ICT Commitment-Creep & Organisational Schizophrenia

By Martin Erasmuson.

The last couple of years has seen many organisations around the world establishing executive-level Chief Data Officers (CDO).  In making those appointments, perhaps those organisations are realising (finally) that their decades-long preoccupation with technology, at the expense of their data, has left them with significant ‘data-debt’?  And further, that data-debt is having a drag-effect, a negative impact on their plans to join the digital transformation wave sweeping the planet.

The bad-data-trifecta consisting of - 1) prolonged and ineffective data strategy; 2) poor data culture and literacy; leading to 3) data-debt - is the perfect storm to manifest organisational schizophrenia! 

Schizophrenia sufferers typically have a 'sensory gating deficit’ i.e., impaired neurological processes for filtering out redundant or unnecessary stimuli.  For schizophrenics, everything hits them at once, at the same volume which overwhelms their cognitive ability to figure out what they should be paying attention to; and what to ignore.  Does that sound familiar? 

Many organisations suffer the same symptoms i.e. their information infrastructure which does, or should consist of the various organisational, strategic, policy, process and financial arrangements necessary to plan for and provide ready discovery and access to relevant information, are inadequate in responding to the perfect storm of an ever-changing business environment and a tsunami of information.  And so, like the schizophrenia sufferer, organisations get overwhelmed as they struggle to figure out what they should be paying attention to; and what to ignore.

Above I introduced the bad-data-trifecta.  Add to that a decades-long technology commitment-creep.

What is commitment creep?

We’ll all have friends or acquaintances in a long-term de facto relationship, possibly with kids and a mortgage.  If you roll back the clock, that relationship likely started with a chance meeting at a bar or social gathering; then a date; a second date; sleeping together; a toothbrush at each other’s house; then a microwave; buying a sofa together; then a bassinette!!#%!; and finally, a mortgage…..…that’s ‘commitment-creep’.  You end up committed, but there was never a time when you made a conscious decision to commit.

Commitment-creep is an appropriate description of many organisations de facto-relationship relationship with their information and communications technology infrastructure.  The was no overarching strategy, it just crept up on them, and before they knew it, they have dozens (hundreds) of systems and applications which they find themselves committed to.  And it all started a bit like that initial bar meeting with the couple I mention above.  Let’s quickly unpack how that happened with a quick 50-year ICT recap.

Back in the 1960s there was the data store, magnetic tapes with files stored on a mainframe and the hard-copy ‘print-out’.  There was no real distinction between data and information because data and the process to extract it were the same application.

In the 1970s the first relational data models appeared meaning for the first time you could separate different information from the source data.  With structured query language (SQL), different applications could access the same data.  Into the 1970s and 1980s, relational databases on a mainframe become best practice.  So far so good!

Into the 80s, data management began to go awry with the release of applications like ‘Vulcan’ (later re-released as dBASE II), followed by Microsoft ‘Omega’ (later becoming Access).  This pivotal turning point in data management seems to have happened without much thought of the consequences as users with only a passing technical ability began creating their own personalised databases filled with all manner of new, copied or modified corporate data.

Into the 90s ICT architectures focused almost exclusively on desktop PCs. As more applications moved to the desktop, the data followed.  As silos of systems and information proliferated on every server and every desktop, issues of data management were forgotten. 

While IT departments continued to manage the main databases, no one had a clue who had made copies; who had created new data; how, when or if it was being updated.  As network servers fill up with a myriad of data, the typical response was to keep installing cheap disk space to keep pace.

Into the 00s, 10s and 20s, virtual servers and the cloud - with every conceivable “(any letter of the alphabet here) as a Service” (XaaS) offering - didn’t help, they just created yet another data store for corporate data.

Add to that the global explosion of information and content, and we find every organisation drowning in information; with a poor understanding of the data they need to support their critical organisational objectives; or where and how it is managed.

Time to tune into ‘RealityFM’?

High-performing economies employ high-performing economists i.e. people who can ‘speak economics’, to negotiate a course through troubled, ever-changing waters.  As organisations come to realise that data is their lifeblood, that realisation should go hand in hand with a need for senior, high-performing ‘data-fluent’ people.  And so, introducing again, the Chief Data Officer (CDO) – they do, or should, speak data.

What makes a good CDO?  Here in New Zealand, a large proportion of folk with the job title ‘Chief Data Officer’ come from an ICT background.  Indeed, on reviewing their LinkedIn profiles, you will find most recording ‘IT Manager’ (or similar) appearing near the top of their ‘Experience’, while the word ‘data’ or ‘information’ are mostly absent.  Why is that a problem?

In answering that, it is not my intention to denigrate what are likely dedicated, hard-working ICT professionals.  That said, this article has sought to make clear that a decades-long infatuation with technology is the key reason we’re in this mess, i.e. if you take a problem to a person with a hammer, the solution will be a nail.

In 2023, ‘Technology Magazine’ ran a story ‘Top 10: Chief Data Officers’.  All but one of the ten globally-recognised Chief Data Officers in that story has a background in Data Science, Business Intelligence, Analytics or a related data field. That tells me how important the Executive and Boards of those organisations consider ‘data’, and having a senior data-fluent-speaker at the helm.

Most schizophrenia sufferers rely on medication to make it through the day.  Organisational-schizophrenia will require an awakening and acknowledgement of data is a strategic asset, and perhaps rehab for our addition to the next shiny piece of kit.  Technology is just plumbing, and the folk managing it, plumbers.  We have fleeting, transient flirtations with technology, but data; that's a long-term relationship.

Martin Erasmuson is an Information Architect.