Blog post

The unCatalog and Less Cow Bell

By Andrew White | November 14, 2022 | 0 Comments

Information TechnologyGartner Data and Analytics ConferenceDigital Business

These are the two main conclusions I take away after my conversations with attendees at our D&A conferences in UK, US and Australia in 2022. These are the two major themes that were cemented for me with the usual dour tones expressed by attendees at the final event in Sydney last week.

The unCatalog is a cute term coined by one attendee at the Sydney event that summarizes the position of many similar interactions. Too many firms have been sold a catalog or marketplace in support of a governance program. As a result those firms are turning off the catalogs and struggling to get control of the program.

Less cow bell, taken from that famous Saturday Night Live sketch, captures the idea that many firms have too much technology. Many organizations are experiencing tech-tiredness. They are suggesting that they have not had enough time to implement the last transformation, yet they are being peddled yet another new technology. It’s all getting a little too much.

What follows are more details of the two trends.

The State of Play with Data and Analytics Governance

Data and analytics (or data, or information) governance is a shambles for many organizations, and a success for very few. This was reflected in our research over the last couple of years. See Data and Analytics Governance as a Business Capability: A Gartner Trend Insight Report.

This parlous state is enshrined in the current fallacy that every D&A governance program should start with the acquisition of a data catalog. Many organizations are doing just that. The logic, promoted by some consulting and software vendors, is that you ‘can’t govern what you don’t know you have’. That is not true, yet it is a belief and ‘driver’ dutifully played out by many organizations.

Such programs expect business folks to “own” data for which they have little interest in managing and for which they have even less knowledge of the business impact of such work.  How is it that trying to be aware of all your data is the first step to working out what data (or analytic) actually needs to be governed first? Or second and tenth?

To Catalog or Not to Catalog?

Catalog are useful in a small number of data governance programs only.  If you are at risk of not knowing where high risk data is, such as personally identifiable information (PII) in support of privacy regulations, then a data catalog – or more precisely a data discovery tool – is useful.  If not, a data catalog won’t be needed for at least 9 months. But technology appears to be an easy fix for all ills.

I would never start…

  • With a catalog
  • By documenting an organizations data issues
  • With a plan to determine data standards, or principles
  • By forming a giant governance board with every business leader present
  • By assigning or hiring all the stewards at the start of the program

These tasks may take place, later. Maybe much later. Modern data governance starts very differently.

UnLearning Best Practices and the unCatalog

An enlightened conversation led to an attendee in Sydney determining that we need to invent an unCatalog. It was a brilliant insight. We need to unlearn the silliest of ideas around. For those of you over 50 years old: How many times have you tried to catalog your DVDs or Blue-rays? When did you last try? How far did you get? What did you use it for? How many times did you try to do this? Didn’t it seem like a good idea at the time? And did the failure to finish the catalog stop you from finding your most favored movies to watch?

Saul Judah, a colleague of mine, nailed it. At a breakfast on the day following the end of the Sydney event, he explored the idea that business and IT (and we include tech vendors with IT) have different understanding of what governance means. Both sides have different understanding, expectations, and language. And until these are related and bridged, the industry will continue to fail in its efforts with data (and analytics) governance.

From Catalogs to Data Hubs

If you travel the world and explore the same business challenges you will see how different cultures address them. When I travel to Australia I find something unique, and thoroughly pleasing. I invariably bump into several folks who are just downright down to earth.

In an ‘Ask the Analyst’ round-table session we explored what is a data hub and data hub strategy. This conversation included questions about when to use them, and how to get value from them. Twenty or so organizations wrestled with the topic. We narrowed our conversation to the core topic and we all moved to a common understanding.

One attendee was perturbed: she had been achieving all the benefits and practices we had just agreed, but she used a totally different term for the effort. She was convinced that, “if you do data integration properly, and involve business and use outcomes to drive the work, I do what a data hub strategy is supposed to deliver, so I don’t get it!”

Do What I Do, Not What I Say

She was spot on. But the fact is that the vast majority of firms do not ‘do data integration correctly’. They all do ‘data integration’ but they don’t always use the right drivers or align the work correctly to business impact or outcome. It is far easier to do data integration without that and then budget for mediocrity, coping with poor data quality and errors for a lifetime. This is how most firms operate. It works. Mostly.

But we don’t need to change that significantly. We just need to make a few small but meaningful changes to make a big, positive impact. But every organization is knee deep in work – new technologies and old, modernizing and transforming.  Its never ending…

Too Much of a Good Thing

Many attendees in Sydney, and using other words at the other conferences, were concerned with a broader point – maybe we have too much technology:

  • Organizations don’t have understanding for how all the technologies on offer work together
  • Too often firms are burdened with a new technology before the last was even implemented
  • There are just too many options and choices
  • Do I drop everything to add a data fabric?
  • Do I ‘do’ data mesh first?
  • What is the difference between self service and citizenry?
  • Where do I start?
  • What do I stop?

And there was another beauty: so many attendees mentioned ‘data products’ or ‘information products’, each with a different context, that it was clear no two uses of the term were consistent. It was an amazing discovery.  So I wonder if there is just too much technology out there?  Are we all bloated and wallowing in too much stuff?

Less Cow Bell

I walked away from these conferences with concern. Over the last few years a few data points can be synthesized:

  • Clear evidence that specific IT* investments drive business productivity is lacking at the macro level. At best it appears at individual case study level and these may not be useful enough to predict success for all firms.
  • CEO interest in prioritizing digital investments has peaked and may soon show signs of declining. This is evidenced in our 2022 CEO survey.  See 2022 CEO Survey — The Year Perspectives Changed, figure 4.
  • Boards of Directors and CEOs are running out of patience. There are many digital business and transformation pilots with positive results. But those have not, for most firms, been converted to sustainable change with repeatable business impact over time. Leaders are devolving the work to discrete business functions as an attempt to drive business impact.  See Roadmap to Renewal: The 2022 Board of Directors Survey, question 11.
  • While ‘analytics and BI’ has been a long standing investment priority for CIOs, the value of such investments again seems limited to case-studies and not industry level data. Note ‘data and analytics’ is not the same as ‘analytics and BI’. D&A is far bigger and wider but includes analytics and BI.
  • Organizations are choking on investments that have yet to play out and add the value promised on the tin

* IT here means data and analytics, digital and IT

This sounds very negative. It might be the jet lag speaking. And I am very cognizant of those few firms who dominate successfully their industry and impassioned business leaders that set the trending headlines. Who cannot be impressed and swayed by Elon Musks’ sense of mission and vision? Why can’t more leaders be as useful and effective?

I&T and Digital Winter?

What you get if you synthesize those items above is that we might be headed for an Information and technology or Digital Winder.  I user the term winter in the way it is used with respect to an AI winter. That is, the faith and belief in the use or value of the technology in question fails to a level where investment and interest dies off. In Gartner speak we might say that IT as a whole or the digital story is firmly in the trough of disillusionment; this is a critical phase in the hype cycle methodology but it might last a long time.

In the case of an I&T winter entire industries will lose heart. For the wrong reason the very investments that should make a difference to productivity and growth will be dropped.  It’s not that I&T or digital has failed; its that it has been over sold by a number of vendors who confuse apparent short term revenue success to longer term economic impact for all.  Interest in learning about how various aspects of I&T works together will decline; overall investments won’t attract the same level of interest or money. It could lead to a much worse situation than the one we see today.

So, maybe we need to unlearn our catalog excesses and we need less cow bell overall?

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed