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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data:
The Meta Data Experience

online columnist R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.     Column published in DMReview.com
March 18, 2004
  By R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

What is "The meta data experience?" Over the past 20 years, I have come to realize that meta data is not a technology but a philosophy. While we tend to focus our efforts around the "data about data" definition, the reality is that meta data spans much further into the multitude of dimensions around information technology. Perhaps the easiest way to think about these dimensions is to relate them to the four different sectors of business: raw materials, products, services and the experience. For example, the coffee business can be segmented into these four different areas.

Pine and Gilmore (1997) open their discussion of "the experience economy" by tracing the value added to the coffee bean in its various iterations from pure "commodity" to pure "experience." In their evolutionary construct there are four stages - in ascending order of sophistication the stages are commodity, good, service, experience. They point out that coffee is traded on the futures market at roughly $1 a pound (thus, about 2 cents a cup at the "commodity" level). After manufacturers roast, grind, package and distribute the bean for retail, the price jumps to between 5 and 25 cents a cup (the "goods" level). At a "run-of-the-mill" diner a cup might run from 50 cents to $1 a cup (the traditional "service" level).

Pine and Gilmore contend that one can, "Serve that same coffee in a five-star restaurant or espresso bar, where the ordering, creation and consumption of the cup embodies a heightened ambience or sense of theater, and consumers gladly pay anywhere from $2 to $5 for each cup." Thus, by creating value at the "experience" level, the seller is able to charge an extremely high premium over that charged by the "service" provider. In defining their terms they argue that, "When a person buys a service, he purchases a set of intangible activities carried out on his behalf. But when he buys an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages - as in a theatrical play - to engage him in a personal way." (Center for Interactive Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin)

Does this theory hold true for the meta data world? I believe so, and the impacts are enormous. See Figure 1 for the application of the experience economy to the world of meta data.

Figure 1: The Experience Economy

Without much imagination, meta data is the raw material that we work with everyday. One of the most important imperatives is that we understand everything about organizational meta data. By doing this, we can see that meta data is much more than just a database construct used in the ETL environment. Think of this level as the building blocks of the core meta data strategy. These blocks should look familiar as they describe: entities, attributes, tables, files, systems, interfaces, metrics, schemas, components, etc. As a meta data group, it is our responsibility to understand how these meta data elements are created, managed, utilized and associated with other elements to create new constructs of information. If not us, then who? Who is willing to invest the amount of time required to gain the foundation of knowledge required?

Most technologists came across meta data in the database world where the definition presented was "data about data." Students get their first introduction in the library science world where meta data describes the books, journals and magazines held within the library itself. Meta data can provide abundant information about where an asset is located, what primitive elements make up the asset, how the asset was developed or created, where the asset is physically located, who the steward of the asset is and, of course, an inventory of what assets exists. Scientists, researchers and business practitioners continue to redefine, rescope and repurpose the basic utility of meta data.

The product line within meta data is the repository. The term repository has been around for a long time. Remember the Texas school book repository building in the Kennedy assassination? Traditionally, the armed services kept their armaments in the munitions repository. Today, the term repository is used more generally to refer as a place to hold information. In some circles, the process of loading meta data information as well as the exchange of information is included in the definition. The repository is the broker of information that can be used within the entire organization. Keep in mind, I include active-based services under the repository umbrella. The meta data repository management system (MRMS) is a system to collect, store, maintain and expose meta data. Open interfaces allow other components and services to access and use the contents of the meta data repository. Under the product window, a services group would need to master a litany of things including usability, design, meta-model, architecture, server based development and information architecture.

The Meta Data Services Group is an organization dedicated to serving others with the value and utility of meta data. Like any other technology organization, the basic concepts of project management, program management, operations, security and many other aspects of support and delivery would be included. However, an organization that desires to move beyond the basics and expectations must look beyond the norm. Organizations such as L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, Stu Leonard's and Capt. Anderson's engage at a different level than the majority of organizations in their industry. In a world of sameness, service is what sets us apart from most organizations. Service excellence involves knowing who your customers and competition are, having systems in place that ensure quality service time and time again, feedback mechanisms, marketing and branding programs, and an extensive collection of metrics. Perhaps the most important item is the development of a service culture. I have witnessed, firsthand, the impact of a customer-focused organization. Value is defined by the customer; value is not what you think it is, only the customer can establish that. And it goes without saying that the definition will be different for each customer. Many years ago, I established a service culture that produced some astounding results: 80 percent drop in backlog, 100 percent increases in customer and employee satisfaction, solid relationships, 21 percent reduction in costs and 25 percent reduction in turnover. I would go further into the story, but in the end I left the organization and the group retuned back to the old ways; I could here the customer crying from miles away.

The final area is the ultimate destination for any meta data implementation. The key to reaching this fourth level is to have mastered the previous levels. Mastering is a great word that describes the level of knowledge required. However, to have commoditized that level is more important. Mastery does not mean commoditization; nor does it have the same implications associated as this word. To commoditize meta data, one has to not only master it, one must make it look simple, achieve maturity and have a formal process of service. Meta data must be ingrained into the culture of the organization to begin the experience process. Perhaps the secret ingredient is passion. Starbucks has a passion for coffee, Disney has a passion for entertainment and Harley Davidson has a passion for motorcycles. In fact as one Harley executive put it, "What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him." Interesting, to say the least! You will know that you have reached this level when meta data becomes ingrained into the architecture, methodology and standard way IT does business. Meta data will no longer be an application, project or program but a way of doing business.

The value of this model is the evolutionary transformation that must occur for long-term survival. If you don't reinvent your organization someone else will. While Nicholas Negroponte from MIT may be right in saying, "Incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy;" the reality is continuous improvement does create lasting value in the world of meta data.


Check out DMReview.com's resource portals for additional related content, white papers, books and other resources.

R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D. is the director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology and speaks around the world on meta data, data architecture and information technology. Stephens recently earned his Ph.D. in information systems and has more than 70 publications in the academic, professional and patent arena. You can reach him via e-mail at Todd@rtodd.com or to learn more visit http://www.rtodd.com/.

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