The Problem with Dirty Data

by Gerry McGovern

Originally published on the New Thinking blog on April 22, 2007

More than 25 percent of critical data in Fortune 1,000 companies is poor quality because organizations have little experience in managing content.

Gartner Research believes that very few organizations are making progress towards professionally managing their most important data. Research Vice-President Andreas Bitterer said that “dirty data” is often overlooked as a business imperative.

“There is not a company on the planet that does not have a data quality problem,” said Bitterer. “And where a company does recognize it has a problem, it often underestimates the size of it.”

Why is this? Why do most organizations do such a poor job of managing their content? The reason is that most organizations have little experience in managing content. In the past, they have only administered it.

Before the Web, content was rarely seen as critical to the future of the organization. It was important, but only in the same way that an invoice or a product manual is important.

How many organizations are run by people who started their careers as librarians or journalists? Not many. Organizations tend to be run by people with an accounting or sales background.

The Web has changed the role of content. Content can now make the sale, deliver the service and build the brand. Slowly, organizations are beginning to realize that content is a business asset.

How do we professionally manage content? We don’t. We shouldn’t manage content in the same way that we shouldn’t manage technology. Content and technology are merely a means to an end. What is the end? The end is the task the customer wishes to complete. That is what we should manage.

I once reviewed a section of a human resources intranet that was dealing with dental care for staff. The homepage started off explaining why it’s important to look after your teeth. Who cares?

Staff came to this page for the following reasons:

  • To find out what dental plans were available
  • To compare plans
  • To calculate how much per month it would cost to join a particular plan
  • To find out where the nearest approved dentist was located

I asked the person responsible for the section where this information was. She informed me that it was in a PDF. And where was this PDF? At the bottom of the page. This person was at best an administrator, a put-it-upper. She saw her job as getting content up on the website as quickly and easily as possible. That’s how she was measured.

What is the task of your customer? What are they trying to do? Your job is not to put content up on your website. Your job is to help your customers complete common tasks quickly and easily. How quickly can they find that local dentist? That’s how you measure success.

This is the age of the Web. This is the age of content. If commerce is selling with people, then ecommerce is selling with content. If government is serving with people, then egovernment is serving with content.

Most organizations are only beginning to realize the fabulous potential that content has. If you manage the task-not the content or the technology-you can help your organization tap that potential. Doing this will help your organization and significantly enhance your career potential.

About the Author

Gerry McGovern has published five books about the need for customer-centricity in the online world. His last book, The Stranger’s Long Neck, helps you identify and measure top tasks. He used to be a rock journalist, interviewing the likes of Lou Reed and Nick Cave. His weekly newsletter was recently shortlisted for a Webby.

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