It was a data warehouse that archaeologists discovered under the desert sands at Nippur!

The world’s first known writing was aimed at keeping track of business transactions, providing a record to resolve disputes and manage the performance of all the different professions contributing to society. Very much like today’s data warehousing practice of storing vast volumes of business transaction data in data warehouses to support business analyses and improve decision-making.

Nippur is the name of an ancient Sumerian settlement in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. It was in this region, some 5000 years ago, that people gave up a wandering existence and built permanent settlements.

In 1888, the University of Pennsylvania sponsored the first American expedition ever to work in Mesopotamia. The expedition worked at Nippur until 1900, finding more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets and hundreds of other objects. In later years, many expeditions followed, digging in the desert sands between the ruins for the written records of the world’s earliest civilisation.

The first writings were in fact records, tons of records: stone tablets filled with numbers recording distributed goods. These early writings (apart from the numerals) were actually pictures, or rough sketches, you might say, of the words they represented; this early Sumerian writing was pictographic. The Sumerians would inscribe their pictographs on wet clay using reeds as a writing instrument. The clay would dry into rock-hard tablets, which is a good thing because it is difficult to lose your records if they are big, heavy tablets. (And more permanent: when all the paper in all the books you see around you has turned into dust and ashes, the Sumerian tablets will still bear silent witness to the hot days when farmers brought grain to city storehouses and priest bureaucrats parcelled out food to the citizens while scratching on wet clay with their reeds.)

Eventually, the Sumerians made their writing more efficient, and slowly converted their pictographs into a shorthand consisting of wedged lines created by bending the reed against the wet clay and moving the end closest to the hand back and forth once. And thus was born a form of writing that persisted longer than any other form of writing apart from Chinese: cuneiform, or “wedge-shaped” (which is what cuneiform means in Latin) writing. (©1996, Richard Hooker)

We are very lucky that the ancient Sumerians used very durable technology for keeping their records, and did not throw anything away – two very basic principles of data warehousing today. Thanks to those clay tablets, we now know a lot about day-to-day life in this society which literally gives us the history of our own society. Archaeologists even found the first ever city map at Nippur! All events before the ‘invention’ of script are very difficult to analyse and are therefore labelled ‘pre-historic’.

Are you still living in pre-historic times where your business is concerned? Do you have access to all the data collected in your company over all the years of its existence and do you use it to learn and improve? Do you have a map of your business in its environment?

Like the ancient Sumerians, we believe that keeping track of transactions is the starting point for fact-based decision processes. This transactional data should be complemented and enhanced with information on the surrounding environment. It is wise to store all this vital information in a way that will assure it is accessible in the future.

Such information contributes to better decision-making, a competitive edge essential for continued growth and value creation. The relative wealth of the Mesopotamian cultures is demonstrated in some incredibly fine pieces of art.

The Sumerians chose a technology that even today allows us to analyse the workings of that society. Although the pace of modern society limits the validity of future plans to only a few years (and sometimes not even that), we often find that the past holds important lessons that can guide the decisions of today. It is therefore important to assure this data is not lost, and that it can be evaluated in its historical and present context. Data warehouse technology is aimed at addressing this issue.

Today’s society is immensely more complex than the society of the ancient Sumerians. It requires tremendous amounts of information that must be communicated efficiently in order to support its highly fragmented processes. Today’s managers are faced with the overwhelming task of keeping track of the key indicators that allow them to optimise performance.

We have made it our job to facilitate managers in this task by analysing the challenges, defining solutions and guiding the implementation of these solutions. These solutions cover processes, organisations and technology, and are generally known as Business Intelligence (BI) Solutions.