When is a data catalog no longer a catalog, and why does it matter? The distinction is important, and can perhaps best be explained by a recent experience I had.

I was on a recent vendor briefing in conjunction with data gathering for an upcoming publication: Market Guide for Information stewardship solutions. These information stewardship solutions are very different from the traditional metadata management tools sold to IT. They are designed for business users, and they help those users solve data-centric issues that otherwise hold business processes and outcomes hostage.

It’s a new category, and it can be very hard to convey to vendors what is behind information stewardwhip - especially since many vendors have rarely ever experienced the business role or need first-hand. While business users understand this very easily, they generally struggle to convey their requirements to vendors.

Anyway, there I was. The vendor in this case was demonstrating and extolling the value of their ‘data catalog’. But the product being demoed was anything but just a data catalog. Granted, a catalog is a collection of stuff, and yes this vendor sure has a clever engine that can help with (smartly) discovering where data is and structuring the kinds of data found. But the vendor went further…

They talked of:

  • Monitoring tools to help users spot problems before they fester.
  • Task management to help kick off and track who is clearing up what data issues.
  • Policy tracking and compliance reporting.
  • Audit trails that even I can understand telling me where the data has been and who last touched it.
  • And so on.

In fact, this vendor was demonstrating a passable information stewardship solution. Yet they, and some Gartner analysts, still refer to themselves as a catalog vendor. That’s when a penny dropped, and I was suddenly aware of the important role we play in the market.

Clients obviously need modern catalogs to find and organize data. Such catalogs serve a number of uses, from analytics to governance. But creating a catalog is the easy part. Cataloging data just finds and structures the collected 'stuff' – it does nothing to help assure trust in the data contained.

So the wider issue - applicable to every firm and organization - is how governing and stewarding data and analytics will change how an organization increases value from that data to improve its decision making. This goes beyond having a catalog, or even trusted data or a ML-based analytic. It requires a convergence of people, process (and app) data and analytics.

In this case, I found myself thinking:

  • This vendor markets itself as a ‘catalog’ vendor and clients are looking for ‘catalogs.’
  • This vendor can do a whole lot more but it is not signaling to the market that it can. Worse, clients are not yet asking for the next thing they actually can use.
  • At the end of the day, how firms leverage information and, separately, technology to drive decisions remains a near mystery to both the buyers and the sellers.

The result of all of this is that too many firms are much less able to demonstrate the value of their I&T investments. At the macro level IT-based productivity is in the doldrums. At the micro level, firms at the global and national (technological) frontier (OECD-speak) are winning more and laggards are losing more.

So what is a CIO, or a CEO, to do? This is where we come in. We play the unique role where we can spot what both buyer ought to be asking, and also advise sellers what they should be messaging.

But it’s a fine line. In making such recommendations or offering such advice we are no longer industry watchers - we are industry participants.

At the same time there is great risk and responsibility. What if we are wrong? Is it more valuable to just monitor and critique, or to advice and suggest?

It is rewarding to guess (analyze and conclude) right and it’s interesting to learn from errors and mistakes. It’s a fun position to be in. In fact I would not give it up for the world. I recommend it.

(This post originally appeared on the Forrester Research blog, which can be viewed here).

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