In the Feb 23 "News About Conferences" newsletter there is an article stating that data is king. As someone who headed up a CRM Department for seven years, let me suggest a different analogy, namely, "Data is like fire." For managers, harnessing accurate and timely data is like harnessing fire. It warms you, cooks your food, and protects you from the wolves. But, like fire, it can also get out of control and burn you badly. Badly enough to destroy your credibility, your business, or your career.

For managers, data can be extremely useful. We can use it to measure results and to design new business strategies. And, when used in that sense, accurate and timely data is truly king.

But what about when it's not accurate and timely? An example of inaccurate data would be the recent US presidential election. All the major polls but one predicted the wrong winner. Credible, experienced, professional journalists, pundits, and consultants wound up with egg on their faces.

I have a 10-year old lawn mower that usually works flawlessly. But three or four times I have taken it back to the large department store chain where I bought it for repairs. When I'm notified it's ready, I go to a waiting area where there is a large computer monitor. I scan my receipt and my name pops up on the monitor. About 2 minutes later, the monitor shows my repair has been delivered to me. But in reality I'll sit there another 5-10 minutes waiting until finally it's in my hands.

The employees are gaming the system. They've been told that they must deliver the goods within a finite amount of time. But they never have, in my experience. What happens then, is some manager is sitting in his or her office at HQ looking at data that shows repair deliveries are made in 2.5 minutes, when in reality, it's more like 10.

Another example I'm sure many of us have experienced is when we are customers of a business that sends out a follow up survey to measure our satisfaction. Front line employees tell us that if we don't give them a "10" they could lose their jobs. They're "putting their fingers on the scale" trying to intimidate us into giving them a perfect score when perhaps they were a 9 at best.

NASA, the US space agency, has a term for this. It's called "Ratty data." Beware ratty data. It can be caused by gaming the system, typos, sloppiness, incomplete or missing data, and more.

Managers need to depend on data, but data should regularly be verified. For retailers, a manager could hire "secret shoppers" and do business there themselves. In other professions, Management By Walking Around, can expose ratty data..

As the late President Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." Data is like fire. Handle it responsibly and carefully. Don't get burned.