Information Quality Change – the Doctor Who effect

I’m a big science fiction fan. I make no apologies about this fact. One of my favourite science fiction characters is The Doctor, the lead character in the

The 9th Doctor outside his Tardis
The 9th Doctor

BBC’s iconic series of the same name. In a genre that often falls for the easy charms of technology to drive a story, The Doctor (a 930 year old, two-hearted time travelling Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey) invariably highlights and thrives on the Human Factor – the innate potential, ingenuity and power of the human beings (a lesser species) who he befriends, protects, and travels with.

Over the years I’ve tried to adopt and adapt some of the principles of The Doctor’s approach to leading Information Quality and Governance change projects:

There is nothing that can’t be solved by confectionery

The good Doctor in a number of his incarnations (4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th as memory serves)  was renowned for, in moments of high tension, proffering some confectioneries (specifically Jelly Babies) to help lighten the mood and distract thought. They were an incredible tool that enabled him to befriend others and buy time to develop cunning plans. Doctor Who Jelly Babies (video montage)

The key lesson is that it is often useful to have a “quirky” way to break down barriers and get conversations going. The Doctor has Jelly Babies. I’ve used various props. Kathy Hunter of DQM Group made extensive use of home baked cakes and biscuits when she was in a previous role to help open conversations.

It’s Bigger on the Inside

The Doctor’s space ship/time machine is a Blue Box. It is a Blue Box because the advanced circuitry that let it change appearance to blend in in different timelines got stuck on “Blue Box” on a trip to London around 1963 (the year the series was first broadcast). The thing about the Blue Box is that it is “bigger on the inside”, a fact that The various companions’s to The Doctor remark on whenever they enter the Blue Box for the first time. Bigger on the Inside (Youtube) . Invariably, The Doctor takes the surprise in his stride, often forgetting how big a shot it is to people when they see the size of his Blue Box for the first time.

The Doctor’s Blue Box is called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space. By being able to engineer time and space The Doctor’s race, the Time Lords could build infintely large space craft that could fit into a small space (like the back of a props van on a TV show).

What’s the parallel with Information Quality? Well, those of us who have worked in Information Quality often forget that it is a discipline that is very much “bigger on the inside”. When people look at Information Quality from the outside, they might be forgiven for thinking that it has the general dimensions of a Blue Box (so to speak) and it is only when they venture inside that they realise there’s more to it than meets the eye. If your perception of IQM is that it is Data Profiling and some Cleansing, it can be quite a shock when you uncover the Change Management challenges, the human psychology issues, and the legal and regulatory issues that can affect Information Quality strategies.

Often we hard-core practitioners take it for granted that its is bigger on the inside, because we’re on the inside looking out.

People First, Technology Second

Quite apart from the long running love affair The Doctor has had with the Human Race, every adventure winds up with The Doctor being outrageously brilliant as a Time Lord, but more importantly inspiring and encouraging brilliance in his Companions and others around him. Whether it is calling in favours from old enemies (in return for some jelly babies perhaps) or rallying demoralised troops in the face of battle or unnatural enemies, The Doctor puts people first, often appearing willing to sacrifice himself to protect others.

Technology is applied in innovative and outlandish ways to meet the objective of protecting people. Even The Doctor’s trusted sonic screwdriver is not used as a tool in its own right but as a means of enabling things to happen and for information to be gathered to support decision making.

From an information quality management point of view it is important that we remember this lesson – the technology should not dictate the solution and, ultimately, it is people who are the brilliant and innovative sources of solutions to problems. A Data Profiler will tell you that the data looks broken. A human being will figure out the best solution (new business rule, new tools etc).

In short, to paraphrase The Doctor: “People are FANTASTIC!!”


I’m very much of the view that we can learn a lot from arts and literature about ourselves and who we can aim to be in how we approach things. Science fiction TV programmes are no different to the works of Shakespeare in this regard. Perhaps we can achieve more sustainable successes in our Information Quality travels by learning some lessons from The Doctor:

  1. Everybody likes Jelly babies – (what is your equivalent?)
  2. Not everyone can see that this is actually Bigger on the Inside… and when they step into the world of Information Quality it can be a bit of a shock to the system.
  3. Technology doesn’t fix things. People fix things, occasionally using technology to get there. Remember that people are FANTASTIC!!

3 thoughts on “Information Quality Change – the Doctor Who effect”

  1. Keith Underdown

    When the TARDIS travels on the props truck it’s a flat pack! Can’t think of an DQ lesson to draw from that. Perhaps you can. Something about adaptability perhaps.

    Tine you came to Cardiff again so I can give you the upgraded Dr Who/Torchwood tour.

  2. @Keith: DQ Lesson: The state of entities and their attributes can sometimes be dependent on time, purpose, and location. Definitely need to get over to Cardiff again. I’m somewhat zombified… (I need BRAINS).

    @jim – thanks. Blog posts are cool. Another lesson I should have included but only thought about this morning is this:

    The Doctor has absolutely no truck with formal authority. He recognises it, deals with it, but seeks to work around it to get to the people. This is evidenced by his dislike of being saluted by military or law enforcement personnel and his general sense of mischief when told he can’t do something just because someone says so.

    The Information Quality lesson is this: Formal hierarchy often exists or has morphed into a barrier to getting things done. The way around this barrier is not technology but people. People are cool.

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