Rob Karel By Rob Karel

Here’s a question to ponder:  Why do so many metadata initiatives deliver well below expectations, or outright fail? We’ll get to that shortly…

But let’s start by defining metadata.  I define metadata as “Information that describes or provides context for data, content, business processes, services, business rules, and policies that support an organization’s information systems”.  The key take away from that definition is that metadata is more than just “data about data” – it’s a very generic term used to describe information assets that provide context for any number of digital representations ranging from traditional structured data that lives in databases to unstructured content such as audio files, images, and documents.  Metadata is also used to frame business rules, physical attributes of your storage environment, and policies that frame your Web services.  (For more on this broader metadata definition, see my past research, “Getting Your Arms Around Metadata”) 

But most of my clients ask about metadata about structured data (since I am a data management analyst).  Many of my Forrester colleagues tackle the other ‘flavors’ of metadata, including Leslie Owens who covers classification and taxonomy management disciplines in support of enterprise search and content management. Earlier this year Leslie and I co-authored “Data And Content Classification: It’s Your Information Backbone” which discusses how and when to bridge the data and content metadata siloes.

So about 37% of the client inquiries I receive about metadata ask about best practices and market trends. But interestingly, the other 63% of inquiries ask about vendor selection with the goal of building or implementing a standalone metadata repository.  Unfortunately this is not a good thing, because many of my IT clients are looking for a technology solution but ignore the business case.  This leads to one of two results: 
(1) a metadata initiative that never receives funding, therefore never getting off the ground. Or worse …
(2) an expensive investment in implementing a metadata repository that no one uses because no one has a clue as to why it’s there in the first place.

There’s a reason for this unfortunate trend: a large number of IT professionals know intuitively that metadata management is the right thing to do, but have a hard time articulating why they need it.  Also they admit a lack of engagement and collaboration with business stakeholders they are  aiming to help. They also often have failed attempts to get metadata efforts off the ground in the past and are trying to fast track something…anything!
So how can IT reverse this trend? They need to better scope and prioritize their metadata efforts by building a more realistic business case that can demonstrate real value-add. 

Here’s a tip:
The business does NOT want to hear the word metadata.  It scares them because it’s just not something they understand – especially in regards to how it will help them do their jobs better.

This is why your pitch to the business has to focus on how you want to help them, for example, (i) respond more quickly to regulatory and compliance demands, (ii) reduce runaway development costs, and (iii) reduce inefficiencies and frustrations caused by multiple inconsistent views of critical corporate information.  This is language they understand and problems they may be willing to partner with you to solve.

Also don’t forget, IT is an important consumer of metadata as well and the first phase of your business case can very well focus solely on IT process efficiencies alone! IT “gets” metadata, and would likely be more willing to embrace new tools and processes to improve it.  IT benefits may include improving the efficiency of existing technology investments, reducing the complexity between multiple applications, and performing effective data lineage, impact analysis and discovery.  Just make sure your business case effectively articulates the value IT will receive from these investments, because someone still needs to fund the project. 

To sum up, here are a few best practices I’ve come across to get flailing metadata initiatives off the ground:
• First, kickoff your metadata strategy with IT as your first customer – this is your low-hanging fruit.
• Second, engage business stakeholders early by focusing on the delivery of a shared business glossary – and AVOID using the term metadata.
• Finally, build a business case around risk management, compliance, and cost reduction – this will stimulate business engagement as these often represent their highest priority areas during tougher economic times.
Any metadata strategy best practices to recommend – or even better, any worst practices to avoid? Share them here, I’d love to hear them!