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Inmon’s Hierarchy of Needs for Information Technology, Part 1

Originally published abril 30, 2009

With apologies to Maslow and his famous hierarchy of human needs, there is a similar set of needs for people involved in information processing. For lack of a better term, we can call this hierarchy Inmon’s hierarchy of needs for information technology. The hierarchy of needs for information technology goes a long way to explaining behavior found in our community.

At a conference I recently attended, there was a presentation on mashups. Mashups are good for taking systems and rearranging data in those systems to produce very quick and immediate results. The vendors of mashup technology were presenting to an audience of industry analysts who – for lack of a better term – could be called data analysts. The audience of data analysts had backgrounds in data modeling, database design, data administration, architecture and the like. At the end of the presentation by the vendors of mashup technology, there was a big collective yawn from the room. The data analysts just could not work up any righteous enthusiasm for mashups.

One explanation for the lack of enthusiasm was that the data analysts had no experience in building systems. And there may be some element of truth to that. But there was a different (and probably much better) explanation for the lack of enthusiasm of the data analysts. And that explanation is that the data analysts in the room were on a different hierarchical plane than the vendors that were so enthusiastic about their mashups.

Consider the simple hierarchy of needs for information technology:

Level 1: Believing data across the corporation.
Level 2: Believing data at the system level.
Level 3: Changing/controlling data at the system level.
Level 4: Accessing data.

Let’s examine this hierarchy. Someone wants to answer a question in order to have the basis for making a decision. He needs data, and his immediate need is – “I need to access data.” The lowest level need in the hierarchy then is the finding and the accessing of data. Assuming the person finds exactly what he needs in a timely fashion, he is happy to make his decision and be on his way. But suppose the person, upon finding his data, needs to have changes made to the data. Perhaps the data is not quite what he wanted. Perhaps he needed data more quickly than he could get it. Perhaps he needed other data as well. When the access of data does not produce perfect results, the next step up the hierarchical ladder is to want to change or control the data. In doing so, the analyst can control and manage his/her own needs for data.

But after the analyst starts to control his own data, he finds that the data that is produced is not reliable. The source of data is not yielding accurate information. And because inaccurate data is being generated, making decisions on that data is risky business. Wrong decisions are being made, and all the access to the data and all the control of the data in the world are not going to help. Now the analyst discovers the third step in the hierarchy of needs. Accessing data and changing data won’t do a thing unless the data is believable. So now the analyst sets out to clean up the data flowing through the system.

Life is good, until the analyst attends a high-level management meeting. At this meeting a report is made to management from another department that has data that directly contradicts the data the analyst has. When it is the analyst’s time to speak, the meeting degenerates into an argument over who has the best data. It is at this point that the analyst discovers the value of consistent information outside of the given system – the value of accurate believable corporate data.

The analyst can have the best accessibility to data in the world, the best system for changing and controlling data, the most accurate data in his/her system and still have a dysfunctional system. None of these things count unless there is corporate believability of data.

So how does the hierarchy of information technology needs explain why data analysts are not interested in mashups? Mashups are clearly good for control and alteration of data after it has been accessed. Mashups clearly address the needs of the information analyst at the second level of the hierarchy. Data analysts are facing an entirely different set of problems. Data analysts are facing the problems of making data believable at either the system level or the corporate level. They simply are facing a whole set of issues that the mashups do not address.

And what problems are the data analysts facing? I was at a corporation when the top manager said – “Enough of these %#*#&@ spreadsheets. We are trying to manage our corporation by spreadsheet. The problem is that there are many different spreadsheets and no one really knows whether the information they have on their spreadsheet is in sync with the spreadsheet of anyone else. We are making huge financial decisions when we don’t even have any idea of what the right information is.”

The answer is not a better or improved spreadsheet. The answer is not a cooler or more elegant mashup. In fact, a better spreadsheet or a better mashup only complicates things. It makes the problem of corporate believability of data worse, not better. The analysts are facing the problem of corporate believability while the mashup vendors are facing the problem of accessing and changing or controlling data. No wonder there is a mismatch.

SOURCE: Inmon’s Hierarchy of Needs for Information Technology, Part 1

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

    Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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