Data management fairy tales

On Tuesday I read this refreshing post in LinkedIn by Jeffrey Maskell of Westheimer Energy Consultants. It's a pretty damning assessment of the current state of data management in the petroleum industry:

The fact is that no major technology advances have been seen in the DM sector for some 20 years. The [data management] gap between acquisition and processing/interpretation is now a void and is impacting the industry across the board...

I agree with him. But I don't think he goes far enough on the subject of what we should do about it. Maskell is, I believe, advocating more effort (and more budget) developing what the data management crowd have been pushing for years. In a nutshell:

I agree that standards, process, procedures, workflows, data models are all important; I also agree that DM certification is a long term desirable outcome. 

These words make me sad. I'd go so far as to say that it's the pursuit of these mythical ideas that's brought about today's pitiful scene. If you need proof, just look around you. Go look at your shared drive. Go ask someone for a well file. Go and (a) find then (b) read your IT policies and workflow documents — they're all fairy tales.

Maskell acknowledges at least that these are not enough; he goes on:

However I believe the KEY to achieving a breakthrough is to prove positively that data management can make a difference and that the cost of good quality data management is but a very small price to pay...

No, the key to achieving a breakthrough is a change of plan. Another value of information study just adds to the misery.

Here's what I think: 'data management' is an impossible fiction. A fairy tale.

You can't manage data

I'm talking to you, big-company-data-management-person.

Data is a mess, and it's distributed across your organization (and your partners, and your government, and your data vendors), and it's full of inconsistencies, and people store local copies of everything because of your broken SharePoint permissions, and... data is a mess.

The terrible truth you're fighting is that subsurface data wants to be a mess. Subsurface geoscience is not accounting. It's multi-dimensional. It's interdependent. Some of it is analog. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of formats, many of which are proprietary. Every single thing is unquantifiably uncertain. There are dozens of units. Interpretation generates more data, often iteratively. Your organization won't fund anything to do with IT properly — "We're an oil company, not a technology company!" — but it's OK because VPs only last 2 years. Well, subsurface facts last for decades.

You can't manage data. Try something else.

The principle here is: cope don't fix.

People earnestly trying to manage data reminds me of Yahoo trying to catalog the Internet in 1995. Bizarrely, they're still doing it... for 3 more months anyway. But we all know there's only one way to find things on the web today: search. Search transcends the catalog. 

So what transcends data management? I've got my own ideas, but first I really, really want to know what you think. What's one thing we could do — or stop doing — to make things a bit better?