One of the greatest factors which can lead to the degradation of quality of information relates to the behavior of users, data administrators and external parties. I have referred to this in a previous post “There is no such thing as a data quality problem…” which was deliberately being a little provocative in order to make a point. In this related post I will explore an interesting contradiction in staff behaviours related to physical assets and behaviours related to information assets.

As some of those who know me will appreciate, a lot of my experience relates to the world of physical asset management and maintenance management, however, some of the points I raise also relate to more general business contexts.

Safety legislation and recognised best practice developed over many years have established a range of activities that you would not want or expect staff to engage in when operating or maintaining a physical asset. However, it is interesting to note that staff and organisations tend to have a far less rigorous approach to similar behaviours people exhibit when using information.

The table below provides general types of unacceptable behavior related to physical assets and an analogous behavior related to information assets:

Physical asset

Information asset

Using an asset for a purpose it was not designed for

Inappropriately using existing information for new reports and analysis

Modifying an asset without authorisation

Using a field for a different purpose than intended

Allowing installation of new process assets on site without them integrating to existing process controls Allowing uncontrolled creation of database or spreadsheet based ‘local’ applications

Not tidying up after maintenance activities

Not supplying data updates after maintenance activities

Failure to follow operational or safety procedures

Failure to follow document update procedures

Allowing installation of ‘pirate’ asset spares

Recording data to lower quality levels because that is all local needs require

One of the key differences between these two generic sets of behaviours relates to the consequences of those behaviours.

For example, some of the suggested poor behaviours relating to physical assets are likely to result in either a health and safety incident (or “near hit”) and/or disruption to site processes. The secondary consequences of this could be disciplinary and/or legal action for the individual(s) concerned coupled with immediate impacts on operational and maintenance budgets. Due to this close link to legislation and general awareness of the short term cost impacts, there is far wider understanding that such behaviours are not acceptable.

The suggested poor behaviours relating to information assets could result in overall impacts which are almost as severe for the organisation concerned, but the timeliness of these impacts will generally be far more distant from the behaviour(s) which caused them. This can result in overall degradation of information quality, poorer business decision making, time and/or cost over-runs and abortive expenditure. Apart from where specific legislation requires the gathering and update of specific information, there are not likely to be immediate safety or regulatory impacts from these poor behaviours.

Due to this perceived disconnection between the behaviour and the negative result, there can be far less widespread understanding that such activities are not appropriate. For example, local databases and spreadsheets can still be widespread in some organisations and staff productivity targets may not allow suitable time for undertaking all the required data updates.

Whilst it may appear that the provision of specific legislation to provide a “big stick” to ensure staff behave correctly towards data, this is not likely to happen. We should therefore ensure that we are adopting softer and more subtle approaches to counter incorrect behaviours. This is likely to include:

  • Ongoing communication to staff and managers on the importance of data quality and how they can affect data quality (both positively and negatively)
  • Quantifying the cost impact of incorrect behaviours
  • Creation of local evangelists who understand what better quality data can do for them
  • Provide simple processes for users to supply data updates/corrections
  • Ensure that there is ongoing dialogue with staff who have different or changing business needs
  • Convert hostiles/critics to constructive critics to better understand changing needs and maintain engagement
  • Ensure decision making processes are aware of, and take account of, actual data quality
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6 thoughts on “Would you allow this…?

  • 1st February 2010 at 15:03

    Excellent post Julian,

    Lining up behaviors that would be considered unacceptable when dealing with physical assets alongside comparable behaviors when dealing with information assets is a great analogy.

    I have previously blogged about the similarity between indoctrinating employees into the culture of a safety-conscious workplace, and realizing the importance of creating and maintaining the culture of a data quality conscious workplace.

    As you also noted, safety legislation designed primarily to reduce workplace accidents and secondarily to enforce financial penalties for non-compliance, works far more effectively with physical assets.

    Data governance programs are akin to “internal safety legislation” for data.

    Obviously, even with well-defined and well-managed data governance policies and procedures in place, data quality issues will still occasionally occur.

    However, the goal is to greatly reduce both the frequency and severity of data quality issues, which is achieved mainly by raising awareness.



    • 7th February 2010 at 14:51


      Thanks. It is interesting to note how employees seem to believe that data is ‘different’ to other business resources and processes. This means they may routinely undertake behaviours that compromise the quality of data, but do not see this as a problem.
      We all have a long uphill journey to change these attitudes within organisations.


  • 2nd February 2010 at 09:59

    Hi Julian,

    I like this post.

    I agree with Jim, the analogy between the physical assets and information assets works well.

    I also agree with the carrot rather than stick approach to ensure staff behave correctly towards data. The question is… Who is responsible for wielding the carrot or the stick? Who is responsible for ensuring that staff behave correctly towards data?

    Too often, enterprises fail to recognise data as a critical asset. This failure, combined with the lack of a clearly identified data owner, means that no-one in senior management is responsible for ensuring that staff behave correctly towards data.

    I believe that the regulatory environment swing towards “rules based” regulation will force enterprises to change their approach, and will force them to ensure that “staff behave correctly towards data”, among many other things.

    I am currently discussing the topic of “Achieving Regulatory compliance – the devil is in the data” on my own blog – and would welcome your opinion.

    Rgds Ken

    • 7th February 2010 at 14:55

      In some of the regulated utilities in the UK, there was a belief in the early years of these arrangements that the data wanted by regulators was ‘different’ to the data that these businesses needed for their strategic planning etc.
      Over time, many of these organisations now recognise that the information requested from regulators is what they need to plan their business, so a more unified view is developing. However, organisational culture is tending to mean that at the grass roots level, behaviours may not have changed much.

  • 3rd February 2010 at 15:32

    I work a lot with large public sector clients whose assets are all information. In some of these cases misuse of assets is directly a health & safety concern, as much as physical assets.

    Understanding how asset management impinges on an organisation’s culture helps clarify my strategy.

    Ken O’Connor asks who wields the carrot and stick. Where it’s possible (I declare interest & experience here) a well-designed information management system can wield both.

    I know that’s an unpopular view: users love to hate the software that imposes workflow (and when it’s poorly designed we all hate it) but when it works well it releases huge value.

    Behind all good IT are good people who got the IT right. I’m saying that software can be a useful bearer of carrot & stick and also a lightning conductor for feelings stirred up by cultural change. I’ve seen asset management transformed.

    • 7th February 2010 at 14:58

      Good point Reynold, systems can be used to enforce certain ways of working. However, due to the inherent inflexibility of large systems, it is essential that significant preparation is undertaken to ensure that the system that is implemented is fit for purpose.
      Changing business needs will mean that IS/IT/IM departments will need to be very responsive to requests for new data and processing. Failure in this area will tend to encourage the spreadsheet culture to spring up again, fragmenting your corporate data.



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