Data is Risky Business: Business of Data and Book of Five Rings

The background to this column is simple. A few weeks ago, Len Silverston and I wound up discussing the application of the insights, philosophy, and practices we have learned in our mutual study of Aikido and other martial arts. This led to Len setting me a challenge to write about how the teachings of 16th Century Japanese sword master, Musashi Miyamoto can be applied to the practice of data leadership and strategy in today’s world.

For readers who have not heard of Musashi Miyamoto, he was a famous samurai and a legendary swordsman. The Book of Five Rings is Miyamoto’s treatise on strategy and combat, divided into five books (The Book of Ground, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind, and The Book of Void) discussing different aspects of the disciplines required to succeed. I’ve read and reread this book many times, and I’ve found it useful to compare Miyamoto’s writings with the lessons we can learn for leadership in data from Deming, Juran, and others.

Len’s challenge is a large mountain to climb. Therefore, I propose to combine articles here, and blog posts on Castlebridge to work through some of the ideas in Miyamoto’s writing.

The Book of Ground

In The Book of Ground, Miyamoto discusses the Way of Strategy. He advises us that:

“It is difficult to realise the true Way just through sword-fencing”.

This is a fundamental learning that data management professionals need to take to heart, and which has formed the basis of many discussions I’ve had in various professional bodies and collaborative think-tanks over the years. Simply put, we cannot realize the true value and impact of data in organizations and society simply through knowing the technical aspects of data management disciplines such as data modeling or data quality management.

Consider this in the context of how organizations such as Gartner and others are defining Data Literacy. Almost invariably, these definitions focus on developing skills in technologies and software for managing data (data sword-fencing) rather than developing wider data competencies or building a deeper understanding of what Peter Drucker called the “meaning and purpose of data”.

What we should take from this, as data leaders, is that it is important for us to develop wider insights and nurture other skillsets, in our organisations, in our teams, and in ourselves. On a practical basis, the disruption we are currently living through has created challenges for people who excelled as in-person managers and leaders as well as organisations that lacked a culture of or experience with remote working. The skills and competences needed to manage virtual teams, develop and deliver training and mentoring remotely, and manage the mental health challenges of remote working, are not data skills. But they are necessary for us to ‘realise the Way’ of data leadership in in the face of workplace disruption.

As data leaders we need to ensure that we are not just focussing on the techniques and technologies of data sword-fencing to help us develop our progress on the Way. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that we keep an open mind about how we define the scope of what we mean when we discuss ‘data literacy’. We must also consider the wider non-data skill sets that are needed to win.

After all, Miyamoto tells us that the Way of his school of sword-fencing “is the spirit of winning, whatever the weapon and whatever its size”.

When discussing the role of weapons in strategy, Miyamoto tells us that:

There is a time and place for use of weapons”

He discusses the appropriate use of different types of weapon, making the point that it’s important to understand the capabilities and limitations of the tools you are applying to the task at hand, with a heavy emphasis on functionality and effectiveness over decorative features.  Again, there is much for us to ponder as data leaders in what Miyamoto is telling us here, not least his advice that it’s not a good idea to have a favourite weapon as becoming over-familiar with one weapon is as bad as not knowing it sufficiently well.

Bluntly: if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Taking time to understand the problem and the business need is key to determining the appropriate tools and techniques to be applied to the solution of that problem or the delivery of that business need. It’s important to understand the capabilities of the technologies and methodologies you are proposing to use. For example, not every data challenge requires or will benefit from application of AI. Also, falling back on personal preferences for a favourite tool (“Oh, to achieve optimum results you need to buy [insert data tool name here]”, “You need to implement a data lake”) can often mean applying the wrong tool to the right problem.

Related to this is Miyamoto’s discussion of the role of timing in strategy, something that is discussed in each of the five books. This is something we are told takes a great degree of practice. But more than this he tells us we need to pay attention to the background timing or our strategies will become uncertain. This is common sense. If we are pushing against the tide in our organisations we are out of step (a reference to timing in dance and military marching). But it’s equally important to be alert to when the rhythm of the organisation is changing which might change fit of your data leadership strategy with the organisation’s needs to the positive or introduce a threat to your data strategy.

