I bet we've all had at least one similar experience and laughed about it, putting it down to "kids today" or asking "what are the schools teaching now?". But step back for a second and think - should we really be so quick to judge? Take a less critical view and ask what is really happening. The shop assistants are most likely casual employees, which means they spend only a few hours each week in that environment, they don't live and breathe the goods they sell and couldn't tell you the price of a loaf of bread without referring to a price list. While they can do their job and function largely without mistakes if enough boundaries are set and systems provided, when something goes wrong or when the pressure is on they lack the familiarity and deeper understanding which lets them sense when something (e.g. my price) is wrong. Chances are that the math skills of the two casual shop assistants were just fine, it was the lack of context of the individual prices and not yet having a confidence gained from situational familiarity which prevented them from recognizing a problem and speaking out with a different answer than that given by the system.
Is there a parallel between this example and how we work with data in our organizations? I think so! I've certainly heard (on more than one occasion) people from the business bemoaning that IT just don't get it, they don't understand the data. If the IT folks don't work with that data much, only a few hours per week, or in blocks of time many months or years apart, then that's not surprising. Even if they do work on the data more frequently they don't have the context gained from working with the data in the same way the business users do. What's apparent (at least to me) is that this gap in understanding is not the fault of the IT staff. If people don't work with a dataset closely and regularly enough to gain familiarity and understanding then even what are [to others] glaringly obvious mistakes may well go unnoticed. In the same way as the shop manager needs to find a way to better equip her staff to deal with situations like mine, we (as Business and IT Managers) need to find ways to better deal with data centric issues in our organizations. This may happen in a number of ways, for example
- embedding IT staff in the business to have them work with the data and alongside the business users
- having business people take an active and accountable role in data migration projects and not leaving IT staff to make snap judgement calls about the data at the pointy end of a project to hit a go-live date, or
- bringing the idea of data governance into the organisation and getting the business people involved with decisions around the data.
No matter which of these approaches you adopt I think two things should always be present. Firstly don't blame the folks at the coal face, and secondly introduce and promote the idea that data ownership belongs with the business not the IT department. Miss these opportunities and chances are that, just like me with my bread and OJ, at some stage your company will be asked to pay a much higher price than seems reasonable.