Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why IT Can't See 2 Plus 2 Doesn't Equal 5 (And Why It's Not Their Fault)

How do a loaf of bread and a small bottle of orange juice lead to a blog post about data? Here's how. Last week I bought (or at least tried to buy) a $4 loaf of bread and a $2 orange juice. The young lady (a trainee, according to her badge) behind the counter cheerfully informed me that it would be $27.60 and seemed a little taken aback when I asked if she was sure about the price. She assured me it was right and even went so far as to turn her monitor around to show me - "See, there it is!". Risking the chance of becoming the customer from hell, I pushed my claim that the price was wrong. Another staff member (herself probably not old enough to have left school) was called to assist and tried her best to educate the problem customer - "Look, the computer says that's what it is, so that's what it costs". It took me leaving the goods on the counter and turning to walk out to have the duty manager come over and straight away see the problem and charge me the correct price.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Scott

    Great post. Only thing I would add is that ALL THREE of your suggested solutions should be in place at all times.

    IT should never operate in isolation from the business (and vice versa) and data governance must come from WITHIN the business and not have to be imposed on it.