Potato, Potahto, Tomato, Tomahto: Data Normalization vs. Standardization, Why the Difference Matters

In my vocation I run a technology company devoted to program management solutions that is primarily concerned with taking data and converting it into information to establish a knowledge-based environment. Similarly, in my avocation I deal with the meaning of information and how to turn it into insight and knowledge. This latter activity concerns the subject areas of history, sociology, and science.

In my travels just prior to and since the New Year, I have come upon a number of experts and fellow enthusiasts in these respective fields. The overwhelming numbers of these encounters have been productive, educational, and cordial. We respectfully disagree in some cases about the significance of a particular approach, governance when it comes to project and program management policy, but generally there is a great deal of agreement, particularly on basic facts and terminology. But some areas of disagreement–particularly those that come from left field–tend to be the most interesting because they create an opportunity to clarify a larger issue.

In a recent venue I encountered this last example where the issue was the use of the phrase data normalization. The issue at hand was that the use of “data normalization” suggested some statistical methodology in reconciling data into a standard schema. Instead, it was suggested, the term “data standardization” was more appropriate.

These phrases do not describe the same thing, but they do describe processes that are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive. So what about data normalization? No doubt there is a statistical use of the term, but we are dealing with the definition as used in digital technology here, just as the use of “standardization” was suggested in the same context. There are many examples of technical terminology that do not have the same meaning when used in different contexts. Here is the definition of normalization applied to data science from Technopedia, which is the proper use of the term in this case:

Normalization is the process of reorganizing data in a database so that it meets two basic requirements: (1) There is no redundancy of data (all data is stored in only one place), and (2) data dependencies are logical (all related data items are stored together). Normalization is important for many reasons, but chiefly because it allows databases to take up as little disk space as possible, resulting in increased performance.

Normalization is also known as data normalization

This is pretty basic (and necessary) stuff. I have written at length about data normalization, but also pair it with two other terms. This is data rationalization and contextualization. Here is a short definition of rationalization:

What is the benefit of Data Rationalization? To be able to effectively exploit, manage, reuse, and govern enterprise data assets (including the models which describe them), it is necessary to be able to find them. In addition, there is (or should be) a wealth of semantics (e.g. business names, definitions, relationships) embedded within an organization’s models that can be exposed for improved analysis and knowledge transfer. By linking model objects (across or within models) it is possible to discover the higher order conceptual objects for any given object. Conversely, it is possible to identify what implementation artifacts implement a higher order model object. For example, using data rationalization, one can traverse from a conceptual model entity to a logical model entity to a physical model table to a database table, etc. Similarly, Data Rationalization enables understanding of a database table by traversing up through the different model levels.

Finally, we have contextualization. Here is a good definition using Wikipedia:

Context or contextual information is any information about any entity that can be used to effectively reduce the amount of reasoning required (via filtering, aggregation, and inference) for decision making within the scope of a specific application.[2] Contextualisation is then the process of identifying the data relevant to an entity based on the entity’s contextual information. Contextualisation excludes irrelevant data from consideration and has the potential to reduce data from several aspects including volume, velocity, and variety in large-scale data intensive applications

There is no approximation of reflecting the accuracy of data in any of these terms wihin the domain of data and computer science. Nor are there statistical methods involved to approximate what needs to be accomplished precisely. The basic skill required to accomplish these tasks–knowing that the data is structured and pre-conditioned–is to reconcile the various lexicons from differing sources, much as I reconcile in my avocation the meaning of words and phrases across periods in history and across languages.

In this discussion we are dealing with the issue of different words used to describe a process or phenomenon. Similarly, we find this challenge in data.

So where does this leave data standardization? In terms of data and computer science, this describes a completely different method. Here is a definition from Wikipedia, which is the proper contextual use of the term under “Standard data model”:

A standard data model or industry standard data model (ISDM) is a data model that is widely applied in some industry, and shared amongst competitors to some degree. They are often defined by standards bodies, database vendors or operating system vendors.

In the context of project and program management, particularly as it relates to government data submission and international open standards across vendors in an industry, is the use of a common schema. In this case there is a DoD version of a UN/CEFACT XML file currently set as the standard, but soon to be replaced by a new standard using the JSON file structure.

