Data is Risky Business: The Importance of Fundamentals

In my last column for, I wrote about the strategy lessons for data that we can learn from the writings of a 16th century Japanese swordsman. To summarize:

– We need to study different disciplines in order to understand how they relate to each other. Expertise in all is not required, but basic competence is necessary so that we can understand the experts and deploy them effectively on the battlefield.
– It is important to train in order to develop competence and capability.
– Don’t think dishonestly.
– Be able to distinguish between gain and loss.
– Pay attention to trifles–the devil is often in the small details.
– Do nothing which is not of use.

In 2021, I will be developing thoughts on each of these themes here and over on my company website. For this column I want to focus a little bit on the real-world application of some of these principles.

Lockdown Dojo (Part 1)

2020 has been a frustrating year as I had just returned to the dojo after years of absence from regular training. By mid-March, I had passed through what I call the ‘Leonard Cohen’ phase of exercise and I had stopped aching in the places where I used to play.

Then, everything stopped suddenly.

I couldn’t go to class (my dojo is over 150kms from my home, a challenge at the best of times). I had nobody to practice with. I was basically back to where I had been for a decade previously and my aging joints were telling me that if I didn’t do something I might as well “sell my suit” and just give up.

But the previous decade of not-training had taught me a valuable lesson. I had learned that if I couldn’t do the ideal of face-to-face training with others, I needed to train in other things to maintain and develop some level of acuity and capability. I needed to look at fundamentals and practice these, and to figure out how to practice without baking in bad habits (which had been the worry that had held me back from training before when I knew I could get to the dojo… next week, maybe).

So, vacuuming floor became an exercise in body movement and posture. Waiting for pasta to cook became a three-minute standing stretch opportunity. A broomstick became my practice partner. And my kid learned about kokyu-ho.

The First Lesson

So, the first lesson for data management professionals from Lock Down Dojo is this: even if you are isolated from the opportunity to develop skills and use the ‘right’ tools and technologies, you can practice solo and develop a sense of the form and function of the techniques of the various data management disciplines.

  • Draw basic entity relationship diagrams and logical data models FOR YOUR OWN USE.
  • Identify the critical data FOR YOUR OWN PROCESSES and understand the data lineage, data quality, and data governance constraints that apply.
  • Use the tools that are available to you, however imperfect, to put something together. It doesn’t need to be fancy. But it does need to enable you to apply and practice some basic techniques.

A good example of something you could do in a ‘Lock Down Data Dojo’ is Tom Redman’s Friday Afternoon Assessment.

Lockdown Dojo (Part 2)

A few weeks ago, my Aikido sensei started running a “Virtual Dojo” via a popular video conferencing platform. These short virtual classes serve two purposes. The first, and most obvious, purpose is the imparting of knowledge to allow those of us who are trying to train solo at home to verify our understanding of technique and to avoid bad habits creeping in (or at least minimise them). The second, less obvious purpose, is the maintenance of the sense of community in the class, the sense of connection.

The obvious parallel here in the data management world is with webinars and online learning, but with the added element of ‘having a chat’.

However, it goes beyond a death-by-PowerPoint analogue and actually speaks to something deeper. It is the actual practice of techniques, not just the learning about them or reading about them, that is important here. The ability to see and copy a role model behaviour (posture, timing, discussion and exposition of key points of technique and execution) is important. And having an opportunity to chat with people from the class afterwards maintains a social context that is important.

My sensei is very clear that this is a fascinating experiment as he himself is having to relearn his approach to teaching to address the audience in a different way. Breaking techniques down and presenting them differently, in a different context, is helping him to think afresh about his art and his approach. Of course, he likes to point out that this is not entirely different to how he had to practice in the 1970s and 1980s when there was almost nobody else doing Aikido in Ireland and his sensei was in Japan.

The Second Lesson

What I take from this experience as a data management professional is simple. We need to be able and willing to change our way of thinking about how we share and impart knowledge. I’ve written elsewhere about what the future trends, challenges, and opportunities are likely to be in a post-pandemic work environment. Enabling people to do great things with data will be a key strategic challenge.

That means needing to think about what the staff needs to learn, and how they need to learn it. It means breaking down the form, function, and fine points of technique and practice into chunks that can be digested. It means, as leaders in our organisations, modelling the practices, behaviours, and methods that we want and need to develop in our teams.

How we build and organise our internal communities of practice in our organisations to impart and develop knowledge for work needs to be a key part of our Connected Working strategy. But many of us have been doing this externally to our day jobs for many years. When my sensei shared his experiences of high-level aikido and kenjutsu practice from the early days of Aikido in Ireland, it sounded a heck of a lot like my experience learning about data governance and data quality over the last twenty years.

  • I did a lot of ‘solo practice’ trying to implement things in organisations at different scales.
  • I tried to get to webinars, conferences, and in-person events (all of which were outside Ireland) to develop my skills and insights.
  • I jumped at opportunities to have people like Tom Redman, Larry English, or John Ladley come to Ireland to speak at things for the IAIDQ/IQ International Chapter I set up or for Castlebridge.
  • I ran a ‘data dojo’ in the phone company where people could come to classes at lunchtimes to learn things that I was learning, and we could try to put them into practice.

But within all of that we need to also learn the lesson of community. Not just in the sense of organisations like DAMA or IQ International, but in the sense of the personal connections and interactions we need to have to develop our skills and insights and to be able to have an idea and be able to bounce that idea of smart people in a safe space.

I’d like to thank Bob Seiner for his efforts in that respect over the past few months.

Lockdown Dojo (Part 3)

I’ve been discussing my experiences with virtual Aikido with other data management practitioners I know who are also Aikidoka. The challenge we have all struggled with has been the absence of a place to go to train and people to train with. Developing approaches to solo practice can be hard because, when we are Dojoing-From-Home, other things can get in the way or eat into our time.

In all of this, however, the common shared insight is that practice of technique is not about the external validation that can come from doing the technique well. It is the internal satisfaction that comes from self-development and seeing a clumsy and stuttering practice become a more flowing movement. This improvement of the self, the development of pride in a job well done rather than seeking an external reward or badge is at the heart of a philosophy of mastery. And it’s also at the heart of good quality management practice–see Deming for details!

In the Book of the Five Rings, we are told that the Way of the Art of Strategy is in training. One of my fellow aikido practicing data people recently shared with me a story of when his sensei left Japan to travel. Concerned he would not be able to practice properly, he asked his sensei what he should do if he couldn’t find someone to practice with on his travels. The response was:

“If you have a bokken (wooden training sword) and a mirror, you’ll probably be OK.”

In Lockdown Dojo, it turns out a broom handle can be an effective substitute for the bokken. So, there are no excuses for not practicing.

The Third Lesson

Simple techniques, practiced regularly, with self-reflection and a focus on continuous improvement are the best way to develop sustainable improvement in data management practices and capability. Sure, we can buy the shiny toys and technologies. But sometimes a spreadsheet, some data, and a willingness to hold ourselves to account in the mirror is what we really need to improve.

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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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