Information trumps technology

A friend of mine has worked at the same company for over 25 years. It’s rare nowadays indeed, but my friend is special to the organization. She is not the company’s CEO nor its CIO. She is not a partner and she is not in a highly visible position outside of the company. The company has been around for over 50 years. It is multinational and you’d recognize the name if I told you. The company has been through many changes. Its fortunes have risen and fallen in concert with the tides of the marketplace. This company has had its share of layoffs, but my friend has survived the cuts, for better or for worse. The company she works for has always tried to stay on top of the technology required to manage the incredible amounts of data that it collects, and as part of that effort, it has seen many iterations of application development, implementation and system retirement. Yet, through it all, my friend remains at this organization because her expertise lies not with the technology, but with the organization’s business model and its data.

Over the course of several changes to the primary application that manages this company’s information, IT managers, programmers, contractors, CIOs and analysts whose specialties lie with ancillary, supportive systems, have come and gone many times over. Technologies have been promoted as the next best thing only to be overthrown by the next, next best thing. Each time this company changes the application interface between user and data, the data remains the same. While it may require reformatting to meet the new database structure, the data must retain its same meaning as much as possible. The data is this company’s core asset. This company is nothing without its data, despite what its high-powered partners might believe.

Back to my friend. Throughout all of these transitions, her knowledge of the data’s structure, history and nuances have proven critical to business continuity. While data has meaning in and of itself, it also represents in subtle ways, the evolution of corporate process, and the decisions that had to be made regarding the value of information, limited by the technologies that were available at the time the data was first collected, as well as the policies that were in place at various points in the company’s history. Over a period of 40 plus years of data collection, the data from acquired companies was integrated into the main database. For example, everyone collects name, address and phone number; but field names and the structure of the name, address and phone number fields may be different between systems. Along the way, compromises have to be made. Sometimes data doesn’t exactly fit. It fits enough to do the job, but the databases themselves do not have an “awareness” of these nuances. As people develop queries to run against the data, allowances can be made, but the key here is people. Only people with knowledge of the past compromises know that when data from acquired company “X” was imported, an asterisk was added to a certain field to indicate that it was part of that acquisition. This is a simple example, but multiplied over time, with many variances, data begins to lose the kind of structured purity that allows meaningful extraction of information or knowledge.

The point here is that my friend, who knows the history of the data, its nuances, the reasoning behind seemingly arbitrary variances, mentally maintains second-degree meta-data (data about the data) that cannot be easily “re-invested” into the database. Technology can change. Business processes can change. But the information moved around as part of that business process remains key to what they intend to accomplish. The information, the data, remains independent of the technology. Without strict data formatting standards, data will always be somewhat contaminated.

This company, for whom my friend works, knows the value of her knowledge about the data, which transcends the technologies used to store, exchange and process it. That’s why she’s been there 25 years. In healthcare, we must ensure that policies don’t put technology on a pedestal that stands higher than that of the data, because what we can and hope to accomplish through the use of information technology depends, in the end, on the data we manage about medicine, and what we know about it.

-Rod Piechowski

© 2010, Rod Piechowski, Inc.

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