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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data:
Metacide: The Killing of a Meta Data Project

online columnist R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.     Column published in DMReview.com
May 16, 2003
  By R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

DMReview.com welcomes Todd Stephens as an online columnist. His column, “Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data” will appear the third week of each month. Look for his insightful comments into the many aspects of meta data, from data architecture and knowledge management to promoting support for meta data concepts and project management to upper level decision-makers.

What an honor to be invited to provide a monthly view of meta data for DMReview.com. Each month, I will bring an observation, experience or best practice from the world of meta data to this column. I hope you will find this information useful or at the very least thought provoking. Some months I may discuss the outer realms of meta data such as data architecture, knowledge management or information architecture. I think you will agree, many of these areas are converging and each provides insight on how meta data can create value for your organization.

There are a litany of books, articles and online references that provide information on how to succeed at technology projects. The world of meta data is no different. Without a doubt, there are many dimensions of a meta data project that allow us to succeed or fail. Allow me to toss in a few questions:

  • Does “not failing” at meta data mean you succeeded?
  • Does “not succeeding” at meta data mean you failed?
  • Isn’t meta data success measured by degrees rather than an absolute failure or success?

These are interesting questions that would require a book to resolve. This month’s column reviews some of the traps that can cause a project to fail. Success takes time and avoiding these problems will not guarantee the success of your meta data project. However, they will allow you to continue to fight and ultimately lead to true success.

Metacide is a term coined a few years ago to address the issues that cause meta data projects to fail. I’m not really talking about pulling the funding but rather the more sinister activities that seem innocent on the surface and eventually undermine your mission and strategy. The first dimension of metacide is the lack of commitment from the meta data leader, the team, management and the customer base. Without much warning, the lack of commitment will quietly attack your project. Professionals who lack commitment have either already accomplished what they set out to accomplish or probably won't accomplish what they are asked to do. In either case, they lack a compelling reason to do whatever it takes to succeed which leads to the path of least resistance. It could be the small difference between contacting a customer over the phone versus paying them a personal visit. Perhaps it’s the difference between doing the meta data load in one day versus two days. Success requires a complete commitment from everyone, especially from the individual that is ultimately responsible for the project. There is no elevator leading to meta data success; you must take the stairs.

Bureaucracy is another symptom that must be recognized and controlled. Several years ago, I was standing next to the printer waiting for a architecture document while a 453 page design document was being printed. Who reads a 453 page design document? My dissertation will only be 250 pages in length, and it will take me five years to write. The project was a simple data exchange between three trading partners. I must admit that I confiscated the cover page of that report as a reminder of how processes can get out of control and drain the resources required for success. Be sure your resources are focused on delivering value-add tasks rather following some CYA process.

Poor communication never presents itself with a giant spotlight saying “here I am, please correct me.” Unfortunately, poor communication begins within a simple e-mail, document or face-to-face conversation. In his book On Communicating, Mark McCormack stated, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” Research and sheer personal observation show that most people are far too optimistic about the accuracy of communication. Communication can be one of the most difficult activities to accomplish during the project life cycle. This is especially true when dealing with factual information, but as we all know communication is far more complicated than dealing with factual information. The barriers to effective communication can create an environment where the strategy, mission and vision of meta data can be lost. As with poor communication, success can also create a level of fragmentation within the team. Interestingly, many people might think that success will bring a team together as a unit of one. Be careful this is not always the case. This is especially true if you have multiple products or services. “Without my repository this project would be dead.” “It’s my design that made the difference.” The truth is that success requires all of the pieces to work together. This message must be repeated through out the project each and every day.

The final area I want to mention is apathy or lack of motivation. Apathy may be the greatest killer of projects today. When people don’t care they don’t give you all that they have. Helen Keller once said, “Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.” There are many reasons people feel apathetic within an organization and not all of them are the responsibility of the individual. Apathy is caused by frustration and feelings of powerlessness. Even if people have power in reality, if they do not see themselves as having it, there is no gain. In particular, people must feel they control their own destiny if they are to be part of a change effort, provide excellent service or take risks.

Is the lack of commitment, bureaucracy, poor communication and apathy all you need to watch for within your meta data project? Of course not. These are just a few of the items that can create irreparable damage to the project, people, technology and the process of meta data. In the next few months, I will focus more on the positive aspects of the meta data project. Specifically, I will provide you with some tools that can help sell meta data and support the project to upper management. Hopefully, this monthly column will help you and your organization implement one of the most critical components of knowledge management, data architecture and business intelligence.


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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