On Information

Concepts in Information Management – blog by Ronald Fuller

Introduction to the Fundamentals of Information Management

     The Fundamentals of Information Management was the title of a presentation I gave to various audiences at Microsoft Corp. in 2014 and 2015.


Not every discipline is based on fundamental principles. When someone talks about the fundamentals of marketing, or the fundamentals of business communications, for example, they are usually talking about introductory concepts or things you should know if you want to succeed in those endeavors.  Other disciplines however, such as chemistry and music, are deeply rooted in fundamental principles or laws of nature.  Achieving a level of professional competence in that kind of field requires not just mastery of concepts and tasks, but a sound understanding of the underlying principles. 


When fundamental principles are discovered within some discipline, or when techniques based on those principles are developed, the result is often significant advancement and rapid growth of that discipline. For example: in the field of chemistry, the existence of chemical compounds and reactions were known long before the structure of the atom and its fundamental properties were understood, but alchemy was a primitive and unpredictable craft.  When the periodic table was published, it laid the foundation for a truly scientific discipline of chemistry and enabled it to advance very quickly.


Music is also based on fundamental principles, and people have created music since prehistoric times. The ancient Greeks understood that music had mathematical properties, but early written notation systems did not fully reflect that understanding. As a result, early written music could be used to help musicians remember a tune they had already heard but it was not a reliable way for someone to learn a tune they had never heard. Modern music notation brought significant improvement because it allows the mathematical elements of a composition to be described in precise detail, and allows even the subjective expressive elements to be described in some detail. The standardization of modern notation led to an enormous and rapid expansion of creative output during the golden age of classical music which has continued ever since.


The field of Information management is not generally recognized as having a basis in any truly fundamental principles. Sources using the phrase "fundamentals of information management" usually include content ranging from tips on data governance, to best practices for business intelligence, to lists of terms and definitions for various information technology topics. Regardless of the merit of these sources or how important such topics may be, none of them actually reflect any connection to truly fundamental principles.


PacioliThe most persuasive evidence I have seen pointing to a fundamental basis for information management comes from accounting, which is the discipline of managing financial information.  Modern accounting has evolved from the practice of double-entry bookkeeping, which has been used since at least 1299 AD. It was first described in a published work in 1494 by Luca Pacioli, who was a Franciscan monk, the most influential mathematician of the Renaissance, and a friend to Leonardo DaVinci.


The preface to Ancient Double-Entry Bookkeeping (1914), which is the earliest modern English translation of Pacioli's original treatise, indicates that the author recognized a basis in fundamental principles for double-entry bookkeeping. He wrote: 


It is a significant fact that the rules and principles elucidated by Pacioli are contained in a book given over to mathematics. One cannot help but believe that the derivation of double-entry bookkeeping is an explanation of the algebraic equation used with such skill by the ancient Greek mathematicians, applied practically to the scientific recoding of business transactions, for just as in algebra, the equation once established cannot be changed but by addition of positive and negative quantities,applied practically to the scientific recording of business transaction.

The author here makes layered mistakes, but his intuition is correct on all counts. His insight about the algebraic equation used with such skill by the ancient Greek mathematicians really applies to classical logic, not algebra or any particular equation. Classical logic was discovered by the ancient Greeks; algebra is based on classical logic but was discovered a thousand years later by Muslims, in Baghdad. And the significance of double-entry bookkeeping he attributes to the addition of positive and negative quantities should really be given to the system of interconnected books, which allows accountants to organize information into forms that expose new facts about it. Logical processes cannot produce new information, but they can transform information into different-but-equivalent forms which can make it easier to understand, and from the perspective of human beings that is essentially the same as producing new information. This is the great power of classical logic – what once was hidden becomes revealed. And this is exactly the same property of classical logic that allows the unintelligible gibberish of ones and zeros on a data drive to be reorganized into different-but-equivalent forms that people can understand on their screens and peripheral devices.


