A Farscape Analogy for Data Quality

Farscape was one of my all-time favorite science fiction television shows.  In the weird way my mind works, the recent blog post (which has received great comments) Four Steps to Fixing Your Bad Data by Tom Redman, triggered a Farscape analogy.

“The notion that data are assets sounds simple and is anything but,” Redman wrote.  “Everyone touches data in one way or another, so the tendrils of a data program will affect everyone — the things they do, the way they think, their relationships with one another, your relationships with customers.”

The key word for me was tendrils — like I said, my mind works in a weird way.


Moya and Pilot

On Farscape, the central characters of the show travel through space aboard Moya, a Leviathan, which is a species of living, sentient spaceships.  Pilot is a sentient creature (of a species also known as Pilots) with the vast capacity for multitasking that is necessary for the simultaneous handling of the many systems aboard a Leviathan.  The tendrils of a Pilot’s lower body are biologically bonded with the living systems of a Leviathan, creating a permanent symbiotic connection, meaning that, once bonded, a Pilot and a Leviathan can no longer exist independently for more than an hour or so, or both of them will die.

Leviathans were one of the many laudably original concepts of Farscape.  The role of the spaceship in most science fiction is analogous to the role of a boat.  In other words, traveling through space is most often imagined like traveling on water.  However, seafaring vessels and spaceships are usually seen as a technological object providing transportation and life support, but not actually alive in its own right (despite the fact that both types of ship are usually anthropomorphized, and usually as a female).

Because Moya was alive, when she was damaged, she felt pain and needed time to heal.  And because she was sentient, highly intelligent, and capable of communicating with the crew through Pilot (who was the only one who could understand the complexity of the Leviathan language, which was beyond the capability of a universal translator), Moya was much more than just a means of transportation.  In other words, there truly was a symbiotic relationship between, not only Moya and Pilot, but also between Moya and Pilot, and their crew and passengers.


Enterprise and Data

(Sorry, my fellow science fiction geeks, but it’s not that Enterprise and that Data.  Perfectly understandable mistake, though.)

Although technically not alive in the biological sense, in many respects, an organization is like a living, sentient organism, and like space and seafaring ships, often anthropomorphized.  An enterprise is much more than just a large organization providing a means of employment and offering products and/or services (and, in a sense, life support to its employees and customers).

As Redman explains in his book Data Driven: Profiting from Your Most Important Business Asset, data is not just the lifeblood of the Information Age, data is essential to everything the enterprise does, from helping it better understand its customers, to guiding its development of better products and/or services, to setting a strategic direction toward achieving its business goals.

So the symbiotic relationship between Enterprise and Data is analogous to the symbiotic relationship between Moya and Pilot.

Data is the Pilot of the Enterprise Leviathan.  The enterprise can not survive without its data.  A healthy enterprise requires healthy data — data of sufficient quality capable of supporting the operational, tactical, and strategic functions of the enterprise.

Returning to Redman’s words, “Everyone touches data in one way or another, so the tendrils of a data program will affect everyone — the things they do, the way they think, their relationships with one another, your relationships with customers.”

So the relationship between an enterprise and its data, and its people, business processes, and technology, is analogous to the relationship between Moya and Pilot, and their crew and passengers.  It is the enterprise’s people, its crew (i.e., employees), who, empowered by high quality data and enabled by technology, optimize business processes for superior corporate performance, thereby delivering superior products and/or services to the enterprise’s passengers (i.e., customers).


So why isn’t data viewed as an asset?

So if this deep symbiosis exists, if these intertwined and symbiotic relationships exist, if the tendrils of data are biologically bonded with the complex enterprise ecosystem — then why isn’t data viewed as an asset?

In Data Driven, Redman references the book The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, who explained that “a technology is never fully accepted until it becomes invisible to those who use it.”  The term informationalization describes the process of building data and information into a product or service.  “When products and services are fully informationalized,” Redman noted, then data, “blends into the background and people do not even think about it anymore.”

Perhaps that is why data isn’t viewed as an asset.  Perhaps data has so thoroughly pervaded the enterprise that it has become invisible to those who use it.  Perhaps it is not an asset because data is invisible to those who are so dependent upon its quality.


Perhaps we only see Moya, but not her Pilot.


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