Bumps in the Road

Bumps in the road

The above image appears in my updated [1] seminar deck Data Management, Analytics and People: An Eternal Golden Braid. It is featured on a slide titled “Why Data Management? – The negative case” [2]. So what was the point that I was so keen to make?

Well the whole slide looks like this…

Why Data Management? (Click to view a full-size version as a PDF in a new window).

…and the image on the left relates most directly to the last item of bulleted text on the right-hand side [3].
 
 
An Introductory Anecdote

Roadworks

Before getting into the meat of this article, an aside which may illuminate where I am coming from. I currently live in London, a city where I was born and to which I returned after a sojourn in Cambridge while my wife completed her PhD. Towards the end of my first period in London, we lived on a broad, but one-way road in West London. One day we received notification that the road was going to be resurfaced and moving our cars might be a useful thing to consider. The work was duly carried out and our road now had a deep black covering of fresh asphalt [4], criss-crossed by gleaming and well-defined dashed white lines demarking parking bays. Within what seemed like days, but was certainly no more than a few weeks, roadworks signs reappeared on our road, together with red and white fencing, a digger and a number of people with pneumatic drills [5] and shovels. If my memory serves me well, it was the local water company (Thames Water) who visited our road first.

The efforts of the Thames Water staff, while no doubt necessary and carried out professionally, rather spoiled our pristine road cover. I guess these things happen and coordination between local government, private firms and the sub-contractors that both employ cannot be easy [6]. However what was notable was that things did not stop with Thames Water. Over the next few months the same stretch of road was also dug up by both the Electricity and Gas utilities. There was a further set of roadworks on top of these, but my memory fails me on which organisation carried these out and for what purpose [7]; we are talking about events that occurred over eight years ago here.

More roadworks

The result of all this uncoordinated work was a previously pristine road surface now pock-marked by a series of new patches of asphalt, or maybe other materials; they certainly looked different and (as in the above photo) had different colours and grains. Several of these patches of new road covering overlapped each other; that is one hole redug sections previously excavated by earlier holes. Also the new patches of road surface were often either raised or depressed from the main run of asphalt, leading to a very uneven terrain. I have no idea how much it cost to repave the road in the first instance, but a few months of roadworks pretty much buried the repaving and led to a road whose surface was the opposite of smooth and consistent. I’d go so far as to say that the road was now in considerably worse condition than before the initial repaving. In any case, it could be argued that the money spent on the repaving was, for all intents and purposes, wasted.

After all this activity, our road was somewhat similar to the picture at the top of this article, but its state was much worse with more extensive patching and more overlapping layers. To this day I rather wish I had taken a photograph, which would also have saved me some money on stock photos!

I understand that each of the roadworks was in support of something that was probably desirable. For example, better sewerage, or maintenance to gas supplies which might otherwise have become dangerous. My assumption is that all of the work that followed on from the repaving needed to be done and that each was done at least as well as it had to be. Probably most of these works were completed on time and on budget. However, from the point of view of the road as a whole, the result of all these unconnected and uncoordinated works was a substantial deterioration in both its appearance and utility.
Lots of good can equal bad (for certain values of 'good')
In summary, the combination of a series of roadworks, each of which either needed to be done or led to an improvement in some area, resulted in the environment in which they were carried out becoming degraded and less fit-for-purpose. A series of things which could be viewed as beneficial in isolation were instead deleterious in aggregate. At this point, the issue that I wanted to highlight in the data world is probably swimming into focus for many readers.
 
 
The Entropy of a Data Asset exposed to Change tends to a Maximum [8]

Entropy

Returning to the slide I reproduce above, my assertion – which has been borne out during many years of observing the area – is that Change Programmes and Projects, if not subject to appropriately rigorous Data Governance, inevitably led to the degradation of data assets over time.

Here both my roadworks anecdote and the initial photograph illustrate the point that I am looking to make. Over the last decade or so, the delivery of technological change has evolved [9] to the point where many streams of parallel work are run independently of each other with each receiving very close management scrutiny in order to ensure delivery on-time and on-budget [10]. It should be recognised that some of this shift in modus operandi has been as a result of IT departments running projects that have spiralled out of control, or where delivery has been significantly delayed or compromised. The gimlet-like focus of Change on delivery “come Hell or High-water” represents the pendulum swinging to the other extreme.

