Information errors can be very costly – €50 Million for example!

For many years I have been trying to convince organisations that they should treat information as an asset and pay particular attention to the cost of either not being able to find information or finding incorrect information. For a couple of years I have been indebted to a big data survey that Oracle published in 2012 which indicated that 93% of the C-level executives believed that their organisation was losing 14% of revenues annually as a result of not being able to make full use of the information they have collected. However I’d have to question how the survey respondents derived the figure.

Last week I came across a BBC News item about 2000 new trains ordered by SNCF that have turned out to be too wide to travel through many of the older stations on the French rail network. That means rebuilding around 1000 stations at a cost of probably €50M.  It is somewhat surprising that they did not look at the plans for the stations or consider the agreed standards for platform clearance. In fact the problem is not down to SNCF as it was the RFF (which operates the rail network, but not the trains) that sent incorrect information to the SNCF to pass on to the train construction company in the specification. It seems that RFF staff measured only platforms at stations built in the last 30 years. The problems lie with older stations.

The BBC has now published a list of ten other measurement blunders that have resulted in (as examples) the sinking of the Vasa in Stockholm harbour in 1628 and causing the Hubble Space Telescope to be virtually unusable following its launch in 1990.

It is easy to suggest that these errors are the result of human error but all are related to assumptions about the quality and provenance of information. Having an information management strategy based around a life cycle framework will not guarantee that errors such as these will not happen in the future but it should substantially reduce the possibility and the impact. Even if that is the outcome several of the examples quoted by the BBC arise (like the SNCF/RFF example) from the exchange of information between two organisations, with the one receiving the information making assumptions about the context and veracity of information that turned out to be incorrect.

Martin White