How to Make Data Quality a Habit in the New Year

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    Yesterday, I shared why organizations will focus on data quality in 2015. Now, I’d like to challenge you to adopt improving data quality as your New Year’s goal.

    You’ll notice that I didn’t say resolution. There will a lot of New Year resolutions broken next week, in part because so many people take an all-or-nothing approach that relies solely on willpower. Given that willpower is a limited resource that actually weakens the more you use it, that’s a poor strategy for change, according to “Making Habits, Breaking Habits,” by Jeremy Dean.

    Habits, on the other hand, are much more resilient. In fact, once you’ve established a habit, you will often perform it without even thinking about it.

    Time and time again, experts caution that data quality isn’t a technology or something you do once. Instead, they describe data quality as a practice that should be ingrained in our regular interactions with the data. In other words: Data quality should be a habit.

    I’m not the only one who thinks this. Dylan Jones, the founder of Data Quality Pro and Data Migration Pro, argued for data quality as a habit back in 2013.

    “Data quality management can only succeed when behaviours are changed, but to change a person’s behaviour requires the formation of new habits,” Jones wrote. “This is where many projects will ultimately fail.”

    Dean’s book is full of research about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to changing habits, but a few struck me as especially relevant to data quality.

    First, he notes that education alone doesn’t seem to change habits. He points to public awareness campaigns about smoking and wearing seat belts, neither of which were particularly effective. In both cases, what eventually worked were consequences — either social or legal — that forced people to re-evaluate the costs of smoking or not wearing a seat belt.

    Second, he says habits aren’t isolated to the person, but are rather created in a social and physical environment.

    “Habits are a result of all these levels interacting,” Dean writes. “We do what we habitually do not just for purely individual reasons, but because of this iceberg of interrelating and mostly hidden factors. What injury prevention experts began to notice was that their efforts couldn’t just target the individual; they needed to target the environment.”


    If Dean’s conclusions are correct — and he has research to back him up — then we can predict that training sessions or even checklists won’t be enough to institutionalize data quality. To ingrain data quality as a habit, you’ll need to:

    • Establish responsibility for data quality with clear consequences (or rewards).
    • Create a culture that values data quality.
    • Integrate data quality into work routines (i.e., the environment) or work flows.

    Jones adds another wise precaution: Focus on building one data quality habit at a time. Dean’s book backs this up with a study that showed bicycle manufacturers who introduced moderate change outperformed companies that adopted either small or extreme change.

    Jones outlines his process for building a data quality habit, and you’ll notice that it actually supports the habit through individual, social and environmental checkpoints:

    1. Document the information chain, which will make it easier to see what needs to change.
    2. Establish data ownership by making people accountable for each stage of the information chain.
    3. Re-engineer the information chain.
    4. Place data quality controls at each junction point of the chain.

    The end results were, he writes “profound and could never have been achieved if they had been implemented in one operation.”
    Now that’s a habit worth pursuing.

    Loraine Lawson is a veteran technology reporter and blogger. She currently writes the Integration blog for IT Business Edge, which covers all aspects of integration technology, including data governance and best practices. She has also covered IT/Business Alignment and IT Security for IT Business Edge. Before becoming a freelance writer, Lawson worked at TechRepublic as a site editor and writer, covering mobile, IT management, IT security and other technology trends. Previously, she was a webmaster at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and a newspaper journalist. Follow Lawson at Google+ and on Twitter.

    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and business issues, including integration, health care IT, cloud and Big Data.

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