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Management Justification for Meta Data

Published
  • October 01 1999, 1:00am EDT

This month we address a common problem. How can we convince managers to plan, budget and apply resources for meta data management? Internet and intranet technologies are part of the answer and will get the immediate attention of management. XML is the other technology.

Every country is now interconnected in a vast, global telephone network. We are now able to telephone anywhere in the world. We can phone a number, and the telephone assigned to that number will ring in Russia or China or in Outer Mongolia. But when it is answered, we may not understand the person at the other end. They may speak a different language. So we can be connected, but what is said has no meaning. We cannot share information.

Today, we also use a computer and the World Wide Web. We enter a Web site address into a browser on our desktop machine ­ a unique address in words that is analogous to a telephone number. We can be connected immediately to a computer assigned to that address and attached to the Internet anywhere in the world. That computer sends a Web page based on the address we have supplied to be displayed in our browser. This is typically in English, but may be in another language. We are connected, but ­ like the telephone analogy ­ if it is in another language, what is said has no meaning. We cannot share information.

Now consider the reason why it is difficult for some of the systems used in an organization to communicate with and share information with other systems. Technically, the programs in each system can be interconnected so they can communicate with other programs. But they use different terms to refer to the same data that needs to be shared. For example, an accounting system may use the term "customer" to refer to a person or organization that buys products or services. Another system may refer to the same person or organization as a "client." Sales may use the term "prospect." They use different terminology ­ different language ­ to refer to the same data and information.

But the problem is even worse. Consider terminology used in different parts of the business. Accountants use a "jargon"­ a technical language ­ which is difficult for nonaccountants to understand. Similarly, the jargon used by engineers, production people, sales and marketing people or managers is difficult for others to understand. They all speak a different "language." They cannot easily share common information. In fact, in some enterprises it is a miracle that people manage to communicate meaning at all!

Each organization has its own internal language, its own jargon, which has evolved over time so that similar people can communicate meaning. As stated earlier, there can be more than one language used in an organization. Meta data identifies an organization's own "language." Where different terms refer to the same thing, a common term is selected for all to use. People can communicate more clearly. Systems and programs can intercommunicate with meaning.

Previously, each part of the business maintained its own version of "customer," "client" or "prospect." They defined processes and assigned staff to add new customers, clients or prospects to their own files and databases. When common details about customers, clients or prospects changed, each redundant version of that data also had to be changed. It requires staff to make these changes. Yet these are redundant processes making the same changes to redundant data versions. This is enormously expensive in time and people. It is also unnecessary.

The importance of meta data can now be seen. Meta data defines the common language used within an enterprise so that people, systems and programs can communicate precisely. Confusion disappears, common data is shared and enormous cost savings are made. Processes that maintain redundant updates are eliminated, as the redundant data versions are integrated into a common data version for all to share.

Once the meta data is defined and documented, all programs can use it to communicate. Even this has become easier. A new Internet technology has recently been developed called the extensible markup language (XML). Once the meta data is defined, XML can take the meta data used by one system and integrate it with the meta data used by another system. This is analogous to language dictionaries used throughout the world so people from different countries can communicate. Legacy files and databases can now be integrated more readily. Systems throughout the business can now coordinate their activities more effectively as a direct result of this management support for meta data.

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