DM Review Published in DM Review Online in December 2004.
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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data: Reaching Critical Mass with Meta Data

by R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

Mr. CIO, what is your most important enterprise asset? "Our people are our number one resource." Yes, of course they are. Interesting answer, lets take a look at the systems that contain meta data information about our number one enterprise asset. The organization chart is a great place to start. Here we can see the name of the asset, title of the asset and the working relationships between these closely connected resources. A dotted line may indicate another type of relationship between this group and another organization. You can also see the type of asset: employee, contractor or consultant. How about the corporate directory which is another type of employee repository of meta data information? Along with the name and title information, the directory will contain the contact information and various phone numbers. Let's take a look at the organizational Web site of the employee and work group. Not only can you find additional contact information, you can find the roles and responsibilities of the employee and group. The Web page will also define the business processes, products and services of this employee within the context of their current role. We can take the job title and head over to human resources to review the job description which can provides us additional details on what this employee does for the company. Hey, while we are here lets take a sneak peek at the HR systems which house the employees personal records where we can find the home address, family members, payroll, deductions and much more. Every organization has an enormous collection of repositories that house detail information about the greatest asset of the company which is indeed our people. In addition, these assets may have as many as 10-15 repositories that we can go to gather information. Just to summarize the point of view of Mr. CIO, we capture the enormous collection of meta data about our people in order to understand the following:

  • What the role and responsibility of each employee is.
  • What function and value-add does this employee bring to the organization.
  • How to locate and contact the employee at any given time.
  • What relationships exist between this employee and customers, suppliers, co-workers and management.
  • How the employee performs at the various levels of job duties.

How about the number two asset? Of course, there will be an enormous debate on which asset is actually considered to be number two. Let's assume our CIO answers that question as our "systems." Excellent answer, how many repositories should we have that house system information? Does your organization have a centralized repository that holds system information and perhaps interfaces between those systems? Our friendly CIO would say, "I am sure we have some system somewhere that has this type of information, we had it during the Y2K." This is the problem, why does our top asset have a huge collection of information repositories, yet the next asset may not even have one. More importantly, why do the repositories that hold employee data have more value than those that hold information about other assets.

Let's take a different direction by reviewing Metcalf's Law. Robert Metcalfe founded 3Com Corporation and designed the Ethernet protocol for computer networks. Metcalfe's Law states that the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of the number of users. The telephone is of very limited use if only you and your best friend have one. If a whole town is on the system, it becomes much more useful. If the whole world is wired, the utility of the system is phenomenal. But in the predigital age, it could take many years for Metcalfe's Law to bear fruit. It was not until 1931 that telephone companies put a dial on the instrument, finally cutting the tremendous cost of employing switchboard operators and extending the reach of the system. First, telephone use had to reach a critical mass, or number, of users. So it is with any technology (Boyd, 2004), including meta data. Perhaps the question of critical mass is one we should address. As with the employee asset repositories, critical mass is reached by utilizing information sources for annual enrollment, contacts, lookup, reporting structures and escalation paths. The number of users seems to be the key to reaching critical mass. This takes us back to building repositories for a limited number of technical or business users. Assuming Metcalf's Law is correct then we need to ensure that the repositories we build can be used by everyone in any position.

According to Southwest Missouri State University, until a critical mass of users is reached, a change in technology only affects the technology. But once critical mass is attained, social, political and economic systems change. This is what authors Downes and Mui call the Law of Disruption. It took about 10 years for radio to reach critical mass in the U.S.; television took longer. Each of these technologies transformed family, economic and political structures once they reached critical mass. The same is true of digital technologies. Consider the Internet. It reached critical mass in 1993, when there were roughly 2.5 million host computers on the network. By November 1997, the vast network contained an estimated 25 million host computers. With computing cost continuing to drop rapidly and this dominant computing network growing exponentially, the stage is set for a social, political and economic revolution.

What if we change that first sentence to the following: Until critical mass is reached, meta data will only impact the technical community. It's hard to argue the point that most organizations implement meta data as a side project, specifically focused on solving technology problems. However, once this critical mass is reached in content and usage the real business benefits and valuation will be realized. Are you prepared for the critical mass of meta data?

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 or to learn more visit

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