Standard Data Models in CCM

3 min read

How Interchangeable Parts Can Improve Your Capabilities

By building parts that are standardized and effectively identical, each part can freely replace another of the same type. This allows for easy assembly and repair of a system and minimizes the time and skill required for maintenance and management. Standard data models in CCM (customer communication management) also work in an equivalent way.

Many of us learned in school about Eli Whitney, Marc Isambard Brunel, Henry Leland, and others who pioneered the idea of “interchangeable parts,” a concept that accelerated the industrial revolution. Over 200 years ago, standard, identical parts drove explosive growth in manufacturing as assembly line production replaced handcrafting for many goods. In recent decades, the ability to customize within any given set of standards, through modular design and production techniques, has shown that the same principles of interchangeability still apply.

The use of interchangeable parts unlocks potential that is otherwise lost in managing unnecessary complexity. Another result is that division of labor is more easily accomplished—people can focus on their core responsibilities while being assured that their work will integrate with everyone else’s without having to manage a large set of customized requirements.

These same concepts can be applied to your CCM framework. Some of the more obvious examples are the standards that govern images (EPS, TIFF, JPG, PNG, etc.) and documents (PDF, AFP, HTML5, etc.) where organizations often choose a limited set of input or output standards to be used. These are important, but simple standards to establish and most organizations have adopted standards in this area.

However, a common gap we often experience in our enterprise CCM solution at BelWo is that organizations miss the opportunity to establish a set of “standard data models” or standard specifications for the technical layout of certain data and templates, to enable broad, modular reuse of components across their content communication management framework. Whether it’s due to poor governance or poor architecture design or just sheer scale, it is easy for organizations to lose control of their complex CCM applications. Standard data models, applied appropriately, can help solve that problem.

Let’s explore some of the concepts of standard data models and how they can be used effectively in CCM.

What is a standard data model in CCM?

In a CCM solution, a standard data model should include a database model and a template model:

  • Database models are either relational or flat models that show the field definitions, parent/child arrays, etc. for all data sources in the framework, as well as their relationships to each other. These are typically visualized in a hierarchical or tree format and implemented as XSD (XML schema definition) files that define interchange points in an application
  • Template models show how data elements from the database model are represented in the variable composition from your CCM system. These are blocks of layout logic that might range from simple and common uses like address blocks and key lines to more complex business blocks like transactional tables, targeted messaging areas, and content insertion logic

In combination, these models define how data should be “shaped” when it comes in or out of the application and how that data is represented when it is composed and printed or emailed, or sent to any other channel.

These become our interchangeable parts. A CCM standard data model results in an inventory of interchangeable parts that, within the appropriate context, can be reused across various applications.

When standard data models should be used (and when they should not be used)

Let’s start with some discussion of how standard models can be misapplied. While they are critical for a successful CCM solution development, standard data models aren’t a cure for all your customer communication-related woes. Improperly applied, they can slow you down.

For instance, a Print Service Provider (PSP) would not build a single, monolithic standard data model to serve all their customers. Trying to build a model that would support healthcare, insurance, financial, and retail customers would be impossible.

Even an enterprise with a narrow business focus might not build a single, monolithic standard to drive their customer communications. When there are significant data structure or template layout approaches between communication streams, they often warrant different models. In every enterprise, there will be some small amount of customer communication output that does not happen consistently enough to warrant the development of a model.

Over-standardizing can create confusion, lengthen development times, and decrease flexibility-exactly the opposite of what standard models help to achieve. Choosing the boundaries for a standard model is not a trivial task and requires an understanding of the bottom-up realities (existing data structures and how they operate today), the top-down goals (what the business wants to accomplish), and the capabilities of your CCM framework.

While the service provider would not build a single standard model for their entire business, they would certainly develop a model to address blocks and key lines. They would also develop a standard model for healthcare ID cards, for instance - auto policy quotes, daily confirmations, and quick deployment of emergency letters. In this way, they can address those products quickly, using well-established data and layout standards. For specific customers, they can create a layout with variations from the standard, cutting development time enormously. Linking the layout variation to the standard will ensure better maintenance and management. In addition, the standard model components are well-tested and robust, lowering testing effort and the risk of untested conditions.

Our enterprise customers use standard models to drive business or product lines and help govern standards across their organization. A property & casualty (P&C) insurance customer might have their own auto policy quote model with layout variations for different regional markets, and similar models and regional variations for a range of personal and commercial P&C products. When a standard CCM system is in place, onboarding a new customer or even a brand-new product becomes the assembly of standard components, basic customization work, and faster, lower-risk deployment. The result is communication that the enterprise knows will be accurate and consistent in content and style.

The impacts of using standard data models

As we have noted, the impact of adopting standard models is an increase in speed-to-market, communications accuracy, and improved governance of standards (data and layout). Onboarding new customers become fast, and developing new communication variations or products becomes efficient. As with the interchangeable parts that helped launch an industrial revolution, standard models in your customer communication framework can help begin a capabilities revolution.

Will every new document be assembled solely from pre-configured standard blocks and use only the data model within the application? No, some document streams will require variations from the standard. These are addressed by “extensibility,” the ability to carry non-standard data structures and template layouts through the application while not abandoning the core standards. Does a customer have a transaction array that’s not part of the standard? No problem. Within that customer’s application, we can join that array to the standard data model and use it for composition. Does a customer have a unique transactional table that is unlike our standard? No problem, we can build that custom table layout and use it as an exception in our customer’s templates, effectively creating a customer-level standard that varies from the core standard. Who knows, perhaps that unique transactional table will become a new core standard over time.

This extensible approach to standard and custom CCM solution development means that we get the huge benefit of standard models while not losing our flexibility for customized products.