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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What Do You Do When Things Aren't Working The Way You'd Hoped?

Let's pick a context first because a) this problem is pervasive in the world I live in (how about you?) and b) the context will determine our course of action. I'll use my own life as an example.

I have spent my life seeking to understand my environment so that I could have a chance of staying out of hot water by being able to predict outcomes. I actually got pretty good at the predicting part but was never able to translate that into the staying out of hot water part. It turns out that when you see a result coming that is unwelcome to everyone, hot water is the least of your worries.

Of course I could have kept quiet and just let things happen but the problem with that is that almost invariably a minor course change would have prevented the outcome. It always seemed reasonable to attempt that minor change. Just as invariably there were political implications involved in any changes to the published plan. Bottom line: my career is littered with "you were right's" that came three years after I moved on.

So. if you would learn anything from my example, maybe it would be that "being right" carries no value. Maybe it's that you should just keep your head down and wait for the seniority promotion of for retirement. Maybe the lesson is that you do what you can and the rest belongs to someone else.

I will say that over time I have achieved objectives that others considered "impossible" because I was willing to take risks. The problem there of course if that if the objective was considered unachievable then no one is prepared when the find themselves standing inside the walls.

I think that this is also the story of data management (to include what has come to be known as data governance). Organizations have been talking about data management for nearly thirty years now and there are hundreds if not thousand of experts who will tell you exactly what you should to enjoy the benefits of good data management practice. What none of them will tell you because a) you don't want to hear it and b) you wouldn't hire them is that there is no proven methodology--no set of practices and tools, skills and technology--that will guarantee results.

Why should this be? You would think that in 30 years someone would have stumbled across something that will deliver predictable results. The answer lies in the subject matter. "Data" is a concept understood by everyone. Everyone in the boardroom has their favorite data. The issue at the root of all problems is that "everyone" is seeing data "as through a glass, darkly."

The inability to communicate about data and reach a consensus is what is keeping us from our objective. To this add the cult of personality that defines the management--let's call it governance--of the corporation. The decision makers understand nothing of the underwater portion of the data iceberg, seeing only the table, graph or dashboard that's in front of them. What must be managed is the abstraction that is data and not the values that are only the visible portion. When we try to do anything with the abstract, we find that there are side effects on the visible portion that cause VIP personalities to convulsively respond in exactly the least useful way.

You can get useful results if your objective is modest. For example, it is possible to get two business functions who are exchanging data or three or more that have a symbiotic relationship based on data to take consensus action to stop what is often a great deal of daily pain. The intractability is encountered when we attempt to broaden the scope to cross departmental or divisional boundaries. The goals and methods of data management are counterintuitive to those raised in the power politics of corporate "success."

We usually find ourselves managing data as a commodity, "how much", "how many", "what is the cost", "who produces", "who consumes", "spoilage rate", "how fast"... While these all have an attraction in that the answers can be easily captured in one of those tables, graphs, dashboards, none deal with the underlying problem of managing the abstraction. Data is the most complex thing that a corporation attempts to manage. It is more complext even than money.

The pity is that we treat data as if putting it into a "piggy bank" solves all our problems. You heard it here first:
  • Technology is no answer--technology can help us sort different kinds of values into different piggy banks, no more.
  • Technical skills (modeling, DBA, quality...) are no answer. The cashier makes use of such skills to keep his/her drawer in order and reconciled.
  • People skills by themselves can't achieve any result except perhaps building meaningless consensus.

This is enough clues. If you call, don't bother to tell me what DBMS or CRP system or BI tools you're using. None of those things are of interest until the final stages of a solution. I don't expect any calls because too much credibility is wrapped up in the current initiative--whatever it is. When it fails to produce results, a new personality will step in and you'll start the cycle anew. Someone, someday may actually be willing to take a risk to stop the pain. I'll be retired or deceased by that time but maybe you'll have learned from this what you should be searching for.