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Inmon’s Hierarchy of Needs for Information Technology, Part 2

Originally published May 7, 2009

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the notion of a hierarchy of needs for people in information technology (with apologies to Maslow). The hierarchy of needs for information technology – Inmon’s hierarchy of needs – goes a long way to explain many attitudes and practices in the world of technology. The hierarchy is shown below.

Level 1: Believing data across the corporation.

Level 2: Believing data at the system level.

Level 3:
Changing/controlling data at the system level.

Level 4:
Accessing data.

The hierarchy depicts that when the average person enters the world of technology, the first thing the person wants to do is access some data. The access barrier is usually quickly broken. But after accessing a lot of data, the person soon finds out that he needs to access different data. Or that the data that he has access to needs to be modified. In any case, the person finds that he needs to change or control data that he is accessing. Merely accessing data quickly becomes insufficient. The person has now crossed the barrier from the 4th level of the hierarchy of needs to the 3rd level of the hierarchy of needs.

So the person creates an environment where the data that is accessed can be changed and modified. Then, the person finds that some of the data that has been processed in the system is bad. The data may be incomplete, incorrect, untimely, or all of the above. Using the incorrect data as a basis for decision making becomes a risky proposition. The person feels that access to data and the ability to alter data is meaningless unless the data that is produced is believable and usable. The person has now crossed from the 3rd level of the hierarchy of needs to the second level of the hierarchy of needs.

Then, one day, the person is in a management meeting preparing to make a report. However, before he can make the presentation, another presenter displays some figures which are in direct conflict with those that the person is about to present. The person doing the presentation now has Hobson’s choice. Either don’t make the presentation or make the presentation and have a political shootout. It is at this moment that the value of corporate information comes into focus. The top – 1st – level of the hierarchy of needs of information technology has been now been reached. The hierarchy of needs for information technology exists in one form or another in many places.

It is interesting that much of the evolution of technology in the computer profession has paralleled the levels of the hierarchy of needs. Consider some of the advances and technologies which have occurred over time, such as the advent of the personal computer. The personal computer was hailed as a tremendous advancement and, for many purposes, it was just that. The personal computer freed data from the corporation to the point where the individual could access, manipulate and control the data. Undoubtedly, the personal computer had great utility and advantage. But when enough people got their data from manipulations made on their own personal computers, all chaos broke loose. No one knew what anyone else was saying and each person was convinced that his/her own interpretation of data was the correct one.

The same phenomenon occurred with spreadsheets. At first, the spreadsheet was a liberating tool. It helped people organize their thoughts. It could be controlled at the desktop and used in many sophisticated ways. But when the corporation tried to make corporate decisions based on data from multiple spreadsheets, the problems of believability of data ensued. As long as the spreadsheet only contained data that was local to the department, everything was fine. But when the spreadsheet contained corporate data that was found in other spreadsheets, the problems began. There was no coordination, no consistency of data from one spreadsheet to the next. The initial joy of the individual taking control of his or her data was soon supplanted by the embarrassment and pain associated with not having data useful for making corporate decisions.

Stated differently, when corporations attempt to make decisions from spreadsheets, there can be found a spreadsheet that supports any stance that management wants to take. It is like deciding where to fly to based on the direction of the wind at the moment of takeoff.

Then came 4GL processing. With 4GL processing, the end user could take control of his/her own destiny. It was said that with 4GL processing there was a 1000% increase in productivity. There is no doubt that access to data was improved and expanded with 4GL; but actually looking at data through 4GL only accelerated the moment when the end user would encounter the pain associated with working from unbelievable data. The end user now understood that data that was not believable was also data that was not useful, no matter how easy the access to the data might be.

What are some examples of organizations that have recognized the need for believability of data? The world’s best example of a product or vendor selling a product based on the need for corporate believability of data must be SAP. SAP introduces discipline and integration of data as a part of their implementation. And the recognition of the need for believability of data must be widespread because SAP R/3 and NetWeaver are used all over the world today.

But it isn’t just the corporation that recognizes the need for corporate data and believable data. The Sarbanes-Oxley act mandates that publicly traded companies present to the world true corporate data (at the threat of Draconian penalties up to and including jail time for executives, thank you Enron and MCI). And there is Basel II that demands accuracy and corporate data for financial institutions.

And with HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, and Basel II comes the emphasis for data governance. People recognize that there is a need for corporate governance today. The truth is that there has been a need for corporate governance for a long time now, bit is only as corporations arrive at the highest level of understanding of the hierarchy of needs that the corporation recognizes the need for governance.

The hierarchy of information needs is found everywhere and in different forms.


  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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