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LESSON - With Data, the Whole Is More than the Sum of Its Parts

Excerpt from The Data Asset: How Smart Companies Govern Their Data for Business Success, a SAS Business Series book by Tony Fisher, forthcoming from John Wiley & Sons in July 2009

Many organizations find they cannot rely on the information that serves as the very foundation of their business. Unreliable data—whether about customers, products, or suppliers—hinders understanding and hurts the bottom line. It seems a rather simple concept: Better data leads to better decisions, which ultimately leads to better business. So why don’t executives take data quality and data governance more seriously?

In my experience, this lack of attention to data severely and negatively impacts numerous organizations. We all need to understand that we are seeing a shift in the way we think about and treat data. Successful organizations are moving from a focus on producing data to a focus on consuming data.

For most organizations, this journey is just beginning. And for many, this journey begins with education built on a solid data foundation.

In organizations today, data is typically somebody else’s problem—until something bad happens. The CEO of a plumbing manufacturer learned this the hard way a few years ago. One of his major manufacturing plants burned to the ground, and he was eager to immediately inform customers of the situation. The CEO asked for a list of products that were expected to be manufactured in the destroyed plant and a list of customers that were expecting delivery.

This CEO, like any chief executive, undoubtedly believed this information was a readily available corporate asset. In the era of business applications like enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and data warehouses, it should have been a simple request. It wasn’t.

The finance department provided a list of everybody who had bought something, but that department didn’t know the product delivery schedule. The sales office knew of every customer and what they had purchased, but not where the products would be manufactured. The manufacturing plant had a delivery list of what to produce, but not a full inventory of what was in the production pipeline.

Of course, the closest thing to what the CEO needed—the delivery list—was destroyed in the fire. Eventually, the IT department cobbled together an incomplete list and presented this to the CEO. Predictably, the CEO became frustrated. In the end, he decided data wasn’t such a dull topic after all; it was integral to his business. A quote from the philosopher Aristotle sums up what the CEO—and this entire organization—learned from the experience: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The sum of the data in the individual systems did not accurately depict the whole of the business.

Aristotle was one of the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers and is still considered one of the most visionary thinkers of all time. As a pioneer in the field of metaphysics, Aristotle sought to develop a method of reasoning that would help in learning as much as possible about an entity.

While most discussions about data do not start with philosophical references, it is important to note that the crux of Aristotle’s philosophy applies to most enterprises. Exhaustive efforts at studying, cataloging, and accessing information led Aristotle to the observation that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Like Aristotle’s quest to know and understand, data management is about learning everything there is to know about your organization—and more specifically, learning everything there is to know about the data that is required to run your organization.

For a free white paper on this topic, click here and choose the title “The Three Key Phases for Data Migration—and Beyond.”

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