To an extent, this reinforces Miyamoto’s earlier advice that the Way is not just through sword-fencing. Having a broader perspective beyond the specifics of the more technical data management disciplines can help us to identify opportunities to drive data management improvement in organisations. For example, the current Disruption has changed the background timing in organisations and has brought to the fore the data debt that exists in organisations as they have had to adjust to remote working models that remove the social sticking plaster over issues such as metadata management and role based data access as people find it harder to have the same level of ad hoc in-person contact. Miyamoto is very clear about this benefit:

If you do not look at things on a large scale it will be difficult for you to master strategy.

The Fundamentals of the Way of Strategy

In the Book of Ground, Miyamoto defines nine fundamental principles that underpin his Way of Strategy. I propose to introduce these here with a brief comment but will develop the discussion of them in blog posts on the Castlebridge site.

Do Not Think Dishonestly

How we gather, process, and present data must be approached with honesty. However, as we have seen in many instances during the coverage of the COVID Disruption globally, data has been reported in ways that was misleading or downright dishonest. Deming told us that “in God we trust. Everybody else must bring data”, but for that to hold water, we must be certain that the data is being presented honestly and objectively. This is particularly the case when the data is telling a story that is difficult for audiences to hear or when how the data is presented can give rise to misleading interpretations.

The Way is in Training

Deming emphasised the importance of training and self-improvement in the development of quality. Miyamoto stresses that progress on the Way of Strategy requires training and practice. Continuous learning and development of skill is important. After all, the Way is not just found in sword-fencing.

Become Acquainted with Every Art

Miyamoto advises those who want to follow the Way of Strategy to become acquainted with every art. In this context ‘art’ means ‘martial art’, and there is a strong historic tradition of martial arts masters training in multiple schools and styles of fighting. Miyamoto doesn’t require masters of the Way of Strategy to be experts in every art but to be acquainted with every art.

This makes sense, because it’s only by having a familiarity with the approaches, techniques, and limitations of different arts can a master strategist be sure to apply the correct discipline to the right challenge.

In this context, references such as the DAMA DMBOK are a useful guide to navigating the myriad set of arts that you need to be acquainted with as a master of the Data Strategy Way. However, other references and frameworks exist in data management, business management, and people management that you should consider as well. After all, as Miyamoto would tell us, you need to be able to look at things on a broad scale, or it will be difficult to master strategy.

Know the Ways of All Professions

In The Book of Ground, Miyamoto discusses the Ways that are followed by other professions such as carpenters and draws parallels between the Way of Strategy and the Way of Carpentry. Data Leaders need to become familiar with the different professions that you might have to interact with and understand how their disciplines overlap with the disciplines of data.

It’s also important for us to understand the ‘Ways’ of the organisations we are working with so we can determine the background timing of the organisation and their industry sector so we can better understand how data can be best used strategically to support them and their goals and objectives.

Distinguish Between Gain and Loss in Worldly Matters

In Miyamoto’s feudal Japan, distinguishing between gain and loss in worldly matters meant understanding when a fight was worth pursuing and whether the sacrifice of soldiers on the battlefield to draw your opponents forces in a particular direction was a negative or a strategic benefit.

For a data leader, this means being able to distinguish and express clearly the gains and losses arising from the implementation of data management methods and technologies in organisations. This can often result in us having to have difficult conversations. I recently advised a client on a data strategy engagement where they were looking to identify the additional value add for their proposed investment in an AI-based capability. However, their core data management practices were weak and the core data that they wanted to use to seed their AI was of such poor quality that any gain in terms of being able to boast of technologies would have been outweighed by losses arising from poor customer experience through the crappy quality data.

And, of course, we can’t ignore the importance of an objective approach to infonomics and determining the value of information to the organisation.

Develop Intuitive Judgement and Understanding for Everything

Miyamoto emphasizes in the other Books the importance of training to develop awareness of and understanding of the various factors that could influence strategy and the outcomes of conflict.