In any event, what is clear here is that, while standardization is a necessary part of a data policy to allow for sharing of information, the strength of the chosen schema and the instructions regarding it will vary–and this variation will have an effect on the quality of the information shared. But that is not all.

This is where data normalization, rationalization, and contextualization come into play. In order to create data for the a standardized format, it is first necessary to convert what is an otherwise opaque set of data due to differences into a cohesive lexicon. In data, this is accomplished by reconciling data dictionaries to determine which items are describing the same thing, process, measure, or phenomenon. In a domain like program management, this is a finite set. But it is also specialized knowledge and where the value is added to any end product that is produced. Then, once we know how to identify the data, we must be able to map those terms to the standard schema but, keeping on eye on the use of the data down the line, must be able to properly structure and ensure interrelationships of the data are established and/or maintained to ensure its effective use. This is no mean task and why all data transformation methods and companies are not the same.

Furthermore, these functions can be accomplished efficiently or inefficiently. The inefficient method is to take the old-fashioned business intelligence method that has been around since the 1980s and before, where a team of data scientists and analysts deal with data as if it is flat and, essentially, reinvents the wheel in establishing the meaning and proper context of the data. Given enough time and money anything can be accomplished, but brute force labor will not defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In computing, which comes close to minimizing that physical law, we know that data has already been imbued with meaning upon its initial processing. In lieu of brute force labor we apply intelligence and knowledge to accomplish this requirement. This is called normalization, rationalization, and contextualization of data. It requires a small fraction of other methods in terms of time and effort, and is infinitely more transparent.

Using these methods is also where innovation, efficiency, performance, accuracy, scalability, and anticipating future requirements based on the latest technology trends comes into play. Establishing a seamless flow of data integration allows, for example, the capture of more data being able to be properly structured in a database, which lays the ground for the transition from 2D to 3D and 4D (that is, what is often called integrated) program management, as well as more effective analytics.

The term “standardization” also suffers from a weakness in data and computer science that requires that it be qualified. After all, data standardization in an enterprise or organization does not preclude the prescription of a propriety dataset. In government, this is contrary to both statutory and policy mandates. Furthermore, even given an effective, open standard, there will be a large pool of legacy and other non-conforming data that will still require capture and transformation.

The Section 809 Panel study dealt directly with this issue:

Use existing defense business system open-data requirements to improve strategic decision making on acquisition and workforce issues…. DoD has spent billions of dollars building the necessary software and institutional infrastructure to collect enterprise wide acquisition and financial data. In many cases, however, DoD lacks the expertise to effectively use that data for strategic planning and to improve decision making. Recommendation 88 would mitigate this problem by implementing congressional open-data mandates and using existing hiring authorities to bolster DoD’s pool of data science professionals.

Section 809 Volume 3, Section 9, p.477

As operating environment companies expose more and more capability into the market through middleware and other open systems methods of visualizing data, the key to a system no longer resides in its ability to produce charts and graphs. The use of Excel as an ad hoc data repository with its vulnerability to error, to manipulation, and for its resistance to the establishment of an optimized data management and corporate knowledge environment is a symptom of the larger issue.

Data and its proper structuring is at the core of organizational success and process improvement. Standardization alone will not address barriers to data optimization. According to RAND studies in 2015 and 2017* these are:

  • Data Quality and Discontinuities
  • Data Silos and Underutilized Repositories
  • Timeliness of Data for use by SMEs and Decision-makers
  • Lack of Access and Contextualization
  • Traceability and Auditability
  • Lack of the Ability to Apply Discovery in the Data
  • The issue of Contractual Technical Data and Proprietary Data

That these issues also exist in private industry demonstrates the universality of the issue. Thus, yes, standardize by all means. But also ensure that the standard is open and that transformation is traceable and auditable from the the source system to the standard schema, and then into the target database. Only then will the enterprise, the organization, and the government agency have full ownership of the data it requires to efficiently and effectively carry out its purpose.

*RAND Corporation studies are “Issues with Access to Acquisition Data and Information in the DoD: Doing Data Right in Weapons System Acquisition” (RR880, 2017), and “Issues with Access to Acquisition Data and Information in the DoD: Policy and Practice (RR1534, 2015). These can be found here.

