I have this recurring sensation that I’m working in two increasingly different universes. Discussions with business managers are different to discussions with IT managers on one hand. On the other, discussions with people who understand web architecture (meaning solutions driven from the user’s perspective) are very different to a discussion with IT folks. It’s not that either side is wrong, they are just standing in the same place and looking in different directions, and that place is data, if you look towards the computers, or information, if you look towards the users.
Let’s start with a relatively old piece of research by Gartner published at the beginning of the year. It’s on their public website so I think I can share it with you. It’s a worldwide survey of more than 1500 CIOs and look at what they said very carefully. Unless I am mistaken every priority on the business side, with the exception of cost cutting, is about front office activity designed to help a business to win customers and grow revenues. Now look at the technology priorities. There are two, possibly three, that match the business priorities, and all the rest focus on the traditional role of IT as a back office cost-reducing mechanism.

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Admittedly this focus is understandable as cost cutting is the number two priority, but how many businesses can honestly say that they have put as much effort into the other side of the requirements? CIOs in the Capgemini survey seem to have been closer to the mark, but the conversation I have just had about data, information and their management and use really makes a very significant point. To understand this point, try thinking of the technology and business stack as having the applications at the bottom and users at the top with data/information in the middle.
Looking up towards the data from the application layer, the need for structured master data management is clear. It’s not cheap to achieve, but those who have got there say that that it was well worth the effort. A key requirement is the role of IT in achieving stable, coherent data to show the enterprise is trading legally and fully compliant. In addition, structured master data, achieved by investing in and building automated systems, is also key to IT fulfilling its role of providing a sustainable advantage in stable trading environments. Investing in getting the data well structured is starting to look like the right move isn’t it?
Now look down on the data or information from above where the user sits. Now the whole point here is that the demands of the user are all based on the use of information in a constantly changing environment. The chance that the structure of master data, as laid out for the IT systems, will fit with these needs is pretty low. The requirement is in fact all about ever changing context to each event. Maybe this can be done by using a different pool of data in an unstructured format, but surely enterprises will want, and need, to be able to draw on all their data? And that means the structured data too.
Suddenly the argument being advanced for semantics to take their place and provide the ability to render data recognisable in any context also makes sense, particularly when considering that these new business requirements are all about providing information to support a constantly changing environment. So we need to be able to use, or see, the same data in two very different ways, and as the business tries to make effective sense of ever changing situations and events, this is going to become more and more obviously a divisive issue. It’s there right now, but just hasn’t become big enough yet to cause real trouble.
That makes getting a better understanding of applied capabilities around semantics important. A further question might be whether some of the new products that claim to produce master data management by semantic means are really useable in the way I have described. Otherwise we really are travelling in two parallel universes and that can only make data management across the enterprise worse. Remember what happened when the PC started to become a dominate user device? Well the first problem was that it generated and used data in a different manner. Let’s not forget the trouble that got us all into!