Data is Risky Business

Welcome to the first of a regular series of columns from Daragh OBrien. Daragh’s column, Data is Risky Business, will appear every quarter and will address data topics of the day as only Daragh can.


A Little Knowledge…

We have all heard the saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. It turns out that a recent academic study in the field of pyschology shows this to be the case.

In a study conducted by Cornell University and Tulane University, researchers found that:

  1. Self-perceived financial knowledge positively predicted claiming knowledge of non-existent financial concepts independent of actual knowledge
  2. Self-perceived knowledge in specific domains is associated with over-claiming knowledge in those domains.
  3. Even when participants were WARNED that some concepts were fictitious, there was no reduction in the relationship between self-perceived knowledge and over-claiming.
  4. Where participants boosted their self-perceived level of knowledge, they asserted familiarity with fictitious things (in that case: ‘experts’ in geography recognised cities that didn’t exist).

Over the years, I’ve seen this phenomenon in organisations when it comes to data management, information quality, and data privacy. I’ve even coined the term “Exp-Hurts” to describe the people in organisations who absolutely, positively, 110% know that the data privacy policies say X and what code ABC123 in field Y of system Z means.

Often, this certainty and knowledge is in the face of evidence in the form of documentation or analysis of the data. Often the exp-hurts are respected by their peers and (sometimes) have been promoted to positions of responsibility based on their status as an Exp-Hurt. In many cases, the Exp-Hurts derive their self-perceived knowledge, particularly in the context of technical issues or regulatory issues, from the fact that they went on a course on the topic at some point in the past and received some form of certification (usually just a certificate of attendance), or simply the mantra that “everybody knows that…”.

Examples of the wisdom of Exp-hurts I’ve encountered include:

  • “Consumer customers can only have one account” – Head of Marketing Analytics in a telecommunications company.
  • “Our terms and conditions allow us to do that. We’re covered under Data Privacy laws” – Middle-manager in a Retail organisation
  • “A Y in the ‘Junk Mail Y/N’ field means the customer wants junk mail” – subject matter expert on a telecommunications company’s customer sales order systems.
  • “A Y in the ‘Junk Mail Y/N’ field means the customer doesn’t want junk mail” – another subject matter expert in the same organisation, in the same meeting, about the same system.

I’ve also coined the phrase “ExpHurt-ease” to describe the convoluted explanations and logic jujitsu that ExpHurts often go through to maintain their self-perceived level of expertise.

The only remedy for Exp-Hurt-Ease in an organisation is education. Here are some things to think about:

  1. The organisation needs to educate itself as to its real metadata, business definitions, business rules, and the reality of legal or Regulatory rules.
  2. “In God we trust, everyone else must bring Data”, as W.Edwards Deming said. The organisation must support a culture of challenging Exp-Hurts with evidence.
  3. Invest in external ExPERTise to balance the ExpHurt-ease: bringing in external experts to challenge thinking, coach leaders, and train staff helps drive out the Exp-Hurt-ease and get everyone talking the same language. External advisors can also more easily describe the reality of the Emperor’s wardrobe when it comes to the accuracy of knowledge being relied on by the Exp-Hurts.
  4. Develop proper education and training plans to create Experts not Exp-Hurts. While it’s fun to have external people in to help (and as a consultant I wholeheartedly encourage it), the reality is that the best experts you can find are often inside your organisation. Even where you hire in new blood, it’s important that you make sure they have a formal skills development plan to ensure they remain experts and don’t become exp-Hurts.

Exp-hurts are everywhere. The fact that people appear to know what they are doing can lead people to assume that the organisation knows what it is doing and is on the right path. Without experts to challenge their thinking, this can lead to costly errors.

Within my own team we have a simple philosophy of challenging one another’s knowledge and understanding in an evidence-based culture so that we can be sure we are being experts and not exp-Hurts. So it was nice to find research data that supports my hunch about Exp-Hurt-ease.

[This column is based on a piece that originally appeared on the Castlebridge Associates website:]

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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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