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Sunday, 13 January 2013

What’s what, where’s where and who’s who?

Developing an Information Asset Register for effective Data Governance.

(Note: this post also published by Image & Data Manager Magazine).

A significant aspect of effective Data Governance is about orchestrating the exchange of information between multiple parties; to facilitate (and arbitrate) a robust, repeatable approach to delivering content in context, in support of more effective and efficient business outcomes.

But how do you do this if you don’t know what data you’ve got, what state it’s in, or who is responsible for it?

For over 10 years now, I’ve been advocating the idea of maintaining an Information Asset Register, as part of an enterprise-wide approach to managing Information as an Asset. (this factsheet from the UK National Archives is a useful working definition of the term).

This approach goes beyond the systems and applications auditing process that takes place within IT departments. Rather, the Information Asset Register is about building up and maintaining a complete, reliable inventory of data holdings within the organisation, the different contexts within which the information is (or could be) used, and identification of the various interested parties  – if you will, it’s an index of “what’s what, where’s where and who’s who”.

The Register is then used as a tool for enabling more explicit and productive discussions about data between respective creator, collector and consumer parties. Crucially, by acting as a catalyst for discussion between information stakeholders, this approach encourages more collaboration across functional boundaries, establishes points of contact for more proactive information sharing and breaks down any existing protectionism within information silos (an approach that a Public Sector colleague of mine refers to as “POIM” – as in “P*ss Off, It’s Mine…”).

It can be seen that this is therefore not a project  - maintaining and publishing the Information Asset Register quickly becomes a key ongoing service provided by the Data Governance function. This requires some incremental level of investment in your Data Governance capability, if only to provide the resources and skills needed to enable the proactive brokering and facilitation of a data-oriented discussion. (Some organisations will require higher levels of investment if basic Information Management practices and capabilities are not yet in place).

The approach isn’t widespread yet, but some progressive government organisations have been taking the lead (notably the UK National Archives, Australian Commonwealth National Archives and Queensland GovernmentCIO Office). One challenge as I see it is that these organisations are taking an approach that is driven out of compliance and records-keeping requirements, rather than seeing Information Asset Management as a value-adding opportunity. I’d argue that if the drivers were based on business improvement and outcome benefits (rather than “meet the basic minimum”), organisations adopting an Information Asset Management approach would start to see real transformational change, almost by stealth. (See also my prior post on the concept of Information as a Service.)

Anyway, the Information Asset Register is certainly an approach that I’m adopting within my Data Governance role at UNSW – time will tell whether it proves to be successful!

Some specific online resources that you may find useful to help get you started:

Note also that, further to my blog post of earlier this month, I will be running a workshop on this topic at the Ark Group's Data Quality Asia Pacific Congress in March.


  1. Thought-provoking. Thanks for posting.

    I could imagine this exercise has the potential, without some attention, to morph in to collecting up a list of systems, given that generally information in databases is bound up with the application that 'owns' the database. Have you found that to be the case?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Simon. I think you are right to identify this as a key risk to the process.

      I think the challenge is that so many people who have come to Information Management have an IT-centric background. Their comfort zone is therefore the systems and applications (the "containers"), rather than the information and its uses (the "contents, in context").

      It's also why I'm always at pains to differentiate between "Information technology" capability and "Information Management" capability and to point out the different skills and mind set that are required (see my earlier posts on Information as a service" for further details on this concept http://informationaction.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/information-as-service-what-is-it-and.html). The emphasis MUST be on the information, because that's where the business value lies. In my view, anyone who focusses on the systems agenda has shown themselves to be an IT person, not an Information Management practitioner!

      That said, having an inventory of systems is a useful thing in and of itself, as it can provide a "proxy" us to then proceed further and have the discussion about the information assets. What we tend to find is that the relationship of "applications" to "information assets" is almost always a many-to-many matrix. The two perspectives come together as a nexus (which should also intersect with the Business Process catalogue, if we want to get really smart...)

      Once this is mapped, then we have the entry point for a frank and fearless discussion about the real value of the data in all it's contexts, and who needs to be held accountable. That's when the fun really starts, because once that's out in the open, then we're in with a fighting chance of bringing some order to the current state of unintended chaos!