Unlocking the power and value of metadata
A Silwood guest blog by Nicola Askham
In the rapidly evolving world of data-driven businesses and digital transformation, one term stands out as a key player: metadata. But what exactly is metadata, and why should you care about it? In this article, we will dive deep into the world of metadata, exploring its definition, significance, and the challenges it poses in today’s data landscape. And, learn how to unlock the power value of metadata.
How can we define metadata?
At its core, metadata can be described as “data about data.” While this definition may suffice for the technically inclined, it often leaves business users and decision-makers scratching their heads, wondering, “What does that mean?” To bridge this gap, it’s helpful to think of metadata as the essential information that helps us understand and make practical use of our data.
Metadata goes beyond the basics of data definitions; it encompasses a wealth of information vital for different purposes. The relevance of metadata may vary, depending on whether we’re dealing with technical metadata or business metadata.
Technical or Business metadata?
Business metadata primarily concerns itself with answering fundamental questions about data. What does this data mean? How do we use it? Who owns this data, and who is responsible for its stewardship? These questions are crucial for business users to leverage data effectively, ensuring its accuracy and reliability in various business contexts.
On the other hand, technical metadata delves into the finer details of data management. IT professionals are particularly interested in this aspect, seeking information about the system where the data resides, its specific location (table and column), and technical attributes like data type, format, and whether null value are allowed. While business users might not typically delve into such technicalities, they are of utmost importance to IT teams for system maintenance.
The Value of Metadata in Action
To truly appreciate the value of metadata, let’s explore some real-world scenarios where it has made a significant impact.
Consider the case of a bank, the Bank of England, which questioned a report submitted by another institution regarding its lending practices to corporate clients. Due to a lack of understanding of their metadata, a seemingly innocent data field labelled “date” led to catastrophic consequences.
The bank’s annual renewal date was mistakenly interpreted as the date that a lending facility expired.
Consequently, all their lending activities were categorised as short-term, raising suspicions at the Bank of England. This incident eroded trust in their reports for years. This serves as a stark reminder of how good people can make bad decisions when working with inaccurate or misunderstood data.
Another example highlights the significance of metadata in data-driven decision-making. An organisation made a pivotal decision to shut down a supposedly loss-making segment of its business based on a report. However, the decision turned out to be misguided, as the data included information from other departments, skewing the analysis. The organisation realised that trusting the data without proper metadata definitions had led to this costly error.
These examples underscore the pivotal role of metadata in data accuracy, decision-making, and trust-building. Without a comprehensive understanding of what data means and how it’s structured, organisations risk making costly mistakes.
The Business Value of Metadata
Given the increasing reliance on data-driven decision-making, businesses must recognise the value of metadata. Whether in the era of paper ledgers in the 1920s or today’s data deluge, data has always played a crucial role in shaping business strategies. Metadata enhances the business value of data in several ways:
Regulatory compliance is a significant driver for businesses. Adhering to data-related regulations and standards is crucial for avoiding penalties and maintaining trust with customers and stakeholders.
Confidence in Data:
Ensuring data accuracy and reliability is essential for building trust within an organisation. When employees are confident that they have access to accurate data, they can make more informed decisions and perform their roles more effectively.
Reliable metadata enables better decision-making. When decision-makers can trust the data they are using, they can make strategic choices with confidence, reducing the risk of costly errors.
Time and Resource Savings:
Metadata streamlines data-related processes by providing clarity on data definitions and sources. This reduces the time wasted on data cleansing, troubleshooting, and reconciling discrepancies.
Integration and Efficiency:
Metadata allows organisations to integrate systems more effectively. It facilitates data mapping, transformation, and aggregation, ensuring that data flows smoothly across the enterprise.
Bridging Business and IT:
Metadata can bridge the gap between business and IT teams. It provides a common language and understanding of data, fostering collaboration and alignment on data-related initiatives.
Challenges of Harnessing Metadata’s Value
While the benefits of metadata are clear, realising its value across an enterprise data landscape presents several challenges:
Within an organisation, different departments and individuals may use the same data term but with varying interpretations. For instance, what one person defines as a “customer” might differ from another’s definition. Harmonising these meanings can be complex.
Many organisations rely on legacy systems with outdated or inconsistent data definitions. Capturing metadata in such an environment can be time-consuming and requires meticulous planning.
Data Volume and Complexity:
Today’s organisations deal with vast volumes of data, including unstructured data like images and videos. Managing and capturing metadata for this diverse data landscape can be overwhelming.
Lack of Standardisation:
The absence of a common industry standard for metadata definitions and structures adds complexity to the task of capturing and harmonising metadata.
Changing the way employees think about data and metadata can be challenging. Some may be resistant to adopting new practices or sharing their data knowledge.
Getting Started with Metadata
Given these challenges, how can organisations begin their metadata journey effectively?
Here are some key steps:
Don’t attempt to capture all metadata at once. Begin with a specific project or area where metadata will immediately add value, such as a new system implementation.
Emphasise People and Processes
While metadata tools are valuable, they can’t fix data quality issues. Prioritise creating a culture of data governance and clear processes for capturing and maintaining metadata.
Define Common Terms
Begin by defining essential terms used within your organisation. Even small steps like standardising a handful of key data definitions can yield significant benefits.
Capture metadata alongside your data. Ensure that definitions, formats, and data lineage are well-documented and accessible to all relevant stakeholders.
Facilitate cross-functional collaboration between business and IT teams to ensure alignment on data definitions and objectives.
Evolve Over Time
Metadata management is an ongoing process. Continuously refine your metadata practices and expand to cover more data domains and projects.
About Nicola Askham
Known as The Data Governance Coach, Nicola helps organisations understand and manage their data better.
For two decades she has helped organisations reduce costs and inefficiencies. Typically, people turn to her because their data is a mess and they need help unravelling it, or because they realise that new initiatives are failing because of poor quality data.
As well as providing coaching and consulting, she also runs training courses because she feels it is important to give people the skills to make sure that data is used to solve problems and make better informed decisions.
Nicola initially worked for a leading UK Bank and moved into consultancy in 2009. Since then she has worked with clients across a wide range of sectors.
Formerly a long standing Director and Committee Member of DAMA UK, Nicola regularly writes and presents on data governance best practice.