Truth or dare

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Not that it’s relevant to anything important, but I stopped admiring people who “speak truth to power” quite some time back.

It isn’t that I’m against the practice. It’s that I long ago read enough about epistemology (roughly three medium-length paragraphs) to understand that none of us have access to “the truth.” As we don’t have access to it we sure shouldn’t take it upon ourselves to share it.

Understand, I do have some experience in this game, as when I debated Gartner about their total cost of ownership metric: I spoke “truth” (my opinion) to power (Gartner being a force in the industry.

But I wasn’t, in truth, speaking truth to power at all. The best I could and can claim was that I provided my honest opinion, based on the best evidence, logic, and withering ridicule I could come up with.

None of us know the truth about anything. But on the other hand we’re all capable of honesty – a more advisable because less arrogant alternative to pretending to truth-telling.

None of which has anything to do with this week’s subject, which begins with my new favorite word, polysemy, which is when different words have closely overlapping meanings. Drawing on the subjects of recent weeks – integration and data warehouses in particular – this week’s polysemes are “system of record” and “source of truth.”

There are those in technical architecture circles who use these terms interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.

But like the difference between truth and honesty, systems of record and sources of truth are distinct and different concepts: a system of record is a matter of technical choice, while a source of truth is a matter of design.

Imagine your applications portfolio includes three different applications that manage customer information – maybe a CRM suite, an ERP suite, and a third-party database marketing company. Your job: make it easy for a sales representative to find a customer’s primary business address. It isn’t easy now because often the three applications contain different addresses for each customer.

What you need is a more-or-less arbitrary decision as to which of the three applications will, from this point forward, contains the address that will be used. That application is the “system of record” – the application developers will consult whenever they need a customer address.

Compare that to a source of truth. A source of truth is an integration point, often an API, possibly an “operational data store, enterprise service bus connector, or for different uses a data warehouse. What makes a source of truth invaluable is that someone has constructed a single software locale that knows, for each chunk of information, which application is its system of record and … and this is the crux of the biscuit … how to reconcile any discrepancies.

Systems of record are concrete. Sources of truth are abstractions.

To put a dot on it, anyone wanting to make use of corporate data must have a map that identifies, for each piece, which application is the system of record for that data.

Or else they need to ignore the individual applications and, for each piece of data they want they should consult the sources of truth.

Bob’s last word: When it comes to IT, understanding and making use of sources of truth in lieu of systems of record is a handy way to get work done faster and more accurately. But the same thought process can play out in non-technical situations.

Each of us has sources of truth for information we need. These sources take the time to collect and summarize information so we don’t have to. Maybe Gartner is one of them (good luck!). Greg and I hope KJR serves this purpose for you in your professional life. Microsoft wants you to start relying on Copilot, encouraging you to obey our future robotic overlords.

Regardless, given the flood of information available to us should we need any of it, perhaps our biggest challenge will be vetting our summarizers. For the ones we choose the minimum standard can’t be truth. The raw sources are, after all, in the cloud.

And the internet doesn’t trade in truth.

Now in CIO.com: Want more along these lines? Read Bob’s newest CIO Survival Guide post, “CIO risk-taking 101: Playing it safe isn’t safe”, about how organizations often get risk-taking wrong.

Comments (1)

  • Regardless of the Source of Truth or System of Record, what did the science say (sorry had to).

    Back to the real topic, quiet a bit of this was born from the days when databases were not normalized well. For performance reasons (or terrible design) data was duplicated in tables .Some database joins would go out to lunch, so terrible design “fixed it”.

    Now with data scattered all over the place, the challenge is greater. My favorite is when lousy transaction processing via APIs causes a mess.

    All of this is where data conversions and new system implementations can really struggle with the underlying data mess.

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