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Plain English on Data Quality:
The Term "User" Has No Place in the Information Age

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
May 2002 Issue
  By Larry English

With today's focuses on business intelligence, customer relationship management and knowledge management, the term "user" is inappropriate. This omnipresent term is the predominant information technology (IT) label for business personnel who require information to perform their work and who perform their work on information systems and technologies. We must find a new term to refer to those people who, in fact, perform the real value work of the enterprise.

The only other industry that emphasizes the term user is the substance-abuse industry where the term means someone who has an addiction to a harmful substance. At best, the term user implies lack of empowerment or choice -- someone who has to "use" something provided them; but as we clearly know, employees who are not able to have their information needs met by the production databases often choose to create and maintain their own private, proprietary databases. Outsourcing IT is the ultimate choice of management dissatisfied with the quality of the information and information services received for the price paid.

"Customer" is a central concept and term in quality management. The concept of quality exists only in the context of customers who have needs for products and services in their lives or work. Every valid quality methodology is built on the concept of customers - not users - of products and services. For example:

W. Edwards Deming's 14 Points of Quality: Point 1 is "Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service." Why? "The consumer is the most important part of the production line."1 Point 1 means, "the obligation to the customer never ceases."2

Joseph M. Juran's trilogy of quality planning, quality control and quality improvement: The first step of the road map for quality planning is "Identify the customers," followed by "Determine the needs of those customers."3

Masaaki Imai's Kaizen, a total quality control (TQC) methodology of continuous process improvement involving everyone in the organization: Imai states that TQC is customer-oriented, and that TQC activities have shifted emphasis from "maintaining quality throughout the production process to building quality into the product by developing and designing products that meet customer requirements."4

Armand Feigenbaum's ten benchmarks of total quality control: The second benchmark is "Quality is what the customer says it is."5 Quality is determined by the customer, not engineering, marketing or general management. It is based upon the customer's actual experience with the product or service, measured against his or her requirements -- stated or unstated, conscious or merely sensed, technically operational or entirely subjective -- and always representing a moving target in a competitive market.6

Philip B. Crosby's 14 steps for installing quality improvement: The very first step, Management Commitment, states that management must make it clear where it stands on quality by implementing a nonnegotiable, publicized, understood, agreed and believed quality policy that states: Perform exactly like the requirement...or cause the requirement to be officially changed to what we and our customers really need.7

Six Sigma quality methodology, pioneered by Motorola in their quest for a statistical six sigma level of quality (less than 3.4 defects per million parts): The first three of the six steps are: identify your product or service; identify the customer(s) for your product or service and determine what they consider important; and identify your needs to provide the product/service so that it satisfies the customer.8

Baldrige National Quality Program's Criteria for Performance Excellence Framework: Category 3, Customer and Market Focus, examines how an organization determines requirements, expectations and preferences of customers and markets, and how the organization builds relationships with customers and determines the key factors that lead to customer acquisition, satisfaction, retention and to business expansion.9 Category 5, Human Resource Focus, examines how the organization motivates and enables employees -- not users -- to develop and utilize their full potential toward the organization's overall objectives and action plans. It also examines how the organization builds and maintains a work environment and an employee support system conducive to performance excellence and to personal and organizational growth.10

The vocabulary of quality management is clear -- the subject of quality is the customer of the product or service, not a user who has no choice or is unempowered. For those who are information professionals, especially those who promote information or data quality, the vocabulary of quality management demands that we replace the term user with an appropriate term.

Knowledge Workers

Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, coined the term "knowledge worker" when he foresaw the impact of the emerging computer technology on business and society. In 1973 Drucker wrote, "Increasingly, the central human resources are not manual workers -- skilled or unskilled -- but knowledge workers."11 In 1989, Drucker continued, "Knowledge now has become the real capital of a developed economy.12 Knowledge workers increasingly set the [enterprise's] norms and standards.13 Knowledge workers are neither farmers nor labor nor business; they are employees of organizations."14

Isn't the term knowledge worker a more appropriate label in an era of knowledge management, business intelligence and customer relationship management? Isn't knowledge worker a more appropriate label for those who analyze and apply information and perform their work via information technology? In 2000, at age 90, Drucker still used the term knowledge worker to describe the employee in the corporation of the future.15 If the industrial age had factory workers, the information age has knowledge workers, not users.

To define information quality, one must identify the customer of data -- the knowledge worker who requires data to perform his or her job.16 Information quality is consistently meeting knowledge workers' [and end customers'] expectations through information and information services, enabling them to perform their jobs effectively.17

Break Down Barriers

While world-class organizations are trying to meet or exceed customer expectations, the IT world continues to admonish that a critical factor for project success is to manage user expectations. Why is it that the majority of IT projects have to lower expectations of the business professionals rather than try to meet knowledge-worker expectations? Have IT professionals forgotten that they would have no jobs without (business) product developers, engineers, factory workers, inventory management and distribution staff, sales personnel, claims processors, actuaries, order clerks and others who perform the end-customer work of the enterprise?

