Managing data well builds corporate management muscle

One dictionary definition for “corollary” is “a natural consequence or effect; a result.” Couple that with “data” – which I define as “facts that a business stores so it can carry out its goals” and you have the basis for my column.

For me, “data corollary” refers to the following proposition: good business follows from good thinking, good data design, and good data management. I’m leaving out a few other details – honest employees, competent management, and so on – but you get the idea. Properly managing corporate data is the goal.

In the 1990s and into 2000, information is increasingly what the world runs on. Even if your company produces widgets, you need information to maintain production. In Powershift, published in 1990, Alvin Toffler offers lots of good anecdotes and predictions that are still accurate, including how governments and international businesses try to get the upper hand over others by using undercover agents.

But never mind spy stories, industrial espionage and the power-broker level of doing business. What about people like you and me working for a company or government, or running their own businesses? Why do we continually have problems matching our computer systems to our business? Another way of saying this might be that common complaint “Why doesn’t the system do what I want it to?”

I believe a large part of the answer lies in the amount of effort organizations (that is, the people within organizations) put into managing information as a vital, corporate resource, every day. Perhaps a pushups analogy is in order.

Okay, stop reading, get on the floor, and do as many pushups as you can – slow to medium speed. Now start reading again. If you could only do half a pushup, that’s okay, but if you just pounded out 50 quick ones and are feeling overly proud of yourself, I ask you: a) did you touch your nose to the floor with your back straight on each one? and, b) why not 75? (The author’s own statistics are protected by the Freedom of Non-disclosure of Possibly Embarrassing Information Act.)

I have two points to make. The first is if you attempt to do your half-pushup every morning for [n] days, then you will soon find yourself actually doing a full pushup, then two, then three and so on. Same with 50 good ones. When your body’s muscles break down (i.e. you can’t lift yourself any more), they build back just a bit stronger to get ready for the next time.

In many ways it’s the same with organizations, which are made up of people. People who put effort into their jobs and work with a learning attitude generally manage to increase their skill level and productivity over time. The key for organizations is to harness that productivity in a meaningful fashion. When the people in an organization put daily effort into understanding and managing data and information properly (e.g., did you just fill in a number so you could move on to the next screen, or did you make the effort to ensure it was an accurate number?) the organization can rely on its information and make better decisions more quickly. In other words, 75 pushups in no time.

My second point is that you have to keep doing your pushups. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great pushup master, wrote: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do; not that the nature of the thing has changed, but that our ability to do has increased.” It has to be practised every day – otherwise the muscles atrophy, the skills and understanding disappear and the productivity declines.

In future columns I’ll explore data management in more detail and link it to systems requirements. The thing to remember, though, is that managing data properly makes your organization more productive – a natural consequence of daily effort: the data corollary.

Janzen, ISP, is the data administrator for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests and can be reached at [email protected].

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