R. Todd Stephens has been contributing online columns to DMReview.com for years. Beginning this month, he brings his award-winning enterprise metadata endeavors at BellSouth, his wit and his sharp mind to the pages of DM Review. We welcome him.
In 2002, my organization took home the High Accommodation award from Wilshire Conferences, and the following year, we were awarded the "Outstanding Enterprise Metadata Award." By anyone's standards, we had created a competitive advantage that very few organizations could match. Within two years, our implementation looked like child's play when compared to the metadata success of Intel, Allstate Insurance, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and many others. Our competitive advantage was gone; a new, improved strategy was needed.

Would it be possible to expand the utilization of metadata beyond traditional database or data warehouse metadata? This seemed like an excellent idea because the collection of technical assets was endless. The biggest question was where to start: systems, interfaces, reusable components or Web services-type metadata. We used the term "enterprise metadata" based on this idea of expansion and moved forward. Once again, our advantage was short-lived while others followed our efforts and standards such as Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) emerged. So we took our metadata principles and frameworks and moved into online ordering, where the metadata could describe the products and services that any employee would be interested in ordering such as personal computers, printers, PDAs, software and servers. The success of the online ordering environment and the impact to the architecture community cannot be understated.

This time we didn't wait to see if anyone was following us; we took the lead and moved into collaborative environments such as virtual workspaces, online meetings, Internet environments, taxonomies and search. In fact, last year we changed our name from Metadata Services Group to Collaboration and Online Services to reinforce our transformation of metadata as a database technology to an enterprise architecture. When will this evolution of value end? It won't. If we want to remain a value-add organization and continue to contribute to the bottom line of the organization, then we better keep moving. In his book The Circle of Innovation, Tom Peters wrote, "If the other guy is getting better, then you had better be getting better faster than that other guy is getting better — or you are getting worse." To translate that circle of confusion: you better keep moving or you will get run over.

We must continue adding new functionality, new features and expanding into new markets if we are to remain at the forefront of value creation. There are no mandates to utilize our services; believe me, every day, vendors approach our organization saying they can do it better, faster and cheaper. Customers today have short memories, and the pull of the newest technology, framework or consultant promise is hard to resist. We must set higher standards of performance and exceed them on a daily basis. As the following story illustrates, good enough never is.

In the late 17th century, three rural families dominated the musical instrument industry. Working in shops located side by side in the Italian village of Cremona, these families produced the finest violins. The Amatic family hung a sign outside their shop that read, "The best violins in all of Italy." Not wanting their creations to go unnoticed, the Guarneri family posted a sign that read, "The best violins in all of the world." The famous Antonio Stradivari, known to produce the finest, most expensive stringed instruments, boasted his worldwide renown by hanging a sign on his front door that simply read, "The best violins on the block!" The greatest enemy of excellence is "good enough."

The act of continuously getting better was popularized in the 1980s with the term Kaizen, which indicates a never-ending effort to improve. There are many ways in which we try to improve our products, services and solutions. In March, I published an article entitled "Replicating the Business Strategies of Others" in DM Review. The original title, which is far more appropriate, was "Stealing the Business Strategies of Others." The key concept here is to simply pay attention to your own experiences and copy what you like. When you are shopping online for a computer, do you utilize the side-by-side comparison utility? If so, why not use that in your metadata application? Who would benefit from seeing data elements compared side by side? How about the price change email you get from Travelocity; would your customers like to receive an email indicating a new logical model has been loaded to the repository or knowledge store? How about the customer service and support sites that most organizations now have online? Recently, our online support was getting a bit dated. We wanted to know what improvements could be made, so we visited more than 100 support sites, ranging from Macy's to IBM and Bose to AT&T. Then, we took those ideas back to the team and selected customers to see which features would provide value to our organization. Does metadata need Amazon's one-click service?

Another technique is to become part of an award review committee and get a firsthand look at the most successful implementations in the world. A dirty little secret about awards: they usually don't go to the most innovative organizations. Awards are generally handed to those groups that execute tried-and-true strategies. However, Steve Jobs said it best: "The cracked ones let in the light." This is the same reason I chaired an academic conference this year as well as a couple of award committees. I want to see where metadata innovation is emerging and what practitioners are thinking when it comes to the future of metadata.

A lot has been written about outsourcing and the overall impact of globalization on our economy. Some authors have even named this natural progression of value creation the China effect, the Wal-Mart effect and even the Starbucks effect. The essence of this progression is that organizations are utilizing the dramatic advancements in technology to streamline their business and create competitive advantages. Wal-Mart developed a highly efficient supply chain and literally destroyed the business models of Montgomery Ward, Sears and JCPenney. Many people believe that Wal-Mart was the first retailer to challenge the business model, but actually, JCPenney started the downfall of Sears and Montgomery Ward. Wal-Mart simply finished them off. Change is progress and, for most of us, creates uncertainty.

Individuals who embrace change will succeed and flourish in the long run. Without change, nothing would grow or blossom. No matter what business, position or role you are in, you can't sit still and watch as others pass you by. Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionary selection holds that variation within species occurs randomly and the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism's ability to adapt to its environment. Organizations' and individuals' abilities to compete in the new world will be based on their ability to adapt and prosper.

Is good enough ever really good enough? Every organization wants to be world class, but the truth is, only a few will obtain this level of success. In most cases, they can only obtain this classification over a long period of time. Should my organization relax and stop looking for ways to expand the product and service offerings? I hope not. BellSouth is truly blessed to have a collection of individuals who are optimistic and not afraid to try something different. How about your group? Still doing business the same way as a few years ago? Now is the time for change. 

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