Information Timebomb: Is Your Business About To Be Blown Apart?

Data Explosion

The proliferation of data-centric systems combined with a climate of ever increasing regulatory compliance dictates that effective Information Management should be at the top of every organisation’s priority list. Worryingly however, this is not the case, and more than ever before, we are seeing organisations at risk of collapse under the weight of data required to keep their business running smoothly.

The most common problem organisations face when trying to tackle Information Management is inexperience. Many don’t realise that they have a problem; an unfortunate few still struggle with the idea that information needs to be managed. All too often, they bury their heads in the sand until they hit a real obstacle – for instance, a failure to meet their statutory reporting requirements.

So how can you spot if your organisation is facing an Information Timebomb? More often than not, the telltale signs are right before your eyes in flesh and blood. So before you embark on a detailed analysis of your data, your systems and your processes, take a step back and observe your biggest asset. The views and behaviour of your staff will reveal a lot more than you might expect, so start by asking a selection of your business users five simple questions. If more than 50% of the answers are “yes”, it’s time to call the bomb disposal squad.

The Data Modelling Divide

Question #1: Do you sometimes struggle to understand how the key business concepts within our organisation relate to each other?

Unfortunately, the use of data models as an essential communication tool is still not widely understood. Many IT professionals fail to see past the point of physical database schemas, which are arguably, the least critical type of data models. Equally, most business professionals would run for the hills if asked to produce an “entity relationship diagram”, and rightly so.

Nonetheless, a good high-level data model is able to bridge the gap between business and IT. Indeed, all parts of an organisation benefit from a clear understanding of how their key business concepts inter-relate. Forget worrying about whether Barker notation is better than IE, or whether surrogate keys are better than natural keys. This is about communication – data modelling is merely a language – and sometimes you need to choose your language to suit your audience.

There are many techniques to convert a data model into something non-technical folk can understand, and once you’ve created a common understanding at a business level you can start worrying about the details.

The Data Sceptics

Question #2: Do you prefer to keep personal copies of data so you can improve its accuracy or integrity?

Having worked with organisations across many industries, I’m well aware that poor data quality isn’t a minor hiccup. Whether it’s hospital patients being discharged before they’ve been admitted, address fields containing delivery instructions or 70% of customers all celebrating their birthday on 1st January, dirty data can be a big problem.

But often the side effects of poor data quality can cause more problems than the data itself. Once a culture of data distrust takes hold of an organisation it’s hard to shift and the resulting behaviours can start to infect even the good data. Departmental (or even personal) spreadsheets containing “clean” versions of data; additional workarounds that bypass agreed business processes; and the reluctance to share data externally can all cause major headaches for an organisation.

So whilst you shouldn’t ignore the underlying problems, the key is to take a proactive approach by monitoring your data quality, putting remedial measures in place where necessary, and keeping the data sceptics in check.

Silo Syndrome

Question #3: Do you worry that data held in different systems can give conflicting answers to simple business questions?

It’s a simple fact of life – unless your organisation is very small, with very simple business processes and very straightforward IT demands, you will have a proliferation of business systems. And each system will have its own particular approach to storing and managing your key business entities, whether it’s “customers”, “products”, or any other kind of “master data”.

Whilst some organisations try to remedy this by replacing as many systems as possible with a single platform, a fair few virtually bankrupt themselves in the process. Enterprise systems from the likes of SAP and Oracle don’t come cheap, and it’s only a matter of time before the subtleties of your business become clear and you realise one size doesn’t fit all.

My advice is, before you reach for your chequebook, understand your master data. An audit of your business systems will show where data silos exist, identify whether there are any duplications or conflicts, and help you determine the extent of the issues. Nowadays there are many ways to tackle Master Data Management, so make sure you look before you leap.

The Spreadsheet Factory

Question #4: Do you regularly use spreadsheets to collect together key business information for reporting purposes?

If Microsoft ever decided to ditch Excel, I’d be the first person protesting outside Bill Gates’ house. Forget the likes of Business Objects, Cognos or even SAS. When it comes to delivering business intelligence to the masses, Excel, more than any other tool, has empowered people to transform their data into valuable information.

However, it’s always possible to have too much of a good thing. When Excel becomes embedded in an organisation, it comes at a price. We’ve all witnessed the telltale signs: a random spreadsheet that suddenly becomes the de facto sales report; multiple copies of a spreadsheet which may or may not be identical; secrecy and ring-fencing of data simply because it’s my spreadsheet.

Ultimately, information should be controlled, exploited and shared across the business to maximise its potential. Excel is a fantastic piece of software, but when it starts to morph from a desktop productivity tool into an enterprise reporting system, we have a big issue on our hands.

Information Asphyxiation

Question #5: Do you get frustrated that you can’t always find the information you need to help you make the right business decisions?

Poor information provision strangles an organisation. Accurate, timely information is as important to a business as clean, plentiful oxygen is to life. Take it away and the result is the same.

Of course, during favourable economic times, the effect isn’t as rapid or as dramatic – organisations can (and do) survive in spite of their information deficiencies. They prosper because everyone is prospering. However, when the economic cycle reaches a downturn, it’s a very different story. As businesses struggle to respond to the changing market conditions, the differentiators quickly become apparent. Those that had previously survived with little or no effective business intelligence suddenly realise they are hopelessly ill-prepared for the blizzard ahead.

So to keep your organisation fighting fit, take a holistic approach to Information Management. Understand your data architecture, take a proactive approach to data quality, assess your master data management challenges, and reduce your reliance on spreadsheets by providing the right information to the right people at the right time. But more than anything, listen to what your staff are telling you. They might just stop your business being blown apart by the Information Timebomb.

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Jon Evans is a Principal Business Consultant at IPL, a leading UK IT services company specialising in the delivery of intelligent business solutions. Over the past 18 years he has helped a wide range of high profile clients exploit the full potential of their information. With a wealth of experience gained across a variety of sectors, Jon is a highly regarded Information Management expert and regularly speaks at industry events. In the field of data quality, he was the lead consultant within the Audit Commission’s Payment by Results Data Assurance Framework, where he played a key role in the application of sophisticated statistical techniques to identify anomalies within acute health data. He is currently helping the NHS Information Centre develop an even wider Data Quality Assurance Framework, covering all areas of health and social care.