Pendulum

What this shift in approach means in practice is that – as is often the case – when things go wrong or take longer than anticipated [11], areas of work are de-scoped to secure delivery dates. In my experience, 9 times out of 10 one of the things that gets thrown out is data-related work; be that not bothering to develop reporting on top of new systems, not integrating new data into existing repositories, not complying with data standards, or not implementing master data management.

As well as the danger of skipping necessary data related work, if some data-related work is actually undertaken, then corners may be cut to meet deadlines and budgets. It is not atypical for instance that a Change Programme, while adding their new capabilities to interfaces or ETL, compromises or overwrites existing functionality. This can mean that data-centric code is in a worse state after a Change Programme than before. My roadworks anecdote begins to feel all too apt a metaphor to employ.

Looking more broadly at Change Programmes, even without the curse of de-scopes, their focus is seldom data and the expertise of Change staff is not often in data matters. Because of this, such work can indeed seem to be analogous to continually digging up the same stretch of road for different purposes, combined with patching things up again in a manner that can sometimes be barely adequate. Extending our metaphor [12], the result of Change that is not controlled from a data point of view can be a landscape with lumps, bumps and pot-holes. Maybe the sewer was re-laid on time and to budget, but the road has been trashed in the process. Perhaps a new system was shoe-horned in to production, but rendered elements of an Analytical Repository useless in the process.

Data Governance (well actually Bank Governance, Data Governance involves less impressive facades)

Avoiding these calamities is the central role of Data Governance. What these examples also stress is that, rather than the dry, policy-based area that Data Governance is often assumed to be, it must be more dynamic and much more engaged in Change Portfolios. Such engagement should ideally be early and in a helpful manner, not late and in a policing role.

The analogy I have employed here also explains why leveraging existing Governance arrangements to add in a Data Governance dimension seldom works. This would be like asking the contractors engaged in roadworks to be extra careful to liaise with each other. This won’t work as there is no real incentive for such collaboration, the motivation of getting their piece of work done quickly and cheaply will trump other considerations. Instead some independent oversight is required. Like any good “regulator” this will work best if Data Governance professionals seek to be part of the process and focus on improving it. The alternative of simply pointing out problems after the fact adds much less business value.
 
 
And Finally

Sherlock

In A Study in Scarlet John Watson reads an article, which turns out to have been written by his illustrious co-lodger. A passage is as follows:

“From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.”

While I don’t claim to have the same acuity of mind as Conan-Doyle’s most famous creation, I can confirm that you can learn a lot about the need for Data Governance by simply closely observing the damage done by roadworks.
 


 Notes

 
[1]
 
I have updated my latest deck to use a different photo due to a dispute with the company I purchased the original photo from.
 
[2]
 
Which you may be glad to hear is followed directly by one titled “Why Data Management? – The positive case”.
 
[3]
 
It may be noted that I am going through a minimalist phase in my decks for public speaking. Indeed I did toy with having a deck consisting primarily of images before chickening out. Of course one benefit of being text-light is that you can focus on different elements and tell different stories for different audiences (see Presenting in Public).
 
[4]
 
Blacktop.
 
[5]
 
Jackhammers.
 
[6]
 
Indeed sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I was approached by one of the big consultancies about a job on a project to catalogue all proposed roadworks across London in an Oracle database. The objective of this was to better coordinate roadworks. I demurred and I believe that the project was unsuccessful, certainly by the evidence of what happened to our road.
 
[7]
 
It could well have been Thames Water again – the first time sewers, the second household water supply. It might have been British Telecom, but it probably wasn’t a cable company as they had been banned from excavations in Westminster after failing to make good after previous installations.
 
[8]
 
Rudolf Clausius in 1865, with reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
 
[9]
 
As with the last time I used this word (see the notes section of Alphabet Soup) and also as applies with the phenomenon in the narual world, evolution implies change, but not necessarily always improvement.
 
[10]
 
Or perhaps more realistically to ensure that delays are minimised and cost overruns managed downwards.
 
[11]
 
Frequently it must be added because of either insufficient, or the wrong type of up-front analysis, or because a delivery timeframe was agreed based on some external factor rather than on what could practically be delivered in the time available. Oftentimes both factors are present and compound each other. The overall timetable is not based on any concrete understanding of what is to be done and analysis is either curtailed to meet timeframes, or – more insidiously – its findings are massaged to fit the desired milestones.
 
[12]
 
Hopefully not over-extending it.

 

 

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