I’d like to talk about best practice in the storage of data and documents using my own 35 years’ experience as an engineer. I was wondering how best to explain my thoughts and with it being the summer season here in the UK , I came up with the metaphor of the flower pot. Let me explain….
The above graphic is an illustration of a vision where all of your data and documents are represented by the soil and water and the plant pot represents the servers hosting your data and documents. The petals are the apps that access, manipulate and present your data and documents in different ways for different purposes from different devices, including mobile. With the roots, stem and branches representing the connectors, or integration layer, between the apps, the data and the documents
The main point of this illustration is to show that there is only one set of data and documents and it can be accessed by any one or all of the apps. Any data added, changed or deleted by any one app is instantly reflected in the other apps where applicable and a “single source of truth” has been created.
Contrast this with what we often see in the world in which we operate. People have apps and solutions that have their own data and documents. Therefore they have many pots with their own soil and water, so any changes are only reflected in one pot. Other pots cannot share the soil and water which means when the soil dries out the app dies! In other words, when some applications become neglected or out of date they stop being used and the app, along with the content, is switched off – sometimes without saving to archive! When users do not trust the data and know it is no longer current, then the solution withers as shown in the illustration below.
Many operating companies have a pot for some or all of the following:
- Document Management System
- Maintenance Management System
- Enterprise Resource Management System
- Geographical Information System
- Engineering Information Management System
- Materials Management System
From our experience these systems serve their communities well with specific functionality and content, but they often frustrate the users when the content is poor and incomplete, or the soil is not rich. Yet the data required can sometimes be found in another pot.
For example, a pump requiring maintenance may not show the requisite location data in the maintenance management system, yet it may be represented in the Geographical Information System. So the data is not shared or different data standards are used meaning the apps do not play well together. Many maintenance personnel never go near a Graphical Information System and hence it can be underutilised, with the growth in mobile technology this trend will change.
The systems defined above are historically sold as solutions to solve a specific need, but as a trained engineering user, I am only interested in the information I need to do the job and I do not want to be a master of many systems.
Even though these solutions are feature rich, they still contribute to the silo mentality and leave challenges that have to be overcome. A few typical examples include:Which system is the master?
- Where do I manage document linking?
- Fifty percent of my engineering data is locked up in vendor documents and the other half is in my engineering information management system so where do I look first?
- Where do I manage the new or poor data before I load up my rule based solutions?
- Why does each system use a different standard? In my maintenance management system I have “centrifugal pump” but in my materials management system these are “pump, centrifugal” and there are even bigger differences to worry about!
Having spent 25 years sucking data out of best of breed systems and pushing structured data back into these systems, we have gained a very detailed knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of many solutions, but the main issue remains the lack of quality content.
So my top tips for helping your garden grow, and hence improving business performance, are as follows:
Tip 1 – Build a “single source of truth”
Copying and pooling the majority of your content from all known sources is the way to go. Think of it as creating a big compost heap with all the soil from the various plant pots. With the right tools this is not a daunting as you think.
Once you have established a quality data and document set you can use this to update your corporate solutions to keep them evergreen and trusted.
Tip 2 – Use the right tools.
Resist the temptation to adopt one of your existing solutions to create and manage your single source of truth. Unless it can deal with conflicting data from one or more source, track and manage all sources, deal with unstructured data, validate data to international and corporate standards and a host of other specific functionality to converge your legacy or live data.
With SaaS models and technology advances tools that facilitate staging area working are very economical and effective. Stick with tools that have a proven track record in this area.
Tip 3 – Enrich your single source of truth.
Once you have established a single source of truth you should enrich your content and keep it evergreen so your users trust and respect the data and documents. One way you can do this by making the data and documents available on mobile devices in the field and thus confirm what assets you have or gather missing or changed data. Use mobile apps that can feed forwards your existing content.
You can also embrace external reference libraries to supplement your existing data and documents with verified content. Thus share with other organisations and industries.
Tip 4 – Work on your integration layer.
Your chosen corporate solutions will serve you better if they can interface with external data and documents stored as your single source of truth. It is accepted that they will need their own copy of some data to function however the future lies in making sure the federated data referenced by all solutions is integrated with the single source of truth as well as it can be.
Some apps do not need any data they can access what they need though connectors. This is where the future lies.
Tip 5 – Do not let go of the ball!
With the exception of the services and tools helping you establish a single source of truth beware of the “agenda benders”. People recognise information is power and want to hijack a copy of your data and documents and then start to make changes and create a new island of information.
We see this often on a major project when a new system or a new contractor arrives on the scene. Make sure they integrate with and compliment your master data and documents rather than run off with your content. Reconciliation costs can then be avoided.
I was given a book on garden compost last Christmas, which I have yet to read. Not sure if it covers data management!