Single version of the truth, philosophy or reality?

Posted on February 14, 2011

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Assuming you want the truth and you can handle it then you will have heard this a lot. The purpose of our new (BI/Analytics/Data Warehouse) project is to deliver ‘a single version of the truth’. In a project we are engaged with right now the expression is one version of reality or 1VOR. For UK boomers that will almost undoubtedly bring to mind a steam engine but I digress.

I have to admit, I find the term jarring whenever I hear it because it implies something simple and  attainable through a single system which is rarely the reality.

In fact it’s rarely attained causing some of our community to ponder on it’s viability or even if it exists. Robin Bloor’s ‘Is there a single version of the Truth’ and  Beyond a single version of the truth in the Obsessive Compulsive Data Quality blog are great examples.

Much, on this subject, has been written by data quality practitioners and speaks to master data management and the desire, for example, for a single and consistent view of a customer. Banks often don’t understand customers, they understand accounts and if the number of (err, for example Hotel Chocolat) home shopping brochures I receive is anything to go by then many retailers don’t get it either. Personally I want my bank and my chocolatier to know when I am interacting with them. I’m a name, not a number, particularly when it comes to chocolate.

This problem is also characterised by the tired and exasperated tone of a Senior Manager asking for (and sometimes begging for) a single version of the truth. This is usually because they had a ‘number’ (probably revenue) and went to speak to one of their Department Head about it (probably because it was unexpectedly low) and rather than spending time on understanding what the number means or what the business should do, they spent 45 minutes comparing the Senior Managers ‘number’ with the Department Heads ‘number’. In trying to reconcile them, they also find some more ‘numbers’ too. It probably passed the time nicely. Make this a monthly meeting or a QBR involving a number of department heads and the 45 minutes will stretch into hours without any real insight from which decisions might have been made.

This is partly about provenance. Ideally it came from a single system of record (Finance, HR) or corporate BI but it most likely came from a spreadsheet or even worse a presentation with a spreadsheet embedded in it.

It’s also about purity (or the addition of impurities, at least) It might have started pure but the department head or an analyst that works in their support and admin team calculated the number based on an extract from the finance system and possibly some other spreadsheets. The numbers were probably adjusted because of some departmental nuance. For example, if it’s a Sales Team, the Sales Manager might include all the sales for a rep that joined part way through the year whilst Finance left the revenue with the previous team.

It will be no comfort (or surprise) to our Senior Manager that it is also a Master Data Management problem too. Revenue by product can only make sense if everyone in the organisation can agree the brands, categories and products that classify the things that are sold. Superficially this sounds simple but even this week I have spoken with a global business that is launching a major initiative, involving hundreds of man hours to resolve just this issue.

It’s also about terminology. We sacrifice precision in language for efficiency. In most organistions we dance dangerously around synonyms and homonyms because it mostly doesn’t catch us out. Net revenue … net of what? And whilst we are on the subject … revenue. Revenue as it was ordered, as it was delivered, as it was invoiced and as it is recognised according to GAAP rules in the finance system. By the way does your number include credit notes? And this is a SIMPLE example. Costs are often centralised, allocated or shared in some way and all dependent on a set of rules that only a handful of people in the finance team really understand.

Finally, it’s about perspective. Departments in an organisation often talk about the same things but mean subtly different things because they have different perspectives. The sales team mean ordered revenue because once someone has signed hard (three copies) their job is done whilst the SMT are probably concerned about the revenue that they share with the markets in their statutory accounts.

So is a single version of the truth philisophy? Can it really be achieved? The answer is probably that there are multiple versions of the truth but they are, in many organisations, all wrong. Many organisations are looking at different things with differing perspectives and they are ALL inaccurate.

A high performing organisations should be trying to unpick these knots, in priority order, one at a time. Eventually they will be able to look at multiple versions of the truth and understand their business from multiple perspectives. Indeed the differences between the truth’s will probably tell them something they didn’t know from what they used to call ‘the single version of the truth’.

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