, it already appeared in the 1987 Lexikon der Wirtschaftsinformatik (‘Encyclopaedia of business informatics’). With his information modelling methodology, the author systematically continues along this path. He removes all technical terms from the model and insists on simple definitions of terms which are both understandable and accepted company-wide. This allows him to develop the ERM from an IT data model into an information model for the entire company. It thus also serves as a communication tool between departments and IT and secures the company’s DNA. After all, that is exactly what it is all about: describing the unique structure of the company. It is not the processes that differentiate one company from others – these can be changed at any time, be it through new technology like online ordering channels or the outsourcing of functions like on-site service to partner organisations. It is the information about the business cases which makes a company unique. And this information – or the information structure, to be precise – remains comparatively static. An order always requires an orderer, a date and a list of the ordered articles – irrespective of whether the order is placed in writing, through the sales team or via an online channel.
The information model serves as a communication tool between departments and IT and secures the company’s DNA.
This characteristic – the static nature of information structures – results in it only being marginally considered in the requirements analysis. It is often considered to be a given and known; therefore, the focus is generally immediately directed towards the processes – especially as this aspect appears to be more exciting. After all, something happens here.
The information model of a company is given, to the extent that it is accurate, but never known. When a use case is compiled, generally speaking, a so-called post-condition is recorded – for example, at the end of the use case ‘order’. An order is stored in the database. Only much later, during the execution of the order, is it realised that the order includes a desired delivery date, delivery address, terms of payment and much more information. The book Writing Effective Use Cases – a classic for all requirement engineers – deals with the issue of post-condition: ‘Decisive for a post-condition is the agreement of all stakeholders that their interests are satisfied.’ Only if we consult an information model that is accepted by all can stakeholders determine whether this is the case at all.
‘I have used the information modelling methodology in various project phases with different customers and contact persons from all areas – as well as with many other consultants – and have consistently enjoyed positive experiences.’
The development of the information landscape is also provided for in object-oriented models. For this, the class models are used. Just like the ERM, they model a company’s information landscape. Unlike the ERM, the UML notation is not based on mathematics and therefore does not guarantee any consistency or non-redundancy. The ERM notation is further preferred because it can be transferred into the class model at any time without losing information – the other way round is not possible.
I have used the information modelling methodology in various project phases with different customers and contact persons from all areas – as well as with many other consultants – and have consistently enjoyed positive experiences. Following a short workshop, all participants are capable of understanding the model and actively developing it. They quickly see that the basis for the company-specific implementation of the IT system is being laid and that it is important to introduce this knowledge to their respective departments and to not leave important decisions to IT.
Another aspect that always quickly comes to the fore in workshops with representatives from various departments of a company is the common language. The approach described by Stefan Berner forces us to name things – that is, to precisely define a thing with a term that is accepted by all stakeholders. This step alone makes it possible to avoid significant misunderstandings between different company departments and also in communication with the customer. This alone can make the joint development of an information model worthwhile.
CEO Core Information Consult AG
Christoph Gerber studied business administration at the University of Bern with a focus on business informatics and operations research. Upon completing his degree and training as an officer, he became a consultant for financials, bookkeeping and cost accounting application of Oracle at Oracle Software (Switzerland) and headed the MOSAIC data warehouse project for Swisscom Mobile. Since September 1999 he has been the founder, managing director and co-owner of Core Information Consult AG. Core Information Consult is a consultancy firm for small and medium-sized enterprises in the Espace Mittelland region of Switzerland.
Christoph Gerber and his team are a reliable partner that helps service providers align their data with their business needs and utilise their resources in a way that creates the most value.