First, Do No Harm:  Commentary from Gwen Thomas
Data, Dams. and the Mighty Mississippi

As a professional working with data, content, documents, and governance, I've heard every reason in the book why it's just not possible to solve information problems.

Every company knows it is unique. Every company knows its information problems - whether they are data pollution, data overflow, data scarcity, or data sourcing - are a result of its unique combination of cultural, environmental, and business issues. Unfortunately, too many believe their information problems are too complex to correct.

When I work with groups who express feelings of hopelessness regarding their data, I try to help them reframe the problem. Here's one way.

Pretend, I say, that your data is a river flowing through the organization. You have a lot of data. You have production systems feeding water - data - into your enterpise. Day after day, more and more water feeds the river. It starts out in many little trickles. It comes together to form streams, and eventually it becomes a powerful river.

Now picture trash floating in your river. What do you do?

Chances are you noticed the trash while you were looking over the river down in New Orleans. The water was moving fast, and the banks were so far apart you could hardly see details on the other side. But you couldn't miss the trash floating down the river. There's a lot of it, and that just won't do. You must remove the trash before it gets to the ocean. But how?

There are just a few of you. Maybe you could pull in some more bodies for a short while, but clearly that wouldn't be enough to take care of the problem. Whether there are a few people or a hundred grabbing at the trash, it would be suicide to swim out into that raging river.

What about using boats? You could lean over and scoop out the trash. But no, that wouldn't work - there's just too much.

Maybe if you had a mile-wide net stretched from shore to shore. But it would have to be a very strong net to withstand the current. And it's not like anyone makes nets that big, so you'd have to have a pricey custom job. And it's not like you have a budget for one, or people who know how to work one, or a plan to roll it out across the river.

Wait - that won't work, anyway. Boats have to move up and down the river. You can't block the river. What will you do?

Clear your head. Step back, and take a few steps north. Take a few more, and then many, many more. Follow the mightly Mississippi north to its headwaters. As the river gets narrower and narrower, you can see where the trash is falling in the water. The river has split into many little creeks, so your group of trash-cleaners has split up, too.

One of your colleagues lets out a shout. Here's part of the problem! A little stream is flowing right through a dump, pulling trash into the water. You assess the situation. You could clean up the dump, but it looks like the locals might just trash it up again soon. So you and your colleague get out your shovels and some sandbags and a few two-by-fours. Before too long, you've diverted the stream around the dump. The water flows clean.

Soon your small band of trash-cleaners reconvenes. You share stories of how you plucked trash out of the water. Then you share stories of how you kept trash from ever entering the water.

You realize how special you are, and how valuable. You are stewards of the river. You vow to do what it takes to make sure that someone - even if it's not you - keeps monitoring the headwaters for new problems. You share ways to arrange schedules so someone can drop in to shore up the dams you've built, clean out the nets, and change filters before they become ineffective.

On your journey home, your group is quite a sight. Look at what you're carrying along! Tennis rackets, butterfly nets, air conditioner filters, and kitchen collanders. Each of you has found everyday tools that you can use to filter out trash before it ever gets into deep water.

You get back to New Orleans, and you look across the river. What a difference! You notice a little trash is in the water, but nothing like there was before. A few speedboats with fishnets can take care of it.

The water is still raging, but you are happy. Everyone is happy, except the vendor that was hoping to sell you the mile-wide net. But that's a different story, for a different day.

Gwen Thomas has been the Sarbanes-Oxley Practice Lead for CIBER, Inc.,a leading international systems integrato and is currently a principal for Data Governance, Inc. A frequent speaker at industry conferences, she is known for helping IT and Business leaders demystify complex information problems while applying standard, repeatable solutions. Write to her at [email protected].
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