As a database professional, this struck me as significant because the theory underlying modern database technology, known as the relational model, is based on modern additions to classical logic which were discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were essentially new extensions to the principles discovered by the ancient Greeks. With this historical context I decided to look further. It seemed incredible that medieval accountants appeared to grasp modern conceptions of logic nearly 700 years before they were formally described. In January, 2014 I discovered something remarkable that I think has enormous positive implications for every large enterprise that struggles to manage information effectively: the system of interconnected books used in double-entry bookkeeping is precisely consistent with the relational model:

  • Journals and inventories are relations (transaction tables)
  • The repertory or finding key is a relation (reference table)
  • Book entries are n-tuples (rows)
  • Columns are domains (attributes)
  • Ledger accounts are filtered views of journals, therefore they are also relations
  • Journal entries refer to ledger accounts by way of page reference numbers, which are foreign keys to each account
  • Balance sheets and other financial statements are filtered or aggregated views of the ledger, capital and cash accounts
  • The rules of double-entry bookkeeping provide consistency and referential integrity
  • A Chart of accounts is a system catalog (metadata dictionary)

In other words, medieval merchants in northern Italy had invented fully-functional, manually-operated relational database management systems which satisfy every definition and description of modern systems in every respect, except they have nothing to do with computers.


Godel_Einstein.jpegThis is significant because it stands as evidence that computers and technology have not fundamentally changed the basic nature of information management as has been assumed since the 1970's.  It reestablishes the old knowledge that information management is a business discipline, not a technology discipline; and that the business discipline of information management is, indeed, based on fundamental principles.  And not just any fundamental principles but principles considered by some to be the most fundamental of all principles.  Kurt Gödel, the best friend of Albert Einstein and whom their colleagues saw as his intellectual equal, described mathematical logic as:

a science prior to all others, which contains the ideas and principles underlying all sciences" (1945)


Compare Gödel's statement about logic to the following statements by Werner Sombart about double-entry bookkeeping:  


Double-entry bookkeeping came from the same spirit which produced the systems of Galileo and Newton, and the subject matter of modern physics and chemistry.

Double-entry bookkeeping is based on ... the basic principle of quantification which has delivered up to us all the wonders of nature, and which appeared here for the first time in human history in all its clarity." (1919)

Sombart and others have been sharply criticized for supposedly overstating the nature and significance of double-entry bookkeeping. But that was before anyone recognized its congruence with classical logic – notwithstanding Sombart's claims quoted above. Sombart may not have fully recognized the connection himself, but it is very clear that he and Gödel were talking about the same thing. With this new understanding it is hardly possible to overstate the significance of relational bookkeeping. It represents the ultimate intersection of theory and practice – the ne plus ultra of practical application emerging from the pre-primordial fabric of the cosmos; with obedience to the same principles of natural logic underlying not only the behavior of matter and energy, but our ability to contemplate and manipulate them.


Sombart goes even further and suggests a spiritual connection: 

 ...we cannot regard double-entry bookkeeping without wonder and astonishment, as being one of the most artistic representations of the fantastic spiritual richness of European man".

Along those lines the following excerpt shows that people have recognized the significance of logic in our relationship with the universe for a very long time:


John 1:1          In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God

Orig. Greek:    En archē ēn ho Lógos, kai ho Lógos ēn pros ton Theón, kai Theós ēn ho Lógos


AverroesLogos is the ancient philosophical concept of divine reason, which Heraclitus described as both the source and fundamental order of the Cosmos. It is also the word Aristotle used for reasoned discourse, which we translate to day as logic. Christians believe Logos in the passage above refers to Jesus Christ, "in whose name", Luca Pacioli wrote, "our transactions must always be made".  Muslim scholars also embraced classical logic during the Golden Age of Islam, when it was the most advanced civilization on earth. Hindu clerics also independently described principles of formal logic in religious texts known as Sutras.


The purpose of my course and lectures on the Fundamentals of Information Management (FoIM) is to explain how logic is not just a tool for technical specialists to query information in databases, but must also be recognized as a tool for information owners to understand and communicate requirements for information resources. This will allow business organizations to finally gain effective management control over their information, and finally achieve management capabilities that are impossible without a solid understanding of the correct underlying principles.

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