I’m currently reading Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade for the second time. The book describes our human ancestors (that’s all of us) who lived in Africa 50,000 years ago. It discusses our progressive use of tools, our loss of hair (some more than others) and our learning to cooperate and play well with each other. The book deals extensively with how humans originated, the role that communication played in our survival, the way we radiated across the globe and how we overtook other Homo species, including Homo neanderthalensis. The book leans very heavily on our genome and the components of the DNA that makes us who we are. Our DNA determines our skin color, our eye color, the wave of our hair, our gender, many of our inherited diseases and propensity toward those diseases and much more. Our DNA, for the most part, determines who we are.

The Genographic Project sponsored by National Geographic and IBM is attempting to specifically identify, through tracing the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, where we came from and how we got here. They are able to do this by noting the small changes called markers in these chromosomes and identifying where and when these mutations were introduced.

Metadata is the DNA for your organization, and as such, we should now understand its criticality. If we think about the data in our organizations and use of metadata while considering the analogy of how all organisms use DNA, we are better able to understand the data source, the characteristics of the data (data type and length), business rules, valid values, data definitions and keeping track of the transformations that are made to data as it goes through the extract, transform and load process and as it’s filtered, cleansed, integrated and aggregated.

As humans evolved, our DNA changed to provide us with a language capability. Language might be the most important factor that distinguishes us from other animals. (Our use of tools was also critical. And yes, other animals communicate, but the linguists believe we are the only species with real language capabilities.) Language is oral, written and can be conveyed in signs such as American Sign Language. Language has given us the ability to pass information down to subsequent generations on the creation and use of tools, danger signs and edible resources. “This is how to make a bow and arrow.” “This animal will eat you, so stay away.” “This plant is poisonous.” This is where language has been so useful for our survival and procreation.

Some scientists believe that the way we overcame the Neanderthals who, though much less attractive, were physically stronger and actually had a larger brain, was through our ability to communicate. These scientists believe the Neanderthals did not possess speech, and that was our competitive edge.

Metadata provides a viable means of communication. In too many organizations, knowledge of the data is only transferred and passed down orally or is not communicated at all. Charles Darwin pointed out that we are born with the ability to learn a spoken language, but our ability to write is not inherent. This writing and reading ability must be taught.

Consider your organization’s training related to capturing intellectual capital in metadata. This would include how your organization runs its processes, rules and data. Are you providing the training for the creation and use of metadata? Our abilities to more effectively communicate (think metadata) make us a much more viable organization. If we think in terms of survival, an efficient communicating organization that better understands the tools with which it has to work (think data) will outperform the competition.

Just as our DNA determines who we are, your metadata should be telling you about the meaning of your data, how it was transformed, who owns it, its security requirements and characteristics, and its level of data quality. The organizations that do not have a robust metadata capability will face the same fate as the Neanderthals. They will be overtaken and competed out of existence by the organizations that make effective use of metadata.

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