What hacking Shakespeare can teach organizational IT

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Last year I did some quick-and-dirty computer-aided text analysis on two Quartos of Hamlet, and it struck me how differently information technology is received in the so-called digital humanities than in workaday organizations.

Shakespeare scholars will jealously defend their texts, holding the technology suspect, forcing it to prove its value. And even if it can prove its value, they keep that value where it belongs.

Compare that to organizational IT where fondness for shiny new things often blurs the clarity of reason. Why don’t business folk defend their information from IT in the same way? My guess is that information is still seen as largely instrumental to some external goal–to deliver a product, or to serve a customer. Information is sliced and diced to create more information, often with little regard to the state of the overall information store. The people who care most about organizational information are usually database admins, whose jobs are all about data integrity. What’s needed is an organization-wide understanding that information is the source of organizational vitality. No matter how good an individual or a department is at their job, they will fail if their information is in a bad state.

One response I got to this line of thinking is that, naturally, businesses and nonprofits don’t value their information as Shakespeare scholars value the texts of Hamlet. After all, it’s Shakespeare! But I fail to see the big difference. Scholars need their text to do their jobs. We need our information to do ours. The guy who sneaks in ill-formatted data about customers is creating more chaos in the world that if he had replaced every third ‘e’ in Hamlet with an ‘i.’

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