Critical Thinking, Socrates and the Data Warehouse

02. 10. 18 John Chapman

The Socratic method, (also known as maieutics, method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate), is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. It is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions.

Recently projects to implement a Data Warehouse have become popular as organisations realise that there is likely to be data in their disparate systems which could yield valuable business analytics. So the decision is taken to set up a Data Warehouse; bring the data into one place, put a tool over the top such as BIRST, PowerBI, or Tableau, and the information will flow. Sounds simple, doesn’t it, a big picture approach and just getting a few “propeller heads” together they can deliver the requisite solution.

And simple it can be, but first, the right questions must be answered, in order to ensure smooth delivery of the project.

Requirements workshop

TouchstoneBI recommends the first piece of work is to run a high level requirements workshop. This is a roundtable discussion where the Socratic method is used to develop the reasons and strategy for the Data Warehouse. A series of questions are posed including:

  • What is the purpose of the data warehouse?
  • Who will be accessing the data in the warehouse?
  • What business decisions will be taken based on the information?
  • What business information needs to be in the data warehouse?
  • Is there a priority order for the delivery of the data warehouse data? e.g. Director information first, then senior management
  • Where is the data currently located?

This might sound an obvious question, yet it is one that needs to be challenged. Consider the overall business case and what objectives you are trying to achieve, think in terms such as trend identification, forecasting, competitive analysis, complex business modelling.

It is likely that the data will be used by Senior Executives and Managers to support and influence their business decisions. This stakeholder group will need to be engaged with the project and their support for it garnered, as well as their input during project delivery.

This can be a difficult question to answer, for the simple reason that we make a lot of decisions without the conscious realisation that we are making a decision. What decisions do people take on a day to day basis? What strategic decisions do they need to take? If the information previously was not available this might open up a whole new area of thinking, and thinking takes time.

Based on the answer to question 3, this one can then be considered.

Now comes the start of the planning and the prioritisation of work. Who will be the first this analytical information? How will the priority be decided?

So we know the decisions to be taken, the information needed and the priority order for delivery, now to find out where the data is located and just as pertinently can we access it!


A Data Warehouse is not an individual repository. Instead it is an overall strategy for building decision support systems and knowledge-based applications. These are there to support tactical decision making and long-term business strategizing.

In starting the journey to deliver this valuable Business Intelligence solution, it is important to be clear on the strategy, the priorities and the stakeholders. As organisations change, people and systems change, the data warehouse will require refinement and enhancing.

The initial high level requirements session is there to provide a strong foundation from which the project can commence. The use of the Socratic Method is to stimulate critical thinking.

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John Chapman

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John Chapman