Defining metadata and its relevance

Lulekwa Mcwabeni is an independent BI consultant at PBT Group.
Lulekwa Mcwabeni is an independent BI consultant at PBT Group.

Two important things come to mind when I talk about data that is actually linked to a competitive advantage: focus and speed of delivery.

However, to accomplish this, we have to ask if organisations really take the time to focus on metadata, or if it is just one of those things that fall to the bottom of the list, given that businesses are often just trying to cope with the amount of data flowing in?

So, how then can organisations succeed on any implementation of a data strategy without understanding or defining each relevant component that makes up a bigger picture?

The truth is that everything we do and consume consists of metadata. However, if this metadata is not well-defined (and managed) to promote consistency within an organisation, the delivery on projects will be slow.

As a result, metadata has an important role in data and analytics as it is a foundation capability within information management, especially for information governance. For any organisation to take advantage of delivery (especially in an agile environment) it should consider focusing on the metadata and spend time gathering this and accurately defining it. Without this, a company will lose any competitive advantages it is hoping to gain.

As defined by most data specialists in information systems, metadata is data about data, which gives clear descriptions of the data by giving it context. It provides reference, grouping and a framework for the data, which is more meaningful from when data was actually acquired or stored for data and analytics until visualisation.

Of course, there are different types of metadata in the organisation and they all serve different purposes for various users. However, the business metadata should 'talk' to everyone in the organisation, as it is understood by everyone and spoken by everyone. As a result, business metadata assists in promoting conformity and consistency by defining the below elements in detail:

  • Business term and definitions of the field
  • Business concept definitions
  • Business context
  • Business process
  • Business ownership/stewardship of each field
  • Other requirements (eg, regulatory and compliance)
  • Business rules
  • Derived fields
  • Business metrics

However, if wanting to speed up time for development, especially in agile environments or even for referencing purposes, then the above captured information needs to be in the business glossary. The business glossary therefore must be in place and should be organised to include the following aspects:

  • Standardised business terminology
  • Data and term definitions with links to other associated terms
  • Information about the usage of data through the presentation of data lineage
  • Security classification and policy for each field based on GDPR requirements
  • Assignment and approval by data owners and stewardship for each field

A competitive advantage?

With the right approach, metadata management within the data and analytics space can be a leading source of developing a competitive advantage.

In fact, organisations have an opportunity to use metadata for analytics to drive digital transformation and redefine the customer experience by understanding what, when, where, who and how. To accomplish this, metadata management needs be a priority, where focusing on delivering business outcomes is vital. Think about it: metadata assists in telling a data story by introducing common vocabulary that is understood by everyone.

I believe the key to a successful data and analytics capability is the management of metadata. Data-centric organisations depend on metadata, and therefore effectively managed and governed metadata gives the ability to perform an impact analysis, a common business vocabulary and accountability for its terms and definition, and lastly, delivers an audit trail for compliance.

However, nothing can be gained by using metadata if there is no common vocabulary in a glossary, which talks to satisfying your customer needs. Business questions need to have been answered, and well-defined metadata is required upfront. No business questions will be answered without understanding what each of the dimensions means, the owner, security classification for each and so on.

So, consider the below:

Positioning: Metadata should be positioned in an organisation in such a way that it becomesvaluable, to ensure more people use it, like the Internet.

Process: If the business has a way of doing things which is better, this can be a meaningful competitive advantage.

Culture: It is important to create a culture of metadata where everybody understands it is part of their work and unavoidable. Creating metadata principles and making everyone responsible for gathering and completing metadata can be another competitive advantage within business functions.

Do not re-invent. Find something that is already working and leverage it.

Roles and responsibilities are important. This means defining what the business teams need to look like to ensure it is a "dream team" as well as effective. Data owners and stewardship are key. If an organisation and these roles have not yet been defined, attention needs to be placed here urgently.

Of course, it is important for business to have advocates and champions for any project, and metadata is no different if one wants to ensure it is embodied within the company. The advocates will promote metadata, not because they are asked to, but because they want to as it will make performing their functions easier. Gaining the competitive advantage isn't easy and chaos is almost guaranteed, but the upside outweighs the tough times.

Lulekwa Mcwabeni
Lulekwa Mcwabeni, independent BI consultant, PBT Group.

Lulekwa Mcwabeni is an independent BI consultant at PBT Group. Within this role, she specialises in delivering solutions in data management, data warehousing, business intelligence, data architecture and data visualisation to the company's clients. Mcwabeni also assists clients in executing their data strategy for the implementation of data analytics systems. She has implemented information management solutions across different organisations, using a wide range of frameworks. Her 20 years' experience in the ICT industry includes banking, telecommunication and petroleum. In addition, she has learned the value of good data quality and data governance on every successful data solution delivery, and has expertise in delivering working solutions with a preference to the shorter time scale using agile methodology. Mcwabeni holds a post-graduate degree in Business Information Systems.

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