Metadata promise too much value as a business management tool to dismiss their implementation and maintenance effort.4
Metadata systems may not have been necessary when data sets were relatively small and simply organized. Under these circumstances, data were usually used by only a handful of people who were intimately familiar with each data element's definition, collection source, uses, limitations, and technical characteristics. Moreover, the metadata that did exist often were stored in a data steward's memory or a program manager's paper files, and could be easily passed along from one person to another as a part of the organization's oral and written history. But the education enterprise has grown in complexity over the past decades, resulting in the seemingly exponential growth of information collected, stored, managed, used, and reported. In the field of education, as with other industries, metadata have become a necessary component of sound data systems. Without a formal and systematic method for conveying these "data about data," how can data, technical, and program staff confirm that information needed to understand the data will be available in a timely manner and appropriate format?
A well-managed metadata system minimizes disruption to data management and use. It ensures that the descriptions, definitions, parameters, usage instructions, and history of each element are maintained in an accurate and up-to-date manner. Additionally, metadata are essential for bridging programs and databases because they provide the framework for data exchange and communication within and between organizations. Metadata also inform data policymaking (for example, data retention procedures) and technology planning (such as load time demands) throughout an organization.
The benefits of properly implementing a robust metadata system include
Despite its potential value, many organizations have not yet chosen to develop a thorough metadata system. Organizational leaders may make this decision passively if they are unaware of the need, or they may actively decide not to address this issue. Organizations that make an intentional decision not to develop a metadata system often do so because it would:
All of these reasons for not developing metadata systems are valid—up to a point. Developing a system is a substantial undertaking that requires significant time, expertise, commitment, and money. But like other time-, staff-, and resource-intensive initiatives, such as installing new networking systems, or introducing new professional development programs, metadata systems should yield benefits that far outweigh the costs of implementation.
The consequences of neglecting metadata are many and severe. In the absence of a sound metadata system, the following types of serious data problems can, and often do, arise:
In the past, some organizations have learned to live with these types of consequences. However, with the ever-increasing reliance on data for managing strategic and day-to-day decisionmaking, accepting these problems rarely is acceptable by today's organizational management standards. While metadata cannot eliminate every opportunity for incorrectly collecting, using, or reporting information, a sound metadata system provides a framework for better understanding data and, therefore, minimizes the likelihood of misuse. Exhibit 1.5 presents an example of the perils of data misuse and misreporting in an education organization.