What Is a Single Source of Truth (SSoT), and Why Do You Need One?
**Disclaimer: Sorry, tech enthusiasts — this article focuses on the general concept of the SSOT, and not the definition related to Information Architecture.
If you’re like most research organizations, your laboratory data is probably scattered across a number of binders, spreadsheets, databases, and email correspondences.
Training records are stored in one place, directory information in a different place, equipment certifications in another, audits in yet another, and so on. What's more, you probably have several different systems within each of these categories, and for each building or lab space.
Often, the same piece of information is stored in more than one location. When that information changes, it must be manually updated across all these different locations. As we all know, this is a classic recipe to make a lot of errors, to make a lot of work, or (worse yet) both.
Of course, that doesn't always happen — so you end up with multiple conflicting versions of the same information and no way to know which is true and accurate. When you're working through the challenging task of solving open-ended problems, you need all the help and information you can get.
As a result, only 34% of decision makers say they feel confident in their data, according to a survey by KPMG and Forrester.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to that problem — and it’s called a Single Source of Truth.
What is a Single Source of Truth?
In simple terms, a Single Source of Truth (SSoT) refers to one source of data that everyone agrees is the real, trusted number.
Before we go too far, we should point out that ‘Single Source of Truth’ is also used in information systems design to describe the practice of structuring a database so that each data point is stored exactly once (coupled with certain parameters related to database performance). For the purpose of this article, though, we'll focus on the general concept of a Single Source of Truth rather than the technical aspects.
To understand what a Single Source of Truth is, imagine you’re watching baseball and eating wings when your friend declares that Babe Ruth is the best baseball player of all time. You insist that it's Hank Aaron.
In order to settle the debate once and for all, you first need to agree on the website you'll use (ESPN.com vs MLB.com) and which statistic you'll look at (home runs, RBIs, batting average). What you both agree to use in the comparison is your Single Source of Truth.
It’s important to note here that if you two disagreed (“Only a fool would use Home Run stats from ESPN!” “Oh yeah? Well while you’re off in fantasy land, I’m going to use a real, meaningful number like batting average from MLB”), you would not have a Single Source of Truth.
The importance here is partly on the agreement of the database/metric, and partly in the trust/accuracy of the data found within it.
Why is a Single Source of Truth important?
A Single Source of Truth is important anytime you need one and only one right answer. That's true whether you're settling a bar bet or trying to figure out who has had training at your organization.
When your organization has a Single Source of Truth, everyone is on the same page. You know exactly where to look when you need to answer a question like, “How many people are delinquent in training at this exact moment?" or "Where are our flammable liquids stored?" Not only that, but everyone in your organization relies on the same information to make decisions.
But it doesn’t stop there. A Single Source of Truth offers several advantages that siloed systems don't otherwise provide:
- Increases productivity because you don’t have to toggle between systems to find an answer or transcribe data across multiple tools.
- Reduces the chances of human error by eliminating the need to copy and paste or manually update information from one system to another.
- Prevents duplicate records from being created.
- Improves communication because everyone agrees which numbers you should be discussing.
- Empowers better decision-making by putting the right information into people’s hands.
How does not having a Single Source of Truth increase risk?
Without a Single Source of Truth, it’s easy to end up with conflicting versions of information. Researchers move from one lab or group to another, but their training records don't move with them. Chemicals exist on your shelves, but not on your inventory. Due to a compounded series of errors, a space goes over a year without being inspected. Training is being delivered, but there is a constant worry that the records are inaccurate or delayed.
For any organization that relies on data to make decisions, that’s a huge risk to have present.
Let’s say you’re in a meeting to discuss laboratory safety challenges facing your organization. Everyone at the meeting comes to the table with different numbers gathered from different systems at different points in time.
With so much disparity between these numbers, you can’t even agree which safety risks are present and how serious they are — much less what to do about them. How old is each data point? Is it still accurate? Even if you eventually reach an agreement, if you’re using inaccurate or incomplete data, you end up wasting your time and resources on initiatives that fail to make your organization safer.
How do you establish a Single Source of Truth?
For most organizations, the best way to establish a Single Source of Truth is to consolidate your existing data into laboratory safety and risk management software. We live in the age of information, and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the pace of research without integrated software.
Software is capable of connecting and organizing all your data — training records, chemical inventory, equipment certifications, inspection history, and any other information related to your research programs — in one place. It's available to EHS leaders, researchers, and management, so everyone can see the same information (where appropriate). And by choosing an off-the-shelf solution from a credible and proven vendor, you can implement a Single Source of Truth in a surprisingly short period of time.
However, you can easily start applying the principles of a Single Source of Truth today — even if you don’t yet have a software system in place. For example, Jeanne Ross, director of MIT Sloan School’s Center for Information Systems, recommends that organizations simply declare one.
Decide on a source from your existing systems, says Ross, and declare that this is now the one version everyone will use to make decisions. “Once you tell everyone 'This is our single source,' they work pretty hard to make it more accurate.”
Not only will this approach take you past the daunting task of getting started, but it will also help you move forward sooner so you don’t waste time waiting for perfect data or going down the wrong path.
Be warned, though, that this approach will certainly come with its fair share of struggles and growing pains, especially if this is a process your team or organization is unfamiliar with.
Regardless of how you go about it, establishing a Single Source of Truth for critical organizational operations data is becoming more and more essential. As the number of systems in use increases and the amount of complexity in operations increases, the greater the likelihood is that data will be duplicated, go un-updated, or not make it into the hands of the people who need it most. And when it comes to safety, this kind of risk cannot be tolerated.
- A Single Source of Truth is the one source of data that everyone agrees is the real, trusted number.
- Having a Single Source of Truth is important anytime you need one, and only one, right answer.
- While an integrated software system is the best way to house a Single Source of Truth, you can benefit from implementing the principles of SSoT in your organization today.