The Monster Mash — Zombie Ideas in Project and Information Management

Just completed a number of meetings and discussions among thought leaders in the area of complex project management this week, and I was struck by a number of zombie ideas in project management, especially related to information, that just won’t die.  The use of the term zombie idea is usually attributed to the Nobel economist Paul Krugman from his excellent and highly engaging (as well as brutally honest) posts at the New York Times, but for those not familiar, a zombie idea is “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”

The point is that to a techie–or anyone engaged in intellectual honesty–is that they are often posed in the form of question begging, that is, they advance invalid assumptions in the asking or the telling.  Most often they take the form of the assertive half of the same coin derived from “when did you stop beating your wife?”-type questions.  I’ve compiled a few of these for this post and it is important to understand the purpose for doing so.  It is not to take individuals to task or to bash non-techies–who have a valid reason to ask basic questions based on what they’ve heard–but propositions put forth by people who should know better based on their technical expertise or experience.  Furthermore, knowing and understanding technology and its economics is really essential today to anyone operating in the project management domain.

So here are a few zombies that seem to be most common:

a.  More data equals greater expense.  I dealt with this issue in more depth in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating here:  “When we inform Moore’s Law by Landauer’s Principle, that is, that the energy expended in each additional bit of computation becomes vanishingly small, it becomes clear that the difference in cost in transferring a MB of data as opposed to a KB of data is virtually TSTM (“too small to measure”).”  The real reason why we continue to deal with this assertion is both political in nature and also based in social human interaction.  People hate oversight and they hate to be micromanaged, especially to the point of disrupting the work at hand.  We see behavior, especially in regulatory and contractual relationships, where the reporting entity plays the game of “hiding the button.”  This behavior is usually justified by pointing to examples of dysfunction, particularly on the part of the checker, where information submissions lead to the abuse of discretion in oversight and management.  Needless to say, while such abuse does occur, no one has yet to point quantitatively to data (as opposed to anecdotally) that show how often this happens.

I would hazard to guess that virtually anyone with some experience has had to work for a bad boss; where every detail and nuance is microscopically interrogated to the point where it becomes hard to make progress on the task at hand.  Such individuals, who have been advanced under the Peter principle must, no doubt, be removed from such a position.  But this often happens in any organization, whether it be in private enterprise–especially in places where there is no oversight, check-and-balances, means of appeal, or accountability–or government–and is irrelevant to the assertion.  The expense item being described is bad management, not excess data.  Thus, such assertions are based on the antecedent assumption of bad management, which goes hand-in-hand with…

b. More information is the enemy of efficiency.  This is the other half of the economic argument to more data equals greater expense.  And I failed to mention that where the conflict has been engaged over these issues, some unjustifiable figure is given for the additional data that is certainly not supported by the high tech economics cited above.  Another aspect of both of these perspectives also comes from the conception of non-techies that more data and information is equivalent to pre-digital effort, especially in conceptualizing the work that often went into human-readable reports.  This is really an argument that supports the assertion that it is time to shift the focus from fixed report formatting functionality in software based on limited data to complete data, which can be formatted and processed as necessary.  If the right and sufficient information is provided up-front, then additional questions and interrogatories that demand supplemental data and information–with the attendant multiplication of data streams and data islands that truly do add cost and drive inefficiency–are at least significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

c.  Data size adds unmanageable complexity.  This was actually put forth by another software professional–and no doubt the non-techies in the room would have nodded their heads in agreement (particularly given a and b above), if opposing expert opinion hadn’t been offered.  Without putting too fine a point on it, a techie saying this to an open forum is equivalent to whining that your job is too hard.  This will get you ridiculed at development forums, where you will be viewed as an insufferable dilettante.  Digitized technology for well over 40 years has been operating under the phenomenon of Moore’s Law.  Under this law, computational and media storage capability doubles at least every two years under the original definition, though that equation has accelerated to somewhere between 12 and 24 months.  Thus, what was considered big data, say, in 1997 when NASA first coined the term, is not considered big data today.  No doubt, what is considered big data this year will not be considered big data two years from now.  Thus, the term itself is relative and may very well become archaic.  The manner in which data is managed–its rationalization and normalization–is important in successfully translating disparate data sources, but the assertion that big is scary is simply fear mongering because you don’t have the goods.

