On Information

Concepts in Information Management – blog by Ronald Fuller

Cost-Benefit Value is Being Ignored

scales.jpgThe idea that managing information involves cost-benefit tradeoffs is not new, but unfortunately those decisions usually focus only on engineering and implementation issues such as performance and storage, while business utility is totally ignored. By business utility I mean the capacity of an information resource to meet expressed and unexpressed needs and adapt to changing requirements.


To understand why, lets look back to the early days of modern database software. The statements below were made by Don Chamberlin who was one of the co-designers of SQL, the world's most widely-used database query language.  Here he is describing decisions made in the mid-1970s which his team intended to give users more flexibility with cost-benefit tradeoffs:


“When the original SQL designers decided to allow users the options of handling nulls and duplicates, they viewed these features as minor conveniences, not as major departures from orthodoxy, taken at the risk of excommunication."


"SQL trusts the database designer to decide whether the costs ... are justified. To impose these costs on all applications ... seems a little heavy-handed, and seemed even more so in 1975 given the costs of storage and processing at that time."


Even today (in 2015) Dr. Chamberlin and his former colleagues continue to bear harsh criticism for those decisions.  This is completely unfair because they did not force anyone to do or ignore anything.  Rather, they gave users the freedom to make their own cost-benefit decisions.


But unfortunately those decisions today, and others of equal importance, do not fall to the business stakeholders who pay the price for poor choices or, who are in the best position make good ones. Instead they are decided behind the scenes by technical professionals, while information owners remain unaware that such tradeoff opportunities even exist.  The result has become that information systems are too expensive, do not adapt well to changing requirements, and do not meet the expectations of their owners.


Information owners do not need to become technical experts to make good decisions about organizing information, and it is absolutely essential that business experts, rather than architects or engineers, have final decision authority.  The role of IT departments in these matters should be strictly limited to cost-benefit advisement.


Even when technical professionals carefully consider cost-benefit tradeoffs they are constrained by a technical perspective.  The following statement is from a paper titled Justifying database normalization: a cost/benefit model:


"the determination of appropriate normal forms frustrates many systems analysts ... a trade-off exists among system performance, storage, and costs."


But the author omits a critical factor:  the primary overall consideration in any cost-benefit equation should always be business utility.  Technology professionals cannot be expected to recognize the full range of implications for business utility in any given tradeoff scenario.  They must instead rely on a set of requirements specifically spelled-out in advance by the business customer.  That is why scope creep is such a huge problem in most IT projects, and why most information systems cannot adapt well to changing requirements.


It would probably be impossible for a business owner to make a complete list of every possible use-case for a given resource.  But a business owner can easily determine whether a resource can satisfy their foreseeable needs even before any requirement has been expressed.  What an owner considers to be foreseeable can change over time, but it will always change more slowly than the perceived requirements when technology professionals have to guess or fill-in the blanks.  New technologies can expand the range of use cases for information, but for information to be useful it must still be organized in a way that allows the desired use – technology cannot change that.


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