IT Management

Nobody likes to be told “no.” Most of us aren’t fond of saying it, either. But if you work with mainframe data, chances are you’re frequently put in the position of having to say no. Sometimes it’s easier if the person who has made a request understands and supports the underlying reason behind your refusal. Today, we’re going to talk about something everyone can support: avoiding tragedies.

The Tragedy of the Commons

This concept is often used to describe ecological situations, where the “commons” are grazing lands open to all. However, the concept also can be applied to working with data, especially common resources (such as sets of mainframe data) that are shared by many individuals or groups but are critical to the success of the entire organization.

Ever heard of the Boston Commons? This land was once covered with sheep that were owned by individuals but nourished by grass grown on common property. Today, this is a beautiful, lush public park; the story of the sheep is often treated as a “cute” U.S. history lesson.

A desert in sub-Saharan Africa, however, holds a different type of history lesson—one that resulted in tragedy for thousands.

Just 40 years ago, the Sahel region was a fertile pastureland. It supported more than 100,000 herdsmen and more than a half million head of zebu (their grazing cattle). The area seemed to be thriving; between 1955 and 1965 the area received both unusually heavy rains and the advantages that came from the development of deep wells.

Herdsmen were optimistic. Herd sizes increased. Eventually, there were more cattle than the commons could support. Overgrazing led to loss of vegetation, which in turn led to soil erosion. Within just a few years, lush land had become desert. By the early ’70s, 50 to 80 percent of the livestock was dead, and much of the population was destitute.

Looking back, the reason was clear: Individuals took “just a little” more than their share. Collectively, their actions added up to more than the system could support, a tipping point was reached, and the system collapsed. Ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote about Sahel and this phenomenon he called “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

Data Commons

I’ll bet you can already cite examples of how you’re expected to protect your organization’s data commons. Are you expected to assist with data quality? Availability? Compliance with regulatory requirements? Many disciplines—and many corporate programs—have sprung up to protect data commons.

It’s worth noting, though, what many of these programs haven’t learned from ecological tragedies. Traditionally, you avoid the tragedy of the commons with one of two strategies: centralized management or voluntary self-restraint. Either can work—but only if they’re applied where cultural values promote the outcome and if they have the right support structure.

For the first strategy to work, the manager of the commons has to have power to say no. Period. End of discussion. Your sheep ain’t coming in, so go away.

For the “voluntary self-restraint” strategy to work, you first must know what puts your commons at risk, the chances of those events occurring, and where your tipping point may lie. In other words, you need to have a risk assessment. You also need clear metrics and a method of letting everyone know that the commons is being stressed. You need clear guidelines for what to do when it’s stressed, and accepted roles and accountabilities for when the organization has moved into “save the commons” mode. You need individuals who are willing to place the health of the whole over their immediate wants and needs, and you need a system of governance for resolving disputes.

You can’t have just one guy wandering around suggesting that individual sheep eat less for a while.

The underlying goal of many compliance efforts is to protect the integrity of data commons. No doubt you’ve adopted the centralized management strategy for some compliance issues, such as Sarbanes-Oxley or access management. If your organization is trying to avoid this approach for other applications, they need to provide the support structures that must be in place for voluntary compliance. And they must support you, if they’re expecting you to say no, so you can avoid your own version of the tragedy of the commons. Z