The Umwelt Principle

dataworldby Michael Brackett

Every public and private sector organization has a unique perception of the business world in which they operate.  The organization perception principle states that the comparate data resource developed to support an organization’s business must be based on the organization’s perception of the business world and how it chooses to operate in that business world.

The organization perception principle is based on the umwelt¹ principle.  Umwelt is a German word meaning the environment or the world around.  It’s the world as perceived by an organism based on its cognitive and sensory powers.  It’s the environmental factors collectively that are capable of affecting an organism’s behavior.  It’s a self-centered world where organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment.  It’s an organism’s perception of the current surroundings and previous experiences which are unique to that organism.  It’s the world as experienced by a particular organism.

The environment is like a forest that has general umwelten, such as trees, ground cover, and soil.  Each general umwelten has specific umwelten, such as squirrels in trees, mice on the ground, and bacteria in the soil.  Each organism experiences its own specific umwelten within a general umwelten.

Change organism to organization, which is a collection of organisms, and change environment to business world and umwelt can be applied to an organization.  The organization umwelt principle states that each organization has a particular perception of the business world in which it operates based on previous experiences that are unique to that organization.  Those experiences affect the organization’s behavior in the business world, and determine how the organization adapts to a changing business world and operates in that business world.  The organization umwelt principle supports the organization perception principle and emphasizes the importance of understanding both the business world and the data supporting the organization in that business world.

The business world has general umwelten, such as health care, petroleum industry, and aeronautics.  Each of those general umwelten have specific umwelten, such as pharmaceuticals, medical clinics, and doctor’s offices within health care.  The specific umwelten vary slightly for each organization, such as doctors that are general practitioners, internists, orthopedists, and so on.  Each doctor has their own unique umwelten within the specific umwelten.

The organization umwelt principle emphasizes that each individual organization has a unique perception of the business environment and can operate according to that perception without being judged right or wrong.  An organization can change their perception of the business environment and how they operate in it based on a variety of experiences that are unique to that organization.  A single perception of the business world that is suitable for all organizations does not exist.  Each organization has its own unique perception of the business world, which leads to the statement How dare you force your umwelten on me!

Reality is the quality or state of being real; a real event, entity, or state of affairs; the totality of real things and events; something that is neither derivative nor dependent, but exists necessarily; something that is true, actual, genuine, or authentic.

Organization business reality is the reality an organization faces in the business world, which is based on that organization’s specific umwelten.  When an organization remains within its specific umwelten, understanding is maximized, consensus is achieved, and simplicity is maintained.  When an organization strays, or is forced, outside its specific umwelten, understanding is not maximized, consensus is not achieved, and complexity is created.  Simplicity is only achieved within an organization’s business reality!

Data resource reality is the reality that only formal design of an organization’s data resource, according to established theory, and based on sound concepts, principles, and techniques can lead to a comparate data resource that fully supports the organization’s current and future business information demand.  Data resource reality is based on the organization umwelt principle.  The data resource must represent and support the way an organization perceives the business world and operates in that business world.  Data resource design must be based on the way the organization perceives the business world and must include the data necessary to operate in that business world.

One of the five horsemen of disparate data is warping-the-business, which forces an organization outside their specific umwelten.  Three major areas where warping-the-business occurs are predefined data models, purchased applications, and reporting requirements.

Predefined data models are any generic models, standard models, universal architectures, general patterns, templates, and so on, that already exist and are available to assist an organization with their data resource design.  Most contain only the data structure with a few general constraints.  Few have any formal data names, comprehensive data definitions, or precise data integrity rules.  The problem is that predefined data models often force an organization outside their specific umwelten, which warps-the-business.

Even if a predefined data model were a perfect fit to an organization’s umwelten, their use deprives the organization of an opportunity to review their business, understand their business, come to consensus about their business, and achieve simplicity.  The organization loses the benefit of going through the data modeling effort to thoroughly understand the business and the data needed to support that business.  A far better approach is to use predefined data models as insight into how an organization’s comparate data resource should be designed and developed to support that organization’s umwelten.

Purchased applications with a fixed data design can lead to warping-the-business.  The organizations specific umwelten is altered fit the purchased application, resulting in warping the way an organization does business.  Many organizations have serially warping of their business from one purchased application to the next, and parallel warping of their business across many different purchased applications.  Few purchased applications have formal data names, comprehensive data definitions, or precise data integrity rules.  Few have any formal data structure and most of those are physical data structures.

A far better approach is to design the organization’s data resource based on their specific umwelten and then evaluate the applicability of purchased applications.  If an application is purchased, it must be used in a manner that does not allow the business to be warped beyond its specific umwelten.

Reporting requirements can lead to warping-the-business beyond an organization’s specific umwelten.  Reporting requirements are just what the name implies—a requirement for reporting data to another organization.  Many data standards are actually reporting requirements, or are general subject area umwelten rather than an organization’s specific umwelten.

Reporting requirements are not a design requirement for an organization’s data resource.  Each organization has the right to design their data resource according to their specific umwelten, as long as the appropriate data are available to meet the reporting requirements.  It’s not necessary to build a data resource based on reporting requirements, and it would be nearly impossible considering the wide variety of reporting requirements.  A far better approach is to build a data resource based on organization specific umwelten and then extract data as necessary to meet reporting requirements.

Specific terms are used to resolve the clash between an organization’s specific umwelten and the problems encountered with predefined data models, purchased applications, and reporting requirements.  A data model is a set of plans for designing and building a data resource.  It typically includes formal data names, comprehensive data definitions, proper data structures, and precise data integrity rules.  However, most traditional data models are incomplete because they do not contain all four of these components.  Many are simply data structures with informal data names, and those structures are usually physical.

Traditional data models are usually not developed within a single organization wide data architecture.  They are seldom oriented toward the intended audience, and may either overload the audience with unnecessary specifics or fail to provide the appropriate specifics.  They seldom support an organization’s specific umwelten.

A data resource model adequately portrays the understanding and comprehension of the data needed to support an organization’s umwelten.  It contains all four components for formal data names, comprehensive data definitions, proper data structures, and precise data integrity rules.  A data resource model may contain a subset of the four components when the excluded components are not appropriate for the intended audience.  However, it must contain all the components necessary for the intended audience.

Data modeling is the process of developing a data model.  It perpetuates the problems with traditional data models.  Data resource modeling is the formal process of developing a data resource model.  It directly supports an organization’s specific umwelten.

The data resource supports an organization’s specific umwelten, data resource design supports the data resource, and data resource modeling supports data resource design.  Therefore, data resource modeling must support an organization’s specific umwelten.  Data management professionals, particularly data architects and data modelers, must ensure that the design and development of an organization’s data resource is based on an organization’s specific umwelten.  To do otherwise seriously compromises an organization’s ability to operate successfully.



[i] Adapted from: Brackett, Michael.  Data Resource Design: Reality Beyond Illusion.  Technics Publications, 2012.

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  1 comment for “The Umwelt Principle

  1. Richard Ordowich
    September 10, 2013 at 5:57 am

    What a gem of an article! This is really “thinking outside the model” . the challenge remains however to get the organization to think outside its umwelten. Organizational defenses as described by Chris Argyris, prevent many organizations from this.

    Great article. Thought provoking and very relevant to anyone considering data modeling!

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