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Who Has My Personal Data?


In order to prepare for the cooking gauntlet that often occurs with the end of year holiday season, I decided to purchase a new rotisserie oven.  The folks at Acme Rotisserie include a large amount of documentation with their rotisserie. I reviewed the entire pile and was a bit surprised by the warranty registration card. The initial few questions made sense: serial number, place of purchase, date of purchase, my home address.  The other questions struck me as a bit too inquisitive: number of household occupants, household income, own/rent my residence, marital status, and education level. Obviously, this card was a Trojan horse of sorts; provide registration details –and all kinds of other personal information.  They wanted me to give away my personal information so they could analyze it, sell it, and make money off of it.

Companies collecting and analyzing consumer data isn’t anything new –it’s been going on for decades.  In fact, there are laws in place to protect consumer’s data in quite a few industries (healthcare, telecommunications, and financial services). Most of the laws focus on protecting the information that companies collect based on their relationship with you.  It’s not the just details that you provide to them directly; it’s the information that they gather about how you behave and what you purchase.  Most folks believe behavioral information is more valuable than the personal descriptive information you provide.  The reason is simple: you can offer creative (and highly inaccurate) details about your income, your education level, and the car you drive.  You can’t really lie about your behavior.

I’m a big fan of sharing my information if it can save me time, save me money, or generate some sort of benefit. I’m willing to share my waist size, shirt size, and color preferences with my personal shopper because I know they’ll contact me when suits or other clothing that I like is available at a good price.  I’m fine with a grocer tracking my purchases because they’ll offer me personalized coupons for those products.  I’m not okay with the grocer selling that information to my health insurer.  Providing my information to a company to enhance our relationship is fine; providing my information to a company so they can share, sell, or otherwise unilaterally benefit from it is not fine.  My data is proprietary and my intellectual property.

Clearly companies view consumer data to be a highly valuable asset.  Unfortunately, we’ve created a situation where there’s little or no cost to retain, use, or abuse that information. As abuse and problems have occurred within certain industries (financial services, healthcare, and others), we’ve created legislation to force companies to responsibly invest in the management and protection of that information. They have to contact you to let you know they have your information and allow you to update communications and marketing options. It’s too bad that every company with your personal information isn’t required to behave in the same way.  If data is so valuable that a company retains it, requiring some level of maintenance (and responsibility) shouldn’t be a big deal.

It’s really too bad that companies with copies of my personal information aren’t required to contact me to update and confirm the accuracy of all of my personal details. That would ensure that all of the specialized big data analytics that are being used to improve my purchase experiences were accurate. If I knew who had my data, I could make sure that my preferences were up to date and that the data was actually accurate.

It’s unfortunate that Acme Rotisserie isn’t required to contact me to confirm that I have 14 children, an advanced degree in swimming pool construction, and that I have Red Ferrari in my garage. It will certainly be interesting to see the personalized offers I receive for the upcoming Christmas shopping season.

Role of an Executive Sponsor

It’s fairly common for companies to assign Executive Sponsors to their large projects.  “Large” typically reflects budget size, the inclusion of cross-functional teams, business impact, and complexity.  The Executive Sponsor isn’t the person running and directing the project on a day-to-day basis; they’re providing oversight and direction.  He monitors project progress and ensures that tactics are carried out to support the project’s goals and objectives.  He has the credibility (and authority) to ensure that the appropriate level of attention and resources are available to the project throughout its entire life.

While there’s nearly universal agreement on the importance of an Executive Sponsor, there seems to be limited discussion about the specifics of the role.  Most remarks seem to dwell on the importance on breaking down barriers, dealing with roadblocks, and effectively reacting to project obstacles.  While these details make for good PowerPoint presentations, project success really requires the sponsor to exhibit a combination of skills beyond negotiation and problem resolution to ensure project success.   Here’s my take on some of the key responsibilities of an Executive Sponsor.

Inspire the Stakeholder Audience

Most executives are exceptional managers that understand the importance of dates and budgets and are successful at leading their staff members towards a common goal.  Because project sponsors don’t typically have direct management authority over the project team, the methods for leadership are different.  The sponsor has to communicate, captivate, and engage with the team members throughout all phases of the project.  And it’s important to remember that the stakeholders aren’t just the individual developers, but the users and their management.  In a world where individuals have to juggle multiple priorities and projects, one sure-fire way to maintain enthusiasm (and participation) is to maintain a high-level of sponsor engagement.

