Voices | How has metadata evolved?

Metadata is fundamental. The increasing importance of metadata has led to a key question; what is the most effective way to define and organise metadata?

Where there’s data, there’s metadata.

In a modern data ecosystem, metadata is the crucial information that describes and gives context to data. It helps to identify the source, structure, and use of data, making it easier to manage, access, and analyse. Metadata is fundamental, as you see both the volume of your data and the complexities of your data management requirements grow, having your metadata organised becomes critical. In the case of doing more with what an organisation already has, with the right capability in place, metadata management presents enormous potential for business value realisation.

The potential value of metadata management has become clear as metadata has evolved - it enables us to delve deeper into the heartbeat of an organisation, surfacing insights that were previously hidden or challenging to find. One benefit of its evolution is that it’s now easier to link metadata to organisational operations - a significant shift from the past. This connectivity, coupled with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, has streamlined data processes, and made data more efficient and accessible.

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The increasing importance of metadata has led to a key question; what is the most effective way to define and organise metadata? The answer lies in developing an accessible and manageable to data catalog, systematically curating and clarifying all metadata. Essentially, a data catalog enables proficient metadata management.

The value of data catalogs

A data catalog enhances an organisation's ability to strategically manage and exploit its metadata for business benefit. Data catalogs can help mitigate risk, improve compliance, increase operational efficiency, build data trust, reduce costs, and aid decision-making. They can do a great job of helping anyone in the organisation better understand what data the organisation has and the where, why, when, and how of its use - a valuable asset for informed decision-making and strategic planning in organisations.

Metadata and data catalogs are playing a crucial role in understanding and leveraging an organisation's vast data resources. Thinking strategically about metadata management is important, as organisations must not be oblivious to the risks of letting their metadata run wild, and actively get a handle on it. For some organisations this has always been the way, and they have approached their data with metadata definitions from the off, but for some when they’re thinking retrospectively about utilising metadata, this may be more complicated to approach.

The risks of poor metadata management

Many organisations find themselves entangled in inefficient metadata management, often manifested in endless Excel documents that swiftly become outdated and unmanageable. Project discovery documentation, though initially beneficial, tends to become isolated after it's been delivered.

There's a real risk of making ill-informed decisions around metadata without even recognising it. This includes selecting, designing, and implementing technologies that fail to capture the essential metadata needed to later support key data catalog use cases. The implications of these decisions can be far-reaching, impacting an organisation's ability to effectively manage and leverage its data assets.

There can be significant costs associated with maintaining unnecessary data, such as experiencing delays in project discovery, the need for rework, and the increased effort and time spent on data analysis.

Finally, at the extreme end, there's the costly venture into data cataloging tools which often fall short of delivering sustainable business advantages. The consequences of these approaches are big, potentially hampering an organisation's capacity to effectively manage and leverage its data assets.

How attitudes towards metadata continue to evolve

1 – Evolution of language and purpose

It's recognised that modern methodologies such as data mesh and data fabric, are driven by accurate and accessible metadata and are pivotal in this transformation. Organisations are increasingly concentrating on refining their metadata practices to support these advanced concepts. Whilst descriptive, semantic consistency remains valuable to organisations, more focus is being put upon the business and technical implications of the metadata, i.e. how it can be exploited for business value. This transition marks a departure from the traditional 'librarian' role, elevating the importance of language and metadata within a comprehensive modern data ecosystem.

2 – Having a strategic approach to metadata management

Organisations that have a data strategy (or even want to have one), will need to optimise their approach to metadata management if they are to have any lasting success. Imagine navigating without a map, finding a book in a library without the genres, baking a cake without a recipe, building a house without a blueprint – yes you might deliver an outcome that resembles what you think you wanted but:

  • Will it last?
  • Could you do it again?
  • Could you do it faster?
  • Could you do it at scale?
  • Did it cost what you expected?
  • What risks did you have to face to deliver the outcome?
  • Is the outcome what you set out to achieve?

You need a well-defined data strategy and robust metadata management that positions the critical role of metadata management. Without it, your efforts risk becoming one-off successes that lack replicability and scalability.

3 - Democratising data knowledge (in the form of metadata)

Data democratisation is an ongoing journey that empowers every individual within an organisation, irrespective of their technical expertise, to confidently interact with data. This initiative is focused on enabling all colleagues to feel comfortable using, discussing, and comprehending data in the context of their role. This will ultimately lead outcomes including informed decision-making and developing customer experiences enriched by data insights.

It marks a significant development from a few key individuals holding exclusive access to data, to a more inclusive model. This approach removes the over-reliance on key person dependencies, ensuring that critical data is always within reach of those that need it, thereby streamlining organisational operations.

