Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 31;   July 31, 2002: Snapshots of Squirming Subjects

Snapshots of Squirming Subjects

by

Today we use data as a management tool. We store, recall, and process data about our operations to help us manage resources and processes. But this kind of management data is often scattered, out of date, or just plain incorrect, and taking a snapshot doesn't work. There is a better way.

After 20 minutes of struggling with the arcane language of the auditor's memo, Patricia was finally beginning to understand what she needed to know. She asked Geoff, "And how many projects have people who've been on site over 180 days?"

"Hard to say," he replied. "I'd guess that most do, but only the project managers know for sure."

"OK, can you have a summary by tomorrow at Two? We have to know our exposure."

Address file"I doubt it," said Geoff. "We'd have to find out who the project managers are first. The regional offices keep that sort of information — there's no central repository."

"Well, OK, do what you can for tomorrow," said Patricia. "But meanwhile, I can't believe that we don't know who the project managers are. Can't the regions just send us the basics on every project?"

Geoff and Patricia are about to enter a world that seems strange to non-specialists — the world of electronic Database Management. In that world, our paper-based intuition misleads us. Although it's counter to our intuition, it would be a mistake for Patricia to take a "snapshot" — to collect the project manager data and keep it around until she needs it. By then, it will be out of date.

Organizations are in
constant motion.
They don't pause
for snapshots.
Although photographic snapshots do capture all the elements of a scene simultaneously (or nearly so), we can't collect management data that way. If the organization is large enough or scattered enough, no team of practical size can gather simultaneous data from across the organization. The phone tag alone prevents it. But even if it were possible, the data is volatile. People are reassigned, projects begin or end, and phone numbers change. As soon as the data is collected, it's out of date in unknown ways. Snapshots don't work because the subject can't sit still.

Centralized databases work, but since data owners typically don't have write access, the data must still be collected. The price of central databases is agility and flexibility.

Often, a better solution is to leave the data in the hands of its "owners," and compile summaries on demand using automation. Most large organizations are networked, so it's possible to give the owners of the data the responsibility for maintaining up-to-date local versions in standard form on their own file servers. Then, using the organizational Intranet, anyone can use automated network software to poll the local data stores, compiling an organizational summary whenever they need one.

We don't think of doing things this way because our mental models of how we work haven't caught up to our networked reality. We imagine looking up what we need in a continuously updated central data store, analogous to a Rolodex or paper ledger. But in the networked organization, where data is constantly changing, we gain an advantage if we automatically compile data just in time — on demand. Go to top Top  Next issue: Should I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?  Next Issue

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