Understand the Project’s Benefits

Because of the compartmentalized structure of most organizations, many executives aren’t aware of the details of their peer organizations. Enterprise-level projects enlist an Executive Sponsor to ensure that the project respects (and delivers) benefits to all stakeholders. It’s fairly common that any significantly sized project will undergo scope change (due to budget challenges, business risks, or execution problems).  Any change will likely affect the project’s deliverables as well as the perceived benefits to the different stakeholders. Detailed knowledge of project benefits is crucial to ensure that any change doesn’t adversely affect the benefits required by the stakeholders.

Know the Project’s Details

Most executives focus on the high-level details of their organization’s projects and delegate the specifics to the individual project manager.  When projects cross organizational boundaries, the executive’s tactics have to change because of the organizational breadth of the stakeholder community. Executive level discussions will likely cover a variety of issues (both high-level and detailed).  It’s important for the Executive Sponsor to be able to discuss the brass tacks with other executives; the lack of this knowledge undermines the sponsor’s credibility and project’s ability to succeed.

Hold All Stakeholders Accountable

While most projects begin with everyone aligned towards a common goal and set of tactics, it’s not uncommon for changes to occur. Most problems occur when one or more stakeholders have to adjust their activities because of an external force (new priorities, resource contention, etc.). What’s critical is that all stakeholders participate in resolving the issue; the project team will either succeed together or fail together. The sponsor won’t solve the problem; they will facilitate the process and hold everyone accountable.

Stay Involved, Long Term

The role of the sponsor isn’t limited to supporting the early stages of a project (funding, development, and deployment); it continues throughout the life of the project.  Because most applications have a lifespan of no less than 7 years, business changes will drive new business requirements that will drive new development.  The sponsor’s role doesn’t diminish with time – it typically expands.

The overall responsibility set of an Executive Sponsor will likely vary across projects. The differences in project scope, company culture, business process, and staff resources across individual projects inevitably affect the role of the Executive Sponsor. What’s important is that the Executive Sponsor provides both strategic and tactical support to ensure a project is successful. An Executive Sponsor is more than the project’s spokesperson; they’re the project CEO that has equity in the project’s outcome and a legitimate responsibility for seeing the project through to success.

Photo “American Alligator Crossing the Road at Canaveral National 
Seashore”courtesy of Photomatt28 (Matthew Paulson) via Flickr 
(Creative Commons license).

The Formula for Analytics Success: Data Knowledge

Companies spend a small fortune continually investing and reinvesting in making their business analysts self-sufficient with the latest and greatest analytical tools. Most companies have multiple project teams focused on delivering tools to simplify and improve business decision making. There are likely several standard tools deployed to support the various data analysis functions required across the enterprise: canned/batch reports, desktop ad hoc data analysis, and advanced analytics. There’s never a shortage of new and improved tools that guarantee simplified data exploration, quick response time, and greater data visualization options, Projects inevitably include the creation of dozens of prebuilt screens along with a training workshop to ensure that the users understand all of the new whiz bang features associated with the latest analytic tool incarnation.  Unfortunately, the biggest challenge within any project isn’t getting users to master the various analytical functions; it’s ensuring the users understand the underlying data they’re analyzing.

If you take a look at the most prevalent issue with the adoption of a new business analysis tool is the users’ knowledge of the underlying data.  This issue becomes visible with a number of common problems:  the misuse of report data, the misunderstanding of business terminology, and/or the exaggeration of inaccurate data.  Once the credibility or usability of the data comes under scrutiny, the project typically goes into “red alert” and requires immediate attention. If ignored, the business tool quickly becomes shelfware because no one is willing to take a chance on making business decisions based on risky information.

All too often the focus on end user training is tool training, not data training. What typically happens is that an analyst is introduced to the company’s standard analytics tool through a “drink from a fire hose” training workshop.  All of the examples use generic sales or HR data to illustrate the tool’s strengths in folding, spindling, and manipulating the data.  And this is where the problem begins:  the vendor’s workshop data is perfect.  There’s no missing or inaccurate data and all of the data is clearly labeled and defined; classes run smoothly, but it just isn’t reality  Somehow the person with no hands-on data experience is supposed to figure out how to use their own (imperfect) data. It’s like someone taking their first ski lesson on a cleanly groomed beginner hill and then taking them up to the top of an a black diamond (advanced) run with step hills and moguls.  The person works hard but isn’t equipped to deal with the challenges of the real world.  So, they give up on the tool and tell others that the solution isn’t usable.