Implementing a comprehensive data catalog platform is pivotal in filling the gaps in collective data understanding. It’s about fostering a deeper, more intuitive understanding and trust in the data. Having a strategic approach to data management means less time is used in seeking out and deciphering it before using it as the basis for business decisions.

Key considerations for approaching a data catalog (and metadata management)

When embarking upon your data catalog journey, or revising your metadata management strategy, it's crucial to stay focused on your goals and the value you want to get out of the capability. It’s easy to get caught up in the fancy features of technology but remember it's not just about buying the newest technology and walking away.

Always ask yourself: What problems are we trying to solve? How does this help our business? If your metadata management or data catalog solution isn't helping you meet your business goals, it might be time to rethink your approach.

If you're new to this or just beginning to build your data ecosystem, remember that metadata is important right from the start. It's not just an afterthought or a 'nice-to-have.' Managing your metadata well from the beginning sets a solid foundation for your data strategy and supports your organisation throughout its data journey.

Where should organisations start?

A common first step is to use something as basic as an Excel spreadsheet to capture metadata. While this isn't a long-term solution, it doesn’t scale well and lacks advanced features, it’s a good way to kick off conversations. Begin by listing what data sources you have and what data might be important. Getting your team talking about data is a great initial step.

Sometimes, you need a solid business case to really get going. This involves defining specific use cases, pinpointing opportunities for a proof-of-concept or value demonstration, and then crafting a business case around these points. This approach can help you get the buy-in you need to move forward.

If your organisation is planning something big, like migrating to the cloud, use this as an opportunity to push your data catalog agenda. In these scenarios, a data catalog becomes essential for understanding what data you have, deciding what to migrate, and setting up good metadata practices from the outset. This not only helps with your current project but also sets a strong foundation for your ongoing data catalog journey.

Remember, the key is to start with what you have and build from there. Each step, no matter how small, is a move towards a more organised and efficient handling of your data.

What does successful metadata management/data cataloging look like?

Achieving success in metadata management and data cataloging involves several key elements:

Clear vision and strategy

Success starts with having a well-defined vision and strategy for your metadata management, aligned with your overall data and business strategies. This should include a clear execution roadmap with tangible business value points throughout.

Sustainable funding and operating model

Ensure you have a sustainable approach to funding and the right operating model. This means having the right mix of people, processes, and technology to make your metadata management efforts successful and lasting.

Business-driven use cases

Understand the specific use cases for your data catalog, and make sure these are driven and sponsored by business stakeholders. It’s essential that your efforts are always closely aligned with the actual needs and goals of the business, and not getting off track.

Commitment to measure and monitor value

It's important to continuously measure and monitor the business value being derived from your metadata management capabilities. Stay adaptable and responsive to changes in usage, business needs, and other dynamics.

User-centric design

The design of your data cataloging capability should be user-friendly and tailored to the needs of those who will use it. It should reflect and support the specific use cases you've identified. When designing and testing the data catalog, get those who will be using it involved in the testing process, especially important for the change management process.

Automation and efficiency

Effective data cataloging shouldn't feel like a chore. Aim for automation wherever possible, freeing up people's time for tasks that add more value rather than getting bogged down in repetitive, mundane tasks. AI is here to support people, not replace them.

Final thoughts

The need to approach metadata and its management more strategically is becoming clearer and more vital than ever before. If addressed correctly, it will sit at the heart of everything an organisation does with data. Firstly, it involves creating a foundational and shared understanding of data. Secondly, it includes the ability to enable the right data governance outcomes. Thirdly, it provides the raw materials needed to enhance the intelligence and automation of data management processes. Finally, it presents the opportunity to explore and exploit new ways of leveraging data for competitive advantage.

For organisations that don’t do this today - metadata management has become ‘table stakes’ and it’s time to act. For organisations that do some of this today – metadata management holds enormous potential, some of which may still be untapped, review those use cases and explore unlocking new data opportunities driven by metadata.

If you’d like to read more Amplifi insight into metadata management, we’ve curated '4 Top Tips to Metadata Management’ in a guide – take a read here! Alternatively, if you want to understand more about how metadata and data cataloging fits into the modern data ecosystems, have a read of our guide 'Implementing a Modern Data Ecosystem' here.

Guide | 4 tips to Metadata Management

Amplifi Metadata Management Guide Mockup 1

About the author

David Neil is Consulting Director at Amplifi.

David has more than a decade of experience in crafting and executing enterprise data strategies across diverse industries. He is an advocate for organisations having a strategic approach to metadata management/data cataloging and advises clients in data strategy, metadata management, data governance and architecture (to name a few). If you would like to speak with David about your organisation’s metadata, please fill out our contact form here.

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