"Nothing should be as favourably regarded as intelligence; nothing should be as generously rewarded as intelligence," wrote Sun-Tzu in a 4th century BC text, The Art of War.
Although not embroiled in war, many of today's IT leaders certainly have a fight on their hands. Increasing competition from low-cost economies, more demanding customers and price rises in raw materials such as steel and oil are taking their toll on many businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
Many companies are taking steps to improve the quality of information available to decision-makers to evaluate performance, but most are experiencing fundamental problems. At the heart of the issue is the need to determine a coherent set of measures, consistent with strategic goals, and harness reliable information.
In most businesses, information is distributed across multiple systems, subsidiaries and countries, often with extensive duplication. Without a formal ap- proach to managing the synchronisation of data across these multiple repositories the reliability of information will be suspect.
Companies are littered with interfaces between systems and methodologies for managing and controlling information flows.
In this Byzantine technical environment customer "A" in the logistics systems might be identified as customer "209" in a separate database system. This sort of set-up is complex and prone to error and inconsistency.
Regulations such as the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act are requiring businesses to become increasingly accountable for the quality and control of information they publish. Organisations must recognise and address these root problems if they are to compete effectively.
The chief information officer must ensure they can deliver the architecture needed to meet executive demands. They need a custodian of the enterprise information architecture in their team who ensures that technology projects conform with the desired architecture and that the architecture changes and evolves in line with shifts in business priorities.
From a systems perspective, many organisations have developed enterprise reference data management applications to act as a single place to create and maintain corporate master data. Such systems are typically built around a dedicated master data repository.
Most enterprise resource planning suppliers offer some form of data management capability. In addition, middleware technologies can help to link systems and therefore deliver improvements in the quality of data.
Adopting any of these approaches requires senior commitment, investment and a comp- rehensive programme of work. There is often a temptation to delay addressing these fundamental issues to alleviate immediate cost pressures.
However, deferring the projects to optimise funding and high-level backing simply pushes back the point at which a business will have access to reliable, useful business intelligence that will enable it to be confident about its ability to compete effectively .
As Sun-Tzu reflected, "A commander who does not want to buy information is not a good leader, hence, can never win in battles."
Mark Douglas is director in the consulting practice at Deloitte