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Hanlon’s Law and Data Management

Hanlon’s Law (or Hanlon’s razor) goes something like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” In other words, when it looks like someone did something intentionally harmful, very often it was simply human error.

I see this a lot in data management. Often when I talk with my clients, I’ll hear versions of this kind of thinking: “There are so many mistakes in our system, I sometimes feel like staff is intentionally sabotaging it.”

But more often than not, when we dig deeper, what we find is not malice but ignorance. Staff isn’t trying to damage the system. And they aren’t being lazy or careless with their work. They simply DON’T KNOW that they’re doing things incorrectly.

Consider this real example: I was working with a client on selecting a new association management system. During our discussions, we talked about all the different data they collect when a new member joins. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Me: “You told me that when a new member joins online, there is still some work you have to do on the staff side of the system, before they become an actual member. Tell me more about that.”

Staff: “Once a new person has joined online, I have to open up that person’s record, confirm that they’ve entered all the data correctly, and copy these three pieces of data to another tab in the database.”

Me: “So data that already exists in the database has to be copied, by hand, to another part of the same record?”

Staff: “Yes.”

Me: “Do you know what that data is used for?”

Staff: “No, I don’t. That’s how I was trained to do my job, 12 years ago.”

Was this staff person creating more work for herself out of malice? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s unlikely. Based on my extensive discussions with her, she clearly wanted to do the right thing (as most staff do!). But she didn’t have the tools at hand to help her do that.

But why is this important? Because if ignorance is the issue, that can be addressed with training and documentation. Acts of malice are an attitude problem, which are very hard to “fix.” But ignorance is typically a training problem. It’s not that your staff is too dumb to do the work; it’s that they simply don’t know what the right work is.

So as you discover the inevitable issues with your data management system, before you jump to the conclusion that someone is trying to sabotage it, keep Hanlon’s Law in mind. Chances are good it’s not malice, just ignorance.