For data management professionals I would suggest understanding this as a requirement to develop rules of thumb to help you quickly identify and understand the implications and impact of data issues on the organisation and on its stakeholders. This is something that my business unit director in the phone company drilled into his project managers earlier in my career (but I doubt he had ever read anything as esoteric as Miyamoto). We had rules of thumb for things like the cost of downtime in call centres per hour, cost of van rollouts for field technicians and other things that we could quickly apply to cost/benefit calculations for proposed changes or issues. We also developed a high-level understanding of the end-to-end processes in the organisations so we could quickly identify the potential knock-on implications of proposed changes. While imperfect, the rules of thumb and data life cycle thinking that we were drilled in helped us anticipate problems and put a monetary value on potential impacts.

With my recent client, it was early in the discovery phase of the project that my intuitive judgement was they had a metadata problem and a data governance problem. By the mid-point I was able to tell them approximately how much that was costing them, applying the same basic rules of thumb that had been drilled into me twenty years ago as a newbie project manager in the Strategic Transformation programme of the phone company.

Developing the understanding of everything in the organisation and developing the intuitive judgement of what is important in any context is key to understanding the Way of Data Strategy in that organisation.

Perceive Those Things Which Cannot be Seen

Miyamoto is alluding here to the need to be alert to the ‘tells’ of your opponent in face to face combat and to the need to be perceptive of advantages and risks in larger conflicts.

For those of us following the Way of Data, this can be transposed as a need to perceive the things that cannot be seen, or which the organisation’s leadership doesn’t want to see. From root cause analysis of data quality problems to calling out glaring holes in the approach an organisation is taking to developing data capabilities, we need to be able to perceive the things that others can’t, or perhaps won’t, see.

Pay Attention Even to Trifles

This is related to the previous principle set out by Miyamoto. We need to not just be able to identify the things that others cannot see, but we need to pay attention to the small stuff. After all, as the famous self-help book tells us, “it’s all small stuff.” And while we might not need to sweat the details, we do need to pay attention to them, even if they appear trivial.

From the screen layout that presents information in a confusing way and results in people selecting the wrong option to the business rule that says a phone number is required to verify ownership of an email account, but ignores that that wasn’t a requirement over twenty years ago when people set up their free email accounts, small trifles can be the seed of big vulnerabilities.

Do Nothing Which is of No Use

Finally, a key lesson and valuable principle. We need to be economic in our efforts. Miyamoto here is essentially espousing a ‘lean’ approach. Everything that we do in developing and executing our data strategy needs to add value and be of use. That means we need to be clear who our stakeholders are and what their expectations are of data in the organization so that we can demonstrate value.

This is, perhaps, even more important in the post-COVID Disruption as organisations operate remotely and evidence of value will be measured through usefulness of outcomes delivered.


Musashi Miyamoto was a 16th Century samurai, but there is a lot that data leaders can learn from the fundamental teachings he codified about how to be a master of the Way of Strategy. I’ll look at the other books in The Book of Five Rings in future articles here, and will explore the concepts further in blog posts on Castlebridge over the coming months.

For now, the three key takeaways I’ll leave you with are:

  1. It’s not just about sword-fencing–we need to develop other competencies and skills outside the technical capabilities or the traditionally ‘data management’ domains
  2. There’s a time and a place for technologies and tools. It’s important to know how to identify what is needed and when.
  3. We need to maintain a ‘big picture view’ or we risk getting lost in the day to day of data.

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Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien

Daragh O Brien is a data management consultant and educator based in Ireland. He’s the founder and managing director of Castlebridge. He also lectures on data protection and data governance at UCD Sutherland School of Law, the Smurfit Graduate School of Business, and at the Law Society of Ireland. He is a Fellow of the Irish Computer Society, a Fellow of Information Privacy with the IAPP, and has previously served on the boards of two international professional bodies. He also is a volunteer contributor to the Leaders’ Data Group ( and a member of the Strategic Advisory Council to the School of Business in NUI Maynooth. He is the co-author of Ethical Data & Information Management: Concepts, Tools, and Methods, published in 2018 by Kogan Page, as well as contributing to works such as the DAMA DMBOK and other books on various data management topics.

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