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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

April 2011 Archives

If there's one thing BI folks love more than playing with data, it's classifying it.  And one of the endless debates has been about the data, information, and knowledge taxonomy.  How we could simplify our lives if there was only one all-encompassing term!  Or maybe not...

I was teaching a Business Integrated Insight (BI2) seminar in Helsinki a couple of weeks ago and a TDWI member and Development Director of Visual Management Ltd, Vesa Tiirikainen, shared with me that in Finnish, there is only one word that covers data, information and knowledge and that word is "tieto".  So I asked myself: what if there was only one word in English?  Would our perception of IT change?  What would it mean for topics like Data Governance?

First, let's take a look at the traditional meanings of the English words.  From the Oxford English Dictionary, we have:
Data: (1) facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis, and (2) the quantities, characters and symbols on which operations are performed by a computer
Information: facts provided or learned about something or someone
Knowledge: facts, information and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject

The definitions are remarkably similar.  All are about facts, and interestingly, not about opinions, beliefs, etc. which seems a huge omission to me.  Data is a little more about how facts are manipulated.  Knowledge has more of a people orientation.  But, in general, not too helpful!

So allow me to propose perhaps more meaningful definitions.  Information, to me, is the starting point.  Information describes real-world objects in words, numbers, pictures and similar artifacts of communication in a way that is suitable for human cognition, use and processing.  It is inherently vague, context-dependent and open to interpretation.  I call it soft information.  Data is extracted from information by a process (modeling) of formalizing meaning and separating structure and meaning (metadata) from values.  This I call hard information.  Finally, knowledge is information that is understood and internalized by people so that it can be put to practical and innovative use.

On that basis, could we manage with a single word to cover all categories?  As BI practitioners, I suspect not.  Data governance and information management also demand such clarity, as I'm sure Mike Ferguson will touch upon in Rome on May 9-11.  Understanding these categories has been vital to me as I've created the BI2 architecture, because they require fundamentally different processing methods, storage approaches, and so on.

But users?  From the business user's viewpoint, I believe we should use a single word - and let's choose "information".  In the business view, the underlying structure and metadata separation of data is actually unimportant.  And, increasingly, computers can store, manipulate and make available soft and hard information in a seamless fashion.  Knowledge, too, is being folded into the computer world through social media and networking approaches where the human interaction around a set of information becomes a key component of how information is used.

In the real world, the Finns probably have it right - one word should be sufficient.  But for BI and IT folks, we just need to make life more complex... but for good reason!


Posted April 26, 2011 10:43 AM
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