Month: April 2011

Where data analysis is a nightmare

There are the dream organizations that deploy data analysts wisely. Then there are the nightmares, such as the I.R.S. as portrayed in David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, reviewed yesterday in the New York Times.

… In a universe of veiled and veiling numbers, the task of drawing the true [data] out into the light and holding them up for inspection, clear and remainder-­less, really is a sacred one. … The problem, as I.R.S. recruits soon discover, is that neither moral nor heroic codes hold true anymore.

These recruits work with “excruciating difficulty … in an age of data saturation.”

The [instructor] presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.”

One character is the data psychic, Sylvanshine, who can “glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him.” But, as if to prove that good data is far from the end of the story, he has a problem.

[He] is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor … becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet.

Let’s see, will an “easy to use,” “speed of thought” tool help? Is there a tool for Sylvanshine and the others?

No, at least not until the next update. But this is why business intelligence is fascinating. Under cover of tools and data, we touch the heart — throbbing or dead — of the organization.

Data managers should emulate good librarians

Haul away the hardware, peel off the software, rinse off the mystique and you see what the people who manage data really are: They’re librarians. That’s the role IT workers should model themselves on.

I’m not talking about technology. I don’t care what tools anyone uses. Whether we’re talking about bound paper known as “books” or bits magically transmitted over “wi-fi,” I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

I know, the comparison may seem harsh. Librarians are said to shuffle silently among musty old books that no one ever reads. Or, as my friend Karen Schneider puts it, they’re “some misguided brontosaurus snuffling in the antediluvian biblioforest.”

She’s director of the Cushing Library at Holy Names University, just across the bay from San Francisco. She’s one of the actual librarians who resist a trend among some in her profession. They want to run libraries like traditional information technology departments. They’ve been seduced by the old mystique — which in the business world has worn thin.

You know the complaints: IT guards its data like gold bullion instead of serving it to those who can create value with it. It tries to shop its way out of problems. Only the initiated may enter.

Why anyone would want to emulate that, I don’t know. Yet apparently, from what she wrote last week in her blog Free Range LIbrarian, this trend has legs among some who manage libraries.

That trend seems idiotic when you realize what a well run library is all about. Substituting just a few words, you can see a philosophy for IT in the one she describes for librarians:

In the end, what matters, and what we are about, are the ancient truths of librarianship: organizing, managing, making available, preserving, and celebrating the word [data] in all of its manifestations; helping our users build skill sets the fundamentals of which (if not the ephemeral details) will last a lifetime [a fiscal year]; and celebrating and defending the right to read [analyze], however that word is interpreted. This is what we do. This is who we are. This makes us librarians.

Librarians and IT workers, that is. Does technology really make anything new? I say that, fundamentally, nothing is new but the tools.