The Information Life Cycle

Originally published May 7, 2008

Business intelligence and decision support are all based on information. Information is a resource and is essential to performing business processes and achieving your business objectives, just as money, inventory, facilities and people are resources. Any resource should be properly managed throughout its life cycle in order to get the full use and benefit from it.

The Life Cycle of Any Resource

In his 1999 book, Larry English talks about a universal resource life cycle that consists of processes required to manage any resource – people, money, facilities and equipment, materials and products and information.1 I refer to these processes as phases. The high-level phases in the information life cycle as I have applied it are described as follows2:

  • Plan – You prepare for the resource.

  • Obtain – You acquire the resource.

  • Store and Share – You hold information about the resource electronically or in hardcopy and share it through some type of distribution method.

  • Maintain – You ensure that the resource continues to work properly.

  • Apply – You use the resource to accomplish your goals.

  • Dispose – You discard the resource when it is no longer of use.

For financial resources, you plan for capital, forecasting and budgeting; you obtain financial resources by borrowing through a loan or selling stock; you maintain financial resources by paying interest and dividends; you apply financial resources by purchasing other resources; and you dispose of the financial resource when you pay off the loan or buy back the stock.

For human resources, you plan for staffing, skills, recruiting and the like; you obtain human resources by hiring; you maintain human resources by providing compensation (wages and benefits) and developing skills through training; you apply human resources by assigning roles and responsibilities and putting skills to use; and you dispose of human resources through retirement or “downsizing” or through employees leaving of their own accord. Even financial and human resources have activities in the Store and Share phase, as information supporting those resources must be stored and shared in some manner.

Phases of the Information Life Cycle

The acronym POSMAD is used to help remember the six phases in the information life cycle. Table 1 describes the phases and provides examples of activities within each phase of the life cycle as it applies to information.

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Value, Cost and Quality and the Information Life Cycle

It is important to understand value, cost and quality in relation to the information life cycle. Following are some key points:

  • All phases of the information life cycle have a cost.

  • It is only when the resource is applied that the company receives value from it. If the information is what the knowledge worker expected, and is useful when applied, then it is helpful and has value to the company. If the quality is not what the knowledge worker needs, then that information has a negative impact on the business.

  • Data quality is affected by activities in all of the phases in the life cycle.

  • By viewing information as a resource, you can determine its costs and its value to the business.

While the business really only cares about the information when it wants to use it, resources should be devoted to every phase in the life cycle in order to produce the quality information needed. In practice, you cannot do everything at once. It may not be practical or feasible to address all phases of the life cycle at the same time. However, you should know enough about what happens in each phase and carefully consider how the information is being managed (and needs to be managed) in every phase so you can make informed decisions about investing in your information resource.

Information is a Reusable Resource

A major difference between information as a resource and other resources is that information is reusable. It is not consumed when used. Once a product on the shelf is purchased by a customer, it is no longer available for the next customer to buy. Once materials are used to build that product, they are not available to be used in the next manufacturing cycle. What happens with information? Just because Sam runs a report on the first of the month, does the information disappear when Maria runs her report on the tenth, or when Patel accesses the information to help a customer? Of course not! When information is used, it is not depleted. The implications of this difference are important:

  • Quality is critical. If the information is wrong, it will be used again and again – with negative results. And each time, the poor-quality information causes more cost to the company or may result in lost revenue.

  • The value of the information increases the more it is used. Many of the costs in planning, obtaining, storing, sharing, and maintaining the information have been expended. Often with little or no incremental cost, it can be used in additional ways to help the company.

The Information Life Cycle – Not a Linear Process

We have talked about the life cycle as if in the real world these activities happen in a very clear, recognizable order. This is not the case. Figure 1 illustrates the phases in the information life cycle. Note that the life cycle is NOT a linear process and is very iterative.

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Figure 1: The Information Life Cycle is not a Linear Process


Source: Adapted from a figure in Larry P. English’s Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), p. 203. Used with permission.

There can be multiple ways that any piece of data or set of information is obtained, maintained, applied and disposed of. In actuality, the same information can also be stored in more than one place (though this is not usually recommended). It is because activities in the real world are complicated and messy that knowing the information life cycle is so helpful.

Suppose you have to ensure the quality of the information used for business intelligence reports pulled from an existing data warehouse. A privacy and security initiative is also interested in understanding those with access to the information in the same reports. Tracing the information from those reports through the Obtain, Store and Share, Maintain and Apply phases of the information life cycle helps provide the insight needed for both projects. (Note that you may be starting with the Apply phase and working backwards.) In some cases, the data could be purchased from an external source, then received by your company and stored – maybe initially in a temporary staging area. The data is then filtered and checked before being loaded into the data warehouse. The data could also be coming from several transactional applications within the company, with the data being manipulated through filters, transformations and deduplication.

It is easy to see how the information path quickly becomes very complicated. Applying your knowledge of the information life cycle brings clarity to a complex situation. Life cycle thinking is also critical when developing data warehouses so you can implement a stable information life cycle and processes that will ensure quality data and information from the beginning.

Summary

Using the information life cycle helps you analyze and segment your data warehouse and business intelligence activities in such a way that you can look at what is happening and identify in which phase of the life cycle those activities are taking place. This knowledge helps you make decisions about what is working, what is not and what needs to be changed. Use life cycle thinking to help you immediately start to understand (or start asking the right questions to discover) what is happening to your information from any view in your company.

References:

  1. Larry English, Improving Data Warehouse and Business Information Quality (Wiley, 1999), pp. 200–209.

  2. Many thanks to Larry English for teaching me about the universal resource life cycle (Plan, Acquire, Maintain, Dispose, Apply). I modified the names of the life cycle phases slightly from his original, added the “Store and Share” phase and developed the acronym POSMAD as a reminder of the information life cycle phases. He provided the examples for activities within each of the phases for financial, human, and information resources.
  • Danette McGilvray
    Danette McGilvray is president and principal of Granite Falls Consulting, Inc., a firm specializing in information quality management to support key business processes around customer satisfaction, decision support, supply chain management and operational excellence. Her forthcoming book, Executing Data Quality Projects: Ten Steps to Quality Data and Trusted Information, (published by Morgan Kaufmann Publishers) will be available July 2008. Comments are welcome. Please send to danette@gfalls.com or see www.gfalls.com.
 

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