IT Management

We all know the story of the cobbler’s children, who are forced to go shoeless while the cobbler makes shoes for customers. Townspeople line up to be shod with exquisite slippers, sturdy clogs, or long black boots, but the cobbler’s children are forced to brave the elements with nothing but old socks to protect their tiny, callused feet. And somehow, the story goes, they understand. “It’s OK,” the tykes whisper to sympathetic observers.

For years, organizations’ leaders have been the cobblers’ children when it came to data standards and controls. Year after year, new laws and regulations specified ways to structure, define, organize, store, and protect data. Also, new business deals were brokered: mergers, acquisitions, sourcing agreements, and partnerships—each with their own information-related requirements.

Compliance wasn’t optional, and so these needs were met. If a standard or control was going to be reviewed by auditors or subject to contractual requirements, compliance was prioritized. If, on the other hand, a standard would support operational excellence or leaders’ need for trusted information, then it went onto the “nice to have” list.

Time and time again, executive stakeholders saw their needs overlooked. Often, they were understanding, just like the cobbler’s children.

But not now. All over the world, leaders are loudly clamoring for useful information. Everyone’s plans and strategies have been affected by the global financial crisis, and they all want to examine their books, look at their assets, analyze their situations, and conduct what-if scenarios.

Suddenly, everyone needs strong Business Intelligence capabilities. They need the data upon which those capabilities are focused. And they need to know things about that data: How good is its quality? Does it mean exactly what we think it means? Do we know where it came from, and can we trust that source?

Now, the cobblers’ children are learning about the real state of affairs in the cobbler’s shop. These executive stakeholders are hearing about poor or underutilized metadata strategies and practices. They’re hearing about legacies of “encouraged practices” and “suggested conventions” rather than strict standards and enforced controls. They’re getting the bad news: In too many cases, it’s just not possible to get the well-structured, well-defined, well-controlled, high-quality data they need now to make business decisions that will affect everyone’s futures.

The cobbler’s children are angry. And they’re scared. They know that good information right now could mean the difference between survival and becoming a victim of the times. They realize that information they can trust will be a tool for avoiding future crises. And they realize they’re now paying the price for not insisting on stricter standards and practices.

In the future, compliance with leaders’ analytical requirements may receive just as high a priority as compliance with security and auditing requirements. Making information “fit for use” may become a common executive mandate. Taking project shortcuts or refusing to comply with internal standards, naming conventions, and other rules could be seen as dangerous and irresponsible conduct.

But we aren’t there yet. Right now, we’re all just trying to assess what we have to work with. Here are three ways you can help.

First, do you have good definitions for the data you work with? Are those definitions available to analysts and others? Work with your management team to quickly expose this information to those who could use it.

Second, has an assessment been done of your master data? Are you aware of the health of your organization’s customer data, product information, location data, vendor details, etc.? Have you designated systems of record, golden copies, or any other preferred sources of information? Don’t assume your analysts are aware of this; tell them.

Finally, consider issuing “data pollution alerts.” If you’re aware of data stores that suffer serious quality issues, let your leadership know. They may be building mission-critical reports based on the very files and tables you’re most concerned about.