All of the advanced tools and manipulation capabilities don’t do any good if the users don’t understand the data. There are lots of approaches to educating users on data.  Some prefer to take a bottom-up approach (reviewing individual table and column names, meanings, and values) while others want to take a top-down approach (reviewing subject area details, the associated reports, and then getting into the data details).  There are certainly benefits of one approach over the other (depending on your audience); however, it’s important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: giving the users the fundamental data knowledge they need to make decisions.  The fundamentals that most users need to understand their data include a review of

The above details may seem a bit overwhelming if you consider that most companies have mature reporting environments and multi-terabyte data warehouses.  However, we’re not talking about training someone to be an expert on 1000 data attributes contained within your data warehouse; we’re talking about ensuring someone’s ability to use an initial set of reports or a new tool without requiring 1-on-1 training.  It’s important to realize that the folks with the greatest need for support and data knowledge are the newbies, not the experienced folks.

There are lots of options for imparting data knowledge to business users:  a hands-on data workshop, a set of screen videos showing data usage examples, or a simple set of web pages containing definitions, textual descriptions, and screen shots. Don’t get wrapped up in the complexities of creating the perfect solution – keep it simple.  I worked with a client that deployed their information using a set of pages constructed with PowerPoint that folks could reference in a the company’s intranet. If your users have nothing – don’t’ worry about the perfect solution – give them something to start with that’s easy to use.

Remember that the goal is to build users’ data knowledge that is sufficient to get them to adopt and use the company’s analysis tools.  We’re not attempting to convert everyone into data scientists; we just want them to use the tools without requiring 1-on-1 training to explain every report or data element.

Photo courtesy of NASA.  Nasa Ames Research Center engineer H Julian “Harvey” Allen illustrating data knowledge (relating to capsule design for the Mercury program)

Data Governance: Managing Data as an Asset


20121029 GoldBullionI always find it interesting when people pile onto the company’s latest and most popular project or initiative. People love to gravitate to whatever is new and sexy within the company, regardless of what they’re working on or their current responsibilities. There never seems to be a shortage of the “bright shiny object” syndrome – you know, organizational ADHD.  This desire to jump on the band wagon often positions individuals with limited experience to own and drive activities they don’t fully understand. The world of data governance is rife with supporters and promoters that are thrilled to be involved, but a bit unprepared to participate and execute.  It’s like loading a gun and pulling the trigger before aiming – you’ll make a lot of noise and likely miss the target.  If only folks spent a bit of time educating others about the meaning and purpose of data governance before they got started.

Let me first offer up some definitions from a few reputable sources…

“Data governance is a set of processes that ensures that important data assets are formally managed throughout the enterprise” (Wikipedia)

“The process by which an organization formalizes the ‘fiduciary duty’ for the management of data assets”  (Forrester Research)

 “…the overall management of the availability, usability, integrity, and security of the data employed in an enterprise” (TechTarget)

For those of you that have experience with data governance, the above definitions are unlikely to be much of a surprise.  For the other 99%, there’s likely to be some head scratching. I actually think most folks that haven’t been indoctrinated to the religion of data have just assumed that data governance is simply a new incarnation of yesterday’s data quality or metadata discussion.  That probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise; the discussion of data inaccuracy and data dictionaries has gotten so much air time over the past 30 years, the typical business user probably feels brainwashed when they hear anything with “data” in the title.  I actually think that Data Governance may win the prize for being among the most misunderstood concepts within Information Technology.

Data governance is a very simple concept.  Data Governance is about establishing the processes for accessing and sharing data and resolving conflict when the processes don’t work.

A Data Governance initiative is really about instilling the concept of managing data as a corporate asset. Companies have standard methods and processes for asset management: your Procurement group has a slew of rules and processes to support the purchasing of office supplies; the HR organization has rules and guidelines for hiring and managing staff; and the finance organization follows “generally accepted accounting principles” to handle managing the company’s fixed and financial assets.  Unfortunately, what we don’t have is a set of generally accepted principles for data. This is what data governance establishes.

The reason that you see the term process in nearly every definition of data governance is that until you establish and standardize data related processes, you’ll never get any of the work done. Getting started with data governance isn’t about establishing a committee – it’s about identifying the goals and identifying the policies and processes that will direct the work activities. You can’t be successful in managing an asset if everyone has their own rules and methods for accessing, manipulating, and using the asset.  This isn’t rocket science – geez – the world of ERP implementations and even business reengineering projects learned this concept more than 10 years ago.

