Data Driven Decisions

A company which wants to start taking advantage of existing and latent information within itself has a long way to go. It is, unfortunately, necessary to wade through a swamp of concepts of buzz words such as “Business Intelligence,” “Data Science,” “Big Data,” and so on. Management may want to build “Data Warehouses” and store more of the data which is produced in the organization. But then we wake up from the dream.

All of this data locked into various databases just cost money if no one touches it. The database administrators might not let people interact with it because the database is not capable of executing the required queries. The lucky ones who obtain data can deliver information about the data itself, answering questions like “how many?”, “how often?” and “where?”. Using tools from the Business Intelligence domain charts and tables are shown as reports where the user has to gain insights by drilling through the heaps and dimensions of information. This is the lowest level of refinement.

So, when embarking the endeavor to improve the business value of the reports using analysis, companies should not start looking at how existing data could be utilized and how to collect new data and how to store data. These issues should, of course, be addressed later on, but this is not the first priority.

Think backward instead. Start thinking about what the organization needs to know to work better. This is up to the domain-experts of the company to find out. They should be aware of some low-hanging fruits already. Then continue by sketching the process backward. If the management of the company needs to know something to be able to make better actions, what is required to produce that information? Is the data required available or can it be created from other data? And so on. Think about what is already there (an inventory might be needed), what new metrics are needed and are they measurable, is the development of new measurement methodologies required, is a given measurement method returning what it is expected to?

There are several technical challenges on the way which could involve the “four V:s” of Big Data: volume (how much?), velocity (how often?), veracity (can the data be trusted?) and variety (is the data heterogeneous?). There are also soft challenges which need to be solved like tribalism in the organization, the attitude of people towards change and tearing down walls of organizational data silos.

For a data-driven system to shine, it needs to be able to deliver insights which represent deviations outside the normal range of operation. Based on the insights the system should provide a set of recommended actions to improve the situations. The recommendations are presented together with an impact analysis if the action would be applied. This way, decisions are documented along with the facts available at the moment of decision.

Basing decisions on data is nothing new, but new technology helps to make data available sooner than previously. Having an expert system recommending actions and predicting the outcome can be a real time and money saver. Making the decision making fully automated as well is, however, an entirely different beast. Humans like being in control and it very hard to verify the correctness of wholly automated decision systems. Humans can help introducing some suspicion and common sense when recommendations do not make sense. Extra scrutiny can then be called upon to make sure there are no strange artifacts in the underlying data.

Data-driven decisions will most certainly gain traction in the future as increasingly more complex decisions can be handled. Technology is seldom a stopper. The number crunching can be solver. Company culture and politics is the primary stopper and must not be forgotten when setting up a new project.

Domain Driven Development

When building business-critical applications for an enterprise environment, it is common to first gather requirements from domain experts using a business analyst. The business analyst then formulates a set of requirements which are given to an architect. The architect, in turn, creates some design documents which the development team translates into code. enterprise

One problem here is that the distance between the ones who implement the solution and the domain experts is considerable. Information is filtered through many persons. An advantage is that we end up with documentation describing the product.

In agile development, the domain experts talk directly to the development team. Changes are fast, and the development pace can be high, but the process is likely to produce some waste as well. The development team might not be proficient in communicating with the domain expert.

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The business analyst in the previous example is an expert in interviewing domain experts and writing down requirements. The agile process might also produce less documentation which makes it harder for developers entering the project late to understand the big picture.

In domain driven development domain experts, the development team and other stakeholders strive to build a shared mental model of the business process. Having a programming language with a strong type system also helps to model the domain directly in code meaning that if the requirements change the code will not compile anymore (see “Domain Modeling Made Functional“).

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The claimed advantage of aligning the software model with the business domain is a faster time to market, more business value, less waste and easier maintenance and evolution.

Recommended guidelines for working with a domain driven design is to focus on what is called business events and workflows instead of data structures. This way the business requirements are captured in a way that hidden requirements are not lost as easily while the developer is not superimposing his or her technical solutions on the design too early.

The problem domain needs to be partitioned into smaller subdomains such that the subdomains are not too large. The subdomains should match domains in the organization, not necessarily the actual company hierarchy, but instead real domains.

Each subdomain has to be modeled in the solution in such a way that the solution does not share any persistent data with other subdomains. If a subdomain needs information from another subdomain, it has to ask for it instead of just accessing directly in the database.

A so-called ubiquitous language needs to be developed. The language is shared between all the participants of the project and in the code as well. There might be local variations in the meaning of words in different domains, and that is okay as long as those differences are understood, otherwise unnecessary conflicts and misunderstandings could arise.

The shared mental model of the domain allows other stakeholders to understand what is going on as well since business processes are described on a high level while the code is documenting the requirements directly and dictates how data structures should be designed instead of the other way around.