d.  Big data requires more expensive and sophisticated approaches.  This flows from item c above as well and is often self-serving.  Scare stories abound, often using big numbers which sound scary.  All data that has a common use across domains has to be rationalized at some point if they come from disparate sources, and there are a number of efficient software techniques for accomplishing this.  Furthermore, support for agnostic APIs and common industry standards, such as the UN/CEFACT XML, take much of the rationalization and normalization work out of a manual process.  Yet I have consistently seen suboptimized methods being put forth that essentially require an army of data scientists and coders to essentially engage in brute force data mining–a methodology that has been around for almost 30 years: except that now it carries with it the moniker of big data.  Needless to say this approach is probably the most expensive and slowest out there.  But then, the motivation for its use by IT shops is usually based in rice bowl and resource politics.  This is flimflam–an attempt to revive an old zombie under a new name.  When faced with such assertions, see Moore’s Law and keep on looking for the right answer.  It’s out there.

e.  Performance management and assessment is an unnecessary “regulatory” expense.  This one keeps coming up as part of a broader political agenda beyond just project management.  I’ve discussed in detail the issues of materiality and prescriptiveness in regulatory regimes here and here, and have addressed the obvious legitmacy of organizations to establish one in fiduciary, contractual, and governmental environments.

My usual response to the assertion of expense is to simply point to the unregulated derivatives market largely responsible for the financial collapse, and the resulting deep economic recession that followed once the housing bubble burst.  (And, aside from the cost of human suffering and joblessness, the expenses related to TARP).  Thus we know that the deregulation of banking had gone so well.  Even after the Band-Aid of Dodd-Frank the situation probably requires a bit more vigor, and should include the ratings agencies as well as the real estate market.  But here is the fact of the matter: such expenses cannot be monetized as additive because “regulatory” expenses usually represent an assessment of the day-to-day documentation, systems, and procedures required when performing normal business operations and due diligence in management.  I attended an excellent presentation last week where the speaker, tasked with finding unnecessary regulatory expenses, admitted as much.

Thus, what we are really talking about is an expense that is an essential prerequisite to entry in a particular vertical, especially where monopsony exists as a result of government action.  Moral hazard, then, is defined by the inherent risk assumed by contract type, and should be assessed on those terms.  Given the current trend is to raise thresholds, the question is going to be–in the government sphere–whether public opinion will be as forgiving in a situation where moral hazard assumes $100M in risk when things head south, as they often do with regularity in project management.  The way to reduce that moral hazard is through sufficiency of submitted data.  Thus, we return to my points in a and b above.

f.  Effective project assessment can be performed using high level data.  It appears that this view has its origins in both self-interest and a type of anti-intellectualism/anti-empiricism.

In the former case, the bias is usually based on the limitations of either individuals or the selected technology in providing sufficient information.  In the latter case, the argument results in a tautology that reinforces the fallacy that absence of evidence proves evidence of absence.  Here is how I have heard the justification for this assertion: identifying emerging trends in a project does not require that either trending or lower level data be assessed.  The projects in question are very high dollar value, complex projects.

Yes, I have represented this view correctly.  Aside from questions of competency, I think the fallacy here is self-evident.  Study after study (sadly not all online, but performed within OSD at PARCA and IDA over the last three years) have demonstrated that high level data averages out and masks indicators of risk manifestation, which could have been detected looking at data at the appropriate level, which is the intersection of work and assigned resources.  In plain language, this requires integration of the cost and schedule systems, with risk first being noted through consecutive schedule performance slips.  When combined with technical performance measures, and effective identification of qualitative and quantitative risk tied to schedule activities, the early warning is two to three months (and sometime more) before the risk is reflected in the cost measurement systems.  You’re not going to do this with an Excel spreadsheet.  But, for reference, see my post  Excel is not a Project Management Solution.

It’s time to kill the zombies with facts–and to behead them once and for all.

Over at AITS.org — Plato’s Cave: A Framework for Better Project Indicators

My latest post at AITS.org discusses the difference between the relative effectiveness of measures.

In Book VII of Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, the Greek philosopher introduces his powerful imagery of learning and means of perception in Allegory of the Cave. In his allegory, there is a group of prisoners who have lived in a cave since childhood, legs and necks chained so that they cannot move. Above and behind them is a fire blazing at a distance so that they can only see shadows of what is between the fire and the wall of the cave in front of them. A low wall has been built to hide men who carry statues and figures of animals so that the shadows of these figures appear on the wall…

To read more, please click here.