The reason to manage data as a corporate asset is to ensure that business activities that require data are able to use and access data in a simple, uniform, consistent manner.  Unfortunately, in the era of search engines, content indexing, data warehouses, and the Cloud,  finding and acquiring data to support a new business need can be painful, time consuming, and expensive.  Everyone has their own terms, their own private data stash, and their own rules dictating who is and isn’t allowed to access data.  This isn’t corporate asset management– this is corporate asset chaos.  A data governance initiative is one of the best ways to get started in managing data as a corporate asset.

The Flaw of the Data Inventory

Grecian Urn 2

Back when I was applying to college, I’d read over college catalogs. Inevitably, each university would mention the number of books it had in its library. When I finally went to college, I realized that this metric was fairly meaningless. A dozen volumes on Grecian pottery did me no good when I was in search of a book on polymers for my mechanical engineering class.

Clients will often ask us to scope a “data inventory” project, inevitably focused on identifying and describing all the data elements contained across their different application systems. Recently a new CIO asked us to head up a “tiger team” to inventory his company’s data. He was surprised at the quantity of information needs that had been sent his way. As expected, he inquired about systems of record and data dictionaries. As you can imagine, he received multiple and conflicting answers which only exacerbated his confusion.

As a point of reference, well-known ERP systems can have in excess of 50,000 discrete data elements in their databases (never mind that some aren’t in English). As I’ve written in the past, many of these data elements have no use outside of the application itself.

Having terabyte upon terabyte of information is equally irrelevant if that data is unrelated to current business issues. The problem with a data inventory activity is that identifying and counting data elements in different systems and applications won’t necessarily solve any problems. Why? Because data across applications and packages is inconsistent: there are different names, definitions, and values, and there is no practical means of determining which data they actually have in common. This is like going to the hardware store and looking for a specific screw, but all the different screws are in one big barrel—you end up having to pick through each screw, one at time. When you find the screw, you just throw all the other screws back into the barrel.

The point of a data inventory isn’t to pick through data because it exists, but to inventory the data people actually need. If you’re going to undertake a data inventory, your output should be structured so that the next person doesn’t have to repeat your work.  Identify the data that is moving across various systems, as this indicates key information that’s being shared. Categorize this data by subject area. You’ll inevitably find that there are inconsistent versions of the data, enabling you to identify data disparities. You can then begin to develop a catalog of key corporate data that will form the basis of your data dictionary.

Inventorying the data that moves between systems accomplishes two things: it identifies the most valuable data elements in use, and it will also help identify data that’s not high-value, as it’s not being shared or used. This approach also provides a way to tackle initial data quality efforts by identifying the most “active” data used by the business. It ultimately helps the data management team understand where to focus its efforts, and prioritize accordingly.

So next time someone suggests a data inventory without context or objectives, consider sending them to college to study Grecian urns.

SOA Mandates Data Management

By Evan Levy

I've always said that the focus on SOA is too much on the "A" for "architecture." The whole idea of SOA is to define application functions and services that need to be accessible to other systems. Prior to SOA, it was always hairy to move data from one system to another.

 But everyone thinks that SOA is an integration framework. In fact it's a means of remotely accessing other systems and their related information without having to know the details. For instance, I don't need to know how my cell phone number was assigned; I just need to remember that number so I can share it with my friends.

As I've said before, SOA is the evolutionary result of all the middleware companies trying to convince us to buy their hardware-independent products. SOA's ability to business flexibility today is just as remote as the code objects of decade ago promising to make business more nimble. SOA isn't a business term. It's a technical term for technical people to focus on re-use, standard parts, and standardized processes.

Companies turning to SOA are looking for the holy grail. Consider the emergence of the term "SOA governance" to address the conundrum of SOA development planning. The core issue is how to simplify developers' work in building applications without having to understand the technical details and obstacles in between. Just because I have advanced features and functions doesn't mean I don't still have to focus on software development fundamentals. Design reviews, code re-use, and development standards still matter.

The real challenge with implementing any kind of web service, or defining services that can be re-used, is in ensuring that the data they are dependent on is well-defined. Unfortunately there is no such thing as a business process that is data-independent. Until you've standardized your data, which means implementing data management and maintaining data in a sustainable way, you can't have re-usable services. Period.

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