At my house we're big fans of Where's Waldo, a series of books in which you try to find a goofy-looking guy wearing a striped shirt and specs. Easy, right? The catch is, he's hiding in plain sight in an incredibly dense crowd.
Many organizations have a similar problem with their data. As they accumulate more of it -- at a compound annual growth rate of about 60 percent, reckons IDC -- it gets harder and harder to find the information they need. The problem is compounded when bad data isn't purged from systems.
There's an effective illustration of the problem in this MSNBC story that details the federal government's efforts to get an accurate count of steel deck truss bridges in the U.S. following the catastrophic collapse of one such bridge in Minnesota. Officials discovered that nearly 300 of the 756 steel deck truss bridges listed in the National Bridge Inventory database weren't that type of bridge at all. Sixteen of the bridges no longer existed. Another 11 were privately-owned and thus not subject to federal inspection.
Showing a flair for understatement, Thomas Everett, the team leader of the Federal Highway Administration's bridge program, wrote in a slide show presented to safety experts that the data "is not as good as we thought." The government apparently was trying to develop a system that would allow field experts to access the database via handheld computers, but the project was shelved due to lack of funds. While that system is on hold, Everett says numerous steps are being taken to improve data quality.
While this story contains elements of mismanagement all too commonly found in public agencies, data disorganization is a problem for many private companies as well. A strategy+business article discusses Whirlpool's efforts to create a "muscular content-management system" its engineers could use to find information on the components that go into its thousands of products.
When engineers searching for information during product development projects got thousands of hits, they'd often design a new part rather than sifting through all the data, says Dana Nickerson, Whirlpool's director of global business process management for corporate technology. And product development wasn't the only process at Whirlpool that demanded knowledge of parts. Says Nickerson:
Every activity that involves parts -- supplier rationalization, strategic sourcing, part recycling -- requires detailed knowledge about all the parts and components you use. What we realized was that we couldn't use what we couldn't find.
At Whirlpool, as at many other companies, this knowledge is contained in a ragtag assortment of legacy systems and outdated proprietary applications. As described in the article, Nickerson's challenge is designing a system that can capture, store and integrate data from diverse sources, but that possesses a hierarchy flexible enough to allow some user modification. Among the biggest challenges he's encountered so far: coming up with a taxonomy used to describe parts and creating a search tool that delivers results even when a user may not be exactly sure what he or she is seeking.