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Published in IT World
November 15, 2005

Master Foo Defines Enterprise Data

By Sean Mc Grath

Master Foo once said to a visiting CIO from a Fortune 500 company: "Tell me. If a PC is destroyed in your company when nobody is around to save it, does the event make a noise at boardroom level?"

The CIO thought for a moment and replied : "That would depend on whether or not the PC held important enterprise data."

Master Foo, who seemingly anticipated this exact response, was quick with his follow up question: "Indeed so. Tell me, how does your organization define enterprise data?"

The CIO, who recently had presided over the installation of an enterprise-wide database management system, could not believe his luck. The question from Master Foo provided a great opening to hold forth on the wonderful new enterprise data management system he was so proud of.

"My definition", he began, "is that enterprise data is data that is critical to a business function. In any large organization, it is not unusual for information to be duplicated in multiple places. The critical distinguishing feature of enterprise data is that it is the definitive, authoritative source of a particular piece of business information. Copies of enterprise data can be destroyed without any significant adverse affects but it is vital for an organization to centrally maintain definitive, authoritative versions of each piece of mission critical data. This is what we do with our enterprise data management system. We do not mind if PCs have copies of enterprise data as long as the definitive version is managed centrally."

"Interesting", said Master Foo.

At this point, the CIO became slightly nervous. Master Foo often pre-fixes a pointed observation with the word "Interesting".

"Tell me,", Master Foo asked with just the glimmer of enjoyment appearing around his eyes, "what form does your enterprise data management system take?"

With a little trepidation, the CIO replied : "We keep all our data in a top of the range database management system. All our applications are web based so users only need to have a web browser. All the data and all the applications are held centrally."

The CIO was getting into his stride. He began to feel as if his fears were unfounded. Perhaps this conversation with Master Foo was going swimmingly after all? "I would go so far to say", he continued, "that any of our employees could hurl their PC off the top of this mountain with minimal impact on any of our business processes because we have centralized all the enterprise data." He stopped, beaming slightly, searching Master Foo's face for a positive reaction.

"Interesting", said Master Foo again.

"Oh dear", thought the CIO. Here it comes...

"How many of your employees use spreadsheets?", master Foo asked.

"Nearly all of the business users use spreadsheets.", the CIO replied.

"Are all the spreadsheets managed centrally too?"

"Well, no. The spreadsheets used by the accounts people are. Beyond that, I must admit I don't have a good feel for what everyone else uses spreadsheets for."

"Think of your centralized database applications as a set of large rocks. Their great strength is their solidity. Their great weakness is their lack of flexibility. Think of spreadsheets as the water that flows over and around the rocks. Their great strength is their flexibility. Their great weakness is their lack of solidity. The easiest route to the far side of a rock is to be like water and flow over or around it, rather than to change the nature of the rock."

"Would you mind repeating that more slowly?"

"No problem", said Master Foo. "Database applications have rigid structure and rigid behavior. If a business process exactly matches the structure and behavior then nothing inhibits the flow of business processes. As soon as the rigidity becomes a problem, users will seek to find the quickest way around the rigidity. This often takes the form of spreadsheets that supplement the data and the behavior of the centralized systems. Spreadsheets do not involve getting the IT department to do anything. Nobody even needs to be told. The spreadsheets can be stored locally. Individuals can set up their spreadsheets to model how they themselves work. They have complete control."

A cold sweat formed on the brow of the CIO.

"Over time, more and more key information lives primarily in the spreadsheets rather than in the centralized data stores. In advanced cases of this phenomenon, it is the expense centralized enterprise applications that can be destroyed without causing a noise at board level because individual, local PCs hold the true enterprise data in an amorphous assembly of spreadsheets."

"Ah. Yes. I understand now, but I can assure you that this is not the case in my organization.", said the CIO as his shaking hand reached for his cell phone.