When I began my career in the 1990s I quickly got frustrated with the idea that “quality is everybody’s responsibility”. If you remember corporate environments at that time you’ll remember this expression. To me it didn’t mean much. To me this was like saying your happiness is your own responsibility. It was self-evidently true but I had to wonder why I would waste my time listening to somebody tell me that. I naturally wondered what was in it for them.I don’t hear that phase as much anymore. It started to disappear when it was replaced by “the customer is at the centre of everything we do”. Of course, I had issues with this phrase too. Like the quality people, I couldn’t really understand how people got paid to say such trivial platitudes. I didn’t even think it was helpful to think that organisations should consider the customer to be the centre of everything they did. In fact, to me it sounded too internally focused. When I engaged at all it was to declare that “the customer is at the centre of everything they do – that’s what customer centric actually means!”.
What does this have to do with information management? Well, you might have heard recently that data is really important. It’s the latest craze. It didn’t start with big data but that’s certainly when it went mainstream. You know that’s when it went mainstream because the time between when it was cool to talk about big data and when it was cool to diss big data was about 3 months. Every big data article now proudly declares how contrarian they are by saying it’s not really how big your data is it’s how you use it – or some such chant. For some it’s supposedly really all about “fast data”. Others will say it’s not about data it’s about information. It’s all semantics – and those in information management should find that ironic.
My personal attempt at the anti- big data spin was to call it “cheap data”. This is no less obnoxious than the others and I apologise for it. But cheap data at least explains why their is so much of it about. With so much data of course comes so much data management. The real disciplines of data and information management are quite mature. I’ve worked with people who have been information management professionals for 25 years. There are deep knowledge bases around how to manage information of both the practical and academic variety.
Real information management professionals have a deep and complex relationship with all things information. The field is highly specialised and filled with professionals who have their own specialised language and techniques .
My career is basically 25 years of technology enabled business transformation – starting with the modest business transformation of how wooden pallets were tracked for a small fruit shop that I wrote a tracking program for when I was 17. However, from an information management professional perspective I’m not allowed to say I have 25 years experience. Instead, I have about 5 years experience. This is because information management has a long history and the specialisation is deep.
I’d also suggest my 5 years experience is only half “real” information management experience because the other half was spent stripping out all of the information management jargon and breaking up endless arguments between information management professionals. That is to say, I spent a lot of time trying to stop information management people talking and getting them listening. But this process – while a nessesary and important part of the mass consumerisation of information management – is unfair on those “real” information management professionals.
Information management is a mature specialised discipline. But it’s also at the same point that the quality movement was when it endlessly declared “quality is everybody’s responsibility”. When data got cheap, and became the biggest story in town, information management was suddenly everywhere. But that meant it had to appeal to a broad audience. Which meant that deep and specialised language had to go out the window.
While many concepts deep in the details all of those information management skills are still useful – just like being able to look up a book in a library catalogue is still useful – ultimately the level of broad communication about information management that most organisations can tolerate before they switch off is basically “data is everybody’s responsibility”.
As I’ve said often before, the discipline of general management is unkind to specialisation – wishing and hoping that complexity and nuance is unceremoniously removed from all things for the convenience of centralised decision-making and at the expense of distributed decision-making power (and ultimately decision effectiveness). For all the intolerance to specialisation that general management has this is nothing compared to the compromises that must be made when appealing to the masses. Data management is the new quality management and is changing so it appeals to the masses. This is in many ways a penultimate step in the evolution of any intellectual centre.
Short of building another organisational silo and trying to move all of your data management into it, you’re basically in the territory of culture change if you want to broadly impact how your organisation uses data. But once you’re appealing to something as broad as cultural change you’re out of the realm of specialisation and closer to the realm of politics – for better and for worse.
Information management is a rich and specialised set of disciplines that help you manage your information once you’re willing to accept you have a problem managing your information. It also includes a number of governance and discovery disciplines that help you identity that you have a problem if you’re willing to invest in information the same way you invest in other assets.
This is all well and good by why do that? I understand that when information is wrong it could lead to misunderstanding of risk. Or that when information is wrong it might impact customer experience. I consult in this area so I’m happy to tell you that you might not be meeting your regulatory obligations unless you are both managing information according to certain standards and able to attest to the accuracy of that information.
But why view this as an information problem? How is this different to “just focusing on the technology”? I’ve seen many initiatives fail with a retrospective 20-20 hindsight assessment that they failed because they only focused on the technology. It’s true that initiatives must focus on more than just the technology. Great – we should do that. We should also avoid using negations to describe what we should do. You can’t focus on “not the technology” you have to focus on something specific. Equally, you can’t use “the business” for shorthand. There isn’t such a thing.
Just like only focusing on the technology will give poor outcomes. Only focusing on the information will give poor outcomes.
This idea that a kind of functional excellence in information management is holding organisations back is a fallacy. The real problems have nothing to do with a lack of functional excellence in a seperate information function. The real issues are general management, accountability for details, mis-investment in technology, and apathy at the margin.
Everybody likes to say that “the business owns the information”. This is absolutely true. Why are we even talking about this? We can reinforce our message by saying “the information isn’t owned by IT”. Again, this is absolutely fine. I personally could imagine an organisation where “information is owned by IT”. This seems sacrilegious and against all good information management principles but I don’t see why an organisation wouldn’t be allowed to operate this way. IT is in fact part of this mythical amalgamation known as “the business” and IT does stand for “information technology”. You could interpret information technology to mean the techniques and tools to manage information. And you tend to only manage things you own. Perhaps the IT department would make a good custodian for all an organisation’s information assets. In fact, in many organisations this is the case. The only thing missing is recognition that data in one of those pesky little details you your IT department has been building capability in for years without due recognition.
When I started work my payslips were hand-written by a clerk in payroll. That process was owned by the head of payroll. The accountability for delivering my payslip was with the head of payroll but the responsibility for creating the payslip was with that clerk. We’ve all heard this language before. But the fact is, today an IT system prints my payslip. If the printer breaks a tech support person fixes it. Often they don’t know how to fix the problem – so they learn. If the system crashes when they try to run payroll you can bet the email will say “payroll has been delayed because of a computer issue”. The person who needs to fix this issue might have only started in the job the day before – so they’ll have to learn many things before they can fix it – so they’ll start learning those things. And yet, the “business owner” for that system is still the head of payroll.
In the information management world, that ownership of the payroll system is a different beast to the ownership and accuracy of the payroll information itself. This is a powerful concept in information management. It’s particularly powerful for information assets that have a more complex lifecycle than payroll information. But so what? We have all the accountability for getting payroll right that we need. Even for more complex information assets, if accountability is in place for the outcomes that rely on that information what more accountability do we need? Just as “… including accuracy of data”.
The truth is that when we manage accountability for outcomes many organisations have operated on an implicit assumption that that accountability excluded the data. Somehow the data was determined to be just another one of those minor details that were considered above the general management discipline where accountability is defined. So the only change is to explicitly change this implicit assumption that accountability excludes data details.
So I guess what I’m saying is…
“Data is everybody’s responsibility”