What can a psychologist teach us about data infrastructure management? Plenty, it turns out. Legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow, for one, argued that less-developed individuals and societies tend to be stuck in a daily grind of trying to satisfy lower-order requirements, such as biological survival and safety, and are therefore less capable of higher-level pursuits, such as creativity, community and the advancement of knowledge. Once individuals or societies are able to address their lower-level basic needs in some systematic or automatic fashion, they are freer to engage in higher-order pursuits. Maslow’s groundbreaking work Hierarchy of Needs, published in 1954, reflected the continuum of individuals and societies from dependency and disorder toward accomplishment and fulfillment. At the bottom level of a pyramid Maslow used to describe the continuum, individuals are consumed with simply making it through the day - foraging for the staples of life, such as food and water. There’s little time for higher-level personal development. If the individual is able to meet these very basic needs in a more systematic fashion, he or she is freer to move to the next level of needs, including shelter and health. Eventually, as all these needs are met on an ongoing and automatic basis, the individual reaches the highest stage, at the top of the pyramid, which Maslow described as “self-actualization.” This analogy can be applied to the way data is managed in organizations. The more effectively an organization is able to meet rudimentary data management needs, the more likely it is able to move up the continuum to become a well-developed, peak performer. While many companies remain mired in reactive and idiosyncratic practices, high performers rely on disciplined, proactive and predictive approaches to data infrastructure management (data IM). In return, a peak-performing organization can devote all its resources to advancing the business - be it stock trading, manufacturing or retailing. How does an organization advance from a relative state of immediacy to a higher-value operation? By first understanding and recognizing the five essential stages that an organization moves through as it becomes increasingly proficient at data IM.

It used to be common to have database administrators or developers who lived with the system from the day it was installed. They almost had a “sixth sense” for anomalies as soon as they emerged. Such is the way things are done at the tribal level, the most basic form of data IM. At this level, an organization may function from day to day, but without any formal processes or systematic management. Instead, data IM is left to the whims of individuals, who carry all relevant knowledge and know-how in their heads. Unfortunately, when a company relies on tribal knowledge, there is no clear understanding of what data professionals are doing and how they do it. Documentation of individual duties does not exist, and professionals simply go about their duties, whether it’s backing up data, monitoring networks or administering patches to servers. Many such individuals may be highly proficient at what they do; it’s just that there is no formal system assigning the tasks at hand. There is no official method of tracking and documenting how well they succeeded in those tasks. Of course, today’s business simply does not allow for this approach. At the tribal management level, there is no ability to comply with mandates such as Sarbanes-Oxley in an organized way. Plus, having so few people with so much company knowledge may even be a security or business continuity risk. The informal network of professionals that is typically seen at the tribal level also results in inconsistent performance across various systems. Different individuals have knowledge of different systems, and as a result, the quality of support across systems will vary. Or, as Maslow put it in his oft-quoted phrase, “When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.”

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