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Tom Redman Interview - January 2013

Tom Redman, pioneering author, practitioner and data quality expert

Tom Redman, pioneering author, practitioner and data quality expert


The Tom Redman Guest Interview

January 2013

As one of the pioneers of data quality management, Tom Redman helped kickstart an entire industry that is now gaining centre stage across the globe.

He is one of the most in-demand authors, practitioners and coaches in the field of data quality so we were delighted when he took time out to answer a few questions and get his latest insights on some of his recently published viewpoints.


Dylan Jones: Thanks for taking time out with  joining us today Tom. I want to start be exploring the themes in one of the first posts you wrote on your Harvard Business Review blog: “4 Steps to Fixing Your Bad Data”.

Some in the comments said that it was an overly simplistic view of data quality management but other practitioners commented that this is exactly what we need to engage executive management. Several months on from that post, what are your views?

Tom Redman: I think both perspectives have merit. Remember that you are not going to capture all the complications in anything in 800 words. So those who point out that this post did not capture everything there is to know about data quality management are obviously correct. Indeed, I think that criticism is unfair.

And of course the point that we need to better engage senior management is spot on.  As a community, we talk a lot more about doing this than actually doing so. And it has to change.  

HBR is one way. We need others as well.

Dylan Jones: That's a good point and I agree. I think a lot of people missed the point that you're not writing to practitioners on HBR, it's an entirely new audience. I think the vast majority of data quality content is aimed at those of us "in the DQ bubble" as it were, so it's great that you're engaging with this whole new segment of the industry who, let's face it, are critical to our success.

A lot of senior managers, many of whom no doubt read the Harvard Business Review, probably struggle to cope with the complexity and confusion that a large data quality program dictates. It’s such alien territory to them so how do you address this in your personal coaching approach. I know you prefer a more personalised coaching approach compared to a “cast of thousands” but what does that process look like?

Tom Redman: Dylan, it is simplistic to say I prefer a personalized coaching approach.  I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation during the run-up to World Quality Day and estimate we need to train up 2 million quality professionals in the next generation.  We’re not going to do that in a highly personalized way.

At the same time, we all have to think through the ways we can best contribute.  You do it through Data Quality Pro. One of the ways I contribute is helping senior people stare through the complexity you mention, understand their options, and pick a course.

Dylan Jones: In “Demand The Right (Right) Data” you focused on the fact that many managers simply accept poor data quality as a fact of working life because it’s always been this way.

Can you think of an example from your own coaching and consulting engagements where a manager has refused to accept the status quo and has actually become a “change agent” for improvement?

Tom Redman: This is a really important question Dylan.

The simple answer is that I can’t think of a single successful engagement without a manager who refused to accept the status quo and became an agent of change, within his or her span of control. Not one! To me, these men and women, many of whom did not know the first thing about quality when they started, are the unsung heroes of data quality.

Dylan Jones: One of our first ever guest interviews was with the folks at Tele-Tech Services in the US who had great success with data quality management after bringing you in to help shape the vision and direction of their program.

It was clear that following your recommendations Tele-Tech went on a mission not just for Six Sigma levels of quality but ultimately, zero defects. There are contentious views on either side of this debate so where do your views lie? Do you think zero defects is ultimately the right goal to aim for?

Tom Redman: I think the right goal is always customer satisfaction.  

The longer I do this work, the more adamant I become about a single-minded focus on customer.  

The late Dr. William Barnard, at the Juran Institute taught me what I call the “day-in, day-out” definition of quality:  

Meeting the most important needs of the most important customers.

If customers want zero defects, then that should be the goal.

But hopefully anyway, there are lots of customers with lots of needs. And the practical reality is that you can only work on a few things at a time. If zero defects makes the list, and it often will, so be it.

And by the way, isn’t the Tele-Tech story a terrific role model!

You have to love the way they thought through what their customers really wanted and the right way to engage. And the courage to publish their quality metrics. Outstanding!

Dylan Jones: In recent years your writing and publications are obviously geared more towards the business reader, particularly with your “Data Driven” book.

Do you find that there is a “reality gap” between the levels of data quality in most organisations and the perceptions senior management have of their organisation as a “data driven” company?

Tom Redman: No, I don’t see much of a reality gap there.   

All the senior executives I’ve ever worked with readily admit their organizations are “data rich and information poor.”

Senior people may not have data on their priority list, they may not know what to do, and they may think their organizations are incapable. But they get the data joke quickly when it is told right.  

Dylan Jones: Finally, you actively coach and mentor executives so why do they come to you? What problems drive them to reach out and seek guidance?

Are there any trends or specific triggers that you’re witnessing, particularly over the last 12 months?

Tom Redman: Dylan, As you know, I have the best job in the world. Executives come to me for lots of reasons.  Some simply want an external perspective, some want to know how high data or data quality should be on their priority list.

As an Australian noted, many want to “have a think,” often about how to think about the opportunity, get started, or make a plan.

Many want to understand their options and craft a plan. And practically all want to know what they need to do.

Regarding what’s new over the last twelve months. No question, it is big data. Almost everyone realizes the “hype to content” ratio is enormous. And many simply want to know whether there is any content there at all.

It seems to me that most suspect there really is something there and a few don’t know but don’t want to get left behind.