The Four Horsemen of the Data Apocalypse

Recently, I heard someone speak about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The original four horsemen of the apocalypse are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible as death, famine, war, and conquest, as a symbolic prophecy of the future. The same can be said about…

The Data Apocalypse

The message and the messages of the four horsemen of the data apocalypse—regarding attitudes such as ignorance, arrogance, obsolescence, and power—resonated well with me, as it clearly describes reasons that I have seen as why organizations are struggling to manage their data as a valued asset.

The four horsemen can be used to describe the negative attitudes organizations have toward data that have prevented these organizations from addressing the need to improve and gain value from their most valuable asset.

The first horseman is Ignorance.

The ignorance attitude can be best described as thinking that seeking value from data is not that important.

Organizations that carry this “ignorance toward data” attitude are at the lowest end of the data-maturity spectrum. Organizations that demonstrate ignorance toward data are behind their competition when it comes to allocating resources focused on improving their data situation. Improvements in a data situation can include improving data quality, data understanding, data protection, and improving regulatory and compliance-reporting capabilities. These organizations will be the last to hire Chief Data Officers (CDOs), the last to implement formal data governance programs, and will be at the end of the line when it comes to collecting and managing the information about their data—otherwise known as metadata.

You have heard the statement that “ignorance is bliss.” Well, not in this case. In this case, ignorance leads to organizations falling behind the times during the blossoming information age.

The second horseman is Arrogance.

The arrogance attitude can be described as the thinking that management knows more than the people who own and are responsible for the data.

Organizations that maintain this attitude demonstrate belief that management knows best. Management will not know the difficulties their teams are having if they do not communicate with the people who know the data best. Arrogance can be avoided by having an open dialogue with the people who define, produce, and use data as part of their daily (hourly) routine. Arrogance toward data can be avoided by conducting internal assessments of how the organization governs its data against the industry’s best practices.

Unnamed philosophers speculate that, “The difference between arrogance and confidence is performance.” Management should be looking at the data they use to improve their organization’s performance and be open-minded toward continuous data improvement.

The third horseman is Obsolescence.

The obsolescence attitude can be described as thinking that the present data, in the present systems, will never die; if it carried the organization this far, there is no reason to change.

Organizations that carry this attitude are afraid to move out of the past and invest in the future. To stay one step ahead of the competition, organizations must continuously focus on improving data quality, data access, understanding, and protection—even if the present state allows the organization to get by. Organizations with obsolete data and systems become inefficient, ineffective, and act very informally toward improving their data situation.

As Andy Rooney, noted American radio and television personality, once said, “The fastest thing computers do is go obsolete.” The same can be said about the data housed on these computers, and the systems that manage the flow and use of data on these computers. Resting on your data laurels is the quickest way to become obsolete.

The last horseman is Power.

The power attitude can best be described as the feeling that projects owned by the most influential members of management are more critical than other projects.

Organizations in which power is the driving attitude have a difficult time getting out of their own way when prioritizing those activities that will lead to higher quality data. Management with the most seniority, or management from the most profitable part of the business, typically see major investments in their own personal data infrastructure as most important and their personal pet projects, while addressing the most critical data needs, are often misunderstood or misinterpreted as being not as important.

William Gaddis, famous American author, once said that, “Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.” The truth is that the most powerful people in the organization must have the responsibility to know and understand the need to prioritize projects that will have the most valuable impact on the organization. Power-moves often lead to bad decision-making, which leads to the squeakiest of wheels getting the grease while the other wheels fall off the axle.

The four horsemen of the data apocalypse are a simplified way of looking at the impediments to an organization’s ability to improve their data situation. The better we recognize these attitudes in our organization, the quicker and more effective we will be at addressing and managing the most important and valuable asset we own: our data.

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About the Author: Bob Seiner

Robert S. (Bob) Seiner is well-recognized and respected in the information asset management industry (covering data, information, content, and knowledge management) for his tremendous commitment to collecting, recording, sharing his experience, and transferring how-to knowledge about successful practices. Seiner is known as the creator and implementer of the Non-Invasive Data Governance™ approach that has been recognized and adopted as a practical, less-threatening and successful alternative to traditional data governance methods for organizations world-wide. He may be reached at [email protected]