Point 9 of Deming's 14 Points of Quality is "Break down barriers between staff areas."18 This means information systems professionals and business knowledge workers must work together as partners or team members who together solve business problems and reengineer processes using information systems and architect sharable databases that house the collective knowledge of the enterprise.19

The Japanese word "okyakusama" means both customer and honorable guest.20 I often wonder how many business professionals feel as if they are honorable guests when working on projects with systems personnel. Not only must we have new terminology, we must also treat knowledge workers as VIPs (very important persons who deliver value to the end customers) and, therefore, internal customers. We must concentrate to create systems that are knowledge-worker friendly or business friendly and that meet knowledge-worker expectations, not systems that are user friendly (from an IT perspective) that sub-optimize the real requirements of the business. Peter Drucker wrote in 1954 about the worker as a resource saying, "We must consider man [person] as a human being. We must, in other words, also put the emphasis on 'human.' This approach focuses on [the person] as a moral and a social creature, and asks how work should be organized to fit his qualities as a person."21 If information professionals believe information is key to the enterprise, they must also believe in the importance of those who require information to perform their work. They must embrace Deming's first point of quality: "The obligation to the knowledge worker [information customer] never ceases."22 Information as a product leads to the conclusion that information quality is information customer (knowledge worker) satisfaction. As the output of one process, data must satisfy the requirements of all downstream customers to perform their processes requiring that data. Knowledge work by definition does not result in a [tangible] product. It results in a contribution of knowledge to somebody else. The output of the knowledge worker always becomes somebody else's input.23 This means we must define data, develop databases, develop applications and create and maintain data from a perspective of the business value chain to meet all knowledge workers' requirements, not from a vertical stovepipe or functional perspective. A business value chain is a set of activities initiated from a request of some customer (external or internal) that results in a delivered benefit to that customer. A value chain generally consists of activities that cross functional and organizational boundaries. The most effective way to define data is to define it across its primary value chain, involving representatives of all customers (knowledge workers) who require it.

IT Can Change

The software firm SAP makes it clear that their product is pronounced "s-a-p" - not "sap" because of the negative connotations. Should we not replace the word user for the same reason?

The IT industry likes to change terminology when it suits its purpose. Data dictionary administrators have become repository administrators, and now people are seeking to call them meta data administrators, with some advocating meta data solutions administrators! CASE tools have given way to process and data modeling tools. Information centers, the fad du jour of the late 1980s, became data warehouses in the 1990s, while the term "decision support" has been replaced by business intelligence. Developing interface programs became systems integration, a misnomer of a term now replaced with enterprise application integration. Software providers have stopped selling products or tools. They now sell solutions, but most still sell them to users.

How can we keep the obsolete and inappropriate term user when we readily change other terms?

Getting Ludicrous?

It is ludicrous to call people who perform the real value work of the enterprise users. Just because people perform their work on computers or with the assistance of computers and perform that work on the basis of information they retrieve or receive does not mean they should be de-emphasized or de-valued. Are the information producers who create or maintain the enterprise's second most important resource of information less important than the technology on which they perform their work? People, without whom the enterprise could not perform work, are -- and will always be -- the enterprise's most important resource. How on earth can we tolerate the term user as a label for the most important resource of the enterprise?

What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com.


1. Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. p.26. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986.

2. Walton, Mary. The Deming Management Method. p.57. New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1986.

3. Juran, J. M. Juran on Planning for Quality. p.14. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

4. Imai, Masaaki. Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. p.52. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

5. Feigenbaum, Armand V. Total Quality Control. p.828. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

6. Ibid., p.7.

7. Crosby, Philip B. Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain. p.151. New York: Penguin Group, 1979.

8. Sengstock, Charles A., Jr. Quality in the Communications Process. p.11. Schaumburg, IL: Motorola University Press, 1997.

9. "Baldrige National Quality Program 2002 Criteria for Performance Excellence Framework." p.16. 18 February 2002.

10. Ibid., p.20.

11. Drucker, Peter F. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. p.30. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 74. (See also references to "knowledge worker" on pages 32-3, 68-70, 72, 170-2, 176-7, 179, 182-3, 223, 228-30, 232, 269, 285, 288, 305, 339-40, 421-2 522, and 807.)

12. Drucker, Peter F. The New Realities. p.180. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

13. Ibid., p.186.

14. Ibid., p.25.

15. Daly, James. "Sage Advice: Peter Drucker Interview," p.139. Business 2.0. 22 Aug. 2000.

16. English, Larry P. "Data Quality: Meeting Customer Needs," DM Review. Nov. 1996. p.46.

17. English, Larry P. "Data Quality Improvement: Maximizing Data Value Through Metrics and Management Seminar, 3rd Edition." Brentwood, TN: Information Impact International, Inc., 1996. p.1.5.

18. Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. p.62. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986.

19. English, Larry P. Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality. p.379. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

20. Gomes, Helio. Quality Quotes. p.80. Milwaukee: ASQC Quality Press, 1996.

21. Drucker, Peter F. The Practice of Management. p.263. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.

22. English, Larry P. Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality. p.341.

23. Drucker, Peter F. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. p.183.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Data Quality.

Larry P. English is president and principal of INFORMATION IMPACT International, Inc., Brentwood, Tennessee, and the author of the widely acclaimed book, Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality: Methods for Reducing Costs and Increasing Profits. English is cofounder of the International Association for Information and Data Quality (www.iaidq.org). English is an internationally recognized speaker, teacher, consultant and author and may be reached at larry.english@infoimpact.com or through his Web site at www.infoimpact.com. For more on how to improve your IQ principles and techniques, and prevent your organization from wasting millions in information scrap and rework, join the IAIDQ (visit www.iaidq.org).

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