10 Things Doctor Who taught me about Information Management

By Daragh O Brien
September 16, 2015
22min read

Doctor Who returns to our screens this weekend. I’ve been a fan of this show since I was a child and it strikes me that a lot of my philosophy about information and data management challenges has its roots in things I’ve learned from watching this SciFi classic. Here are just some things I’ve learned.

(And yes, this is just an excuse for me to post some Doctor Who youtube videos here. But there are important lessons to learn. Honestly. I swear!)

10 People are Fantastic

The Doctor is a 2000 year-old Time Lord who has seen the beginning and end of the Universe and all things in between. Yet he still thinks that people, the human race, are fantastic. He thinks other things are fantastic too, but has a special place for humanity. Who are protected.

As Information Management professionals we need to remember that information is processed by, for, and about people. Even the “Internet of Things” should be thought of as The Internet of Things that are owned by or used by people. We need to remember that, impressive and all as the technology is, it’s the PEOPLE that are, well…

9 Understanding fundamental principles can trigger solutions

The Doctor can see Time. He knows lots about the science of the Universe and the principles of time and space. So, when faced with a situation that seems overwhelming, the Doctor usually finds the solution by remembering some trivial fundamental principle or fact. That remembering then triggers a link to some other important piece of knowledge.

As Information professionals we need to be able to make connections between fundamental principles, often across a range of disciplines (and not just the obvious information management disciplines). That requires us to have an understanding of fundamental principles in areas like change management, philosophy, ethics, communications, marketing… the list goes on.

But remember… you’re “FANTASTIC”!

8 Often the least obvious person is the key to solving a problem

The Doctor is not always the source of a solution or the trigger for the outcome of an episode. He relishes the importance of the most ordinary people. In all his travels he’s never met anyone who wasn’t important.

As information management professionals we need to remember this. Sometimes the most important insights in an organisation can come from the least important people. Call Centre agents, front-line staff, you know: the people who interact with customers on a day to day basis or work to deliver services. Going to ‘Gemba’ and Poke Yoke are fundamental quality principles. They help the least important people be… FANTASTIC!!!

7 On your own, you can lack perspective

The Doctor tends not to travel alone. When he does, it can lead to him losing perspective. He winds up doing things that go wrong. Fans of the show will remember the look in the eyes of David Tennant’s incarnation (the Tenth Doctor) when dispatching the Queen of the Racknoss. If you’re not a fan of the show, that will mean nothing to you.

But it’s important for Information Management leaders to ensure they bring people with them to ensure they keep perspective, just as the Doctor travels with Companions. Otherwise we can get too narrowly focussed on our data agendas but forget about the reason why we are doing things. It’s a principle of change management that we need to build a “Guiding Coalition”.

Without that, we risk being just another madman with a box.

6 Technology is just a tool

Related to points 10 and 9 above: People are Fantastic, and Fundamental principles. The Doctor likes technology. He is passionate about it. But it is just a tool. Nothing more. It is a means to an end. Not an end in itself. Indeed, two of his greatest foes (Cybermen and Daleks) are the epitome of technology over humanity, seeking to upgrade humanity or exterminate imperfections.

We can upgrade our technology all we want as Information professionals, but it still just a tool. The Human Factors that make us so FANTASTIC are essential to solving the complex challenges we face.

5 Sonic Screwdrivers (or other magic bullets) are a lazy plot McGuffin. It’s more important to identify how or why a tool should be used

The Doctor loves his sonic screwdriver. But in the show it is often a lazy plot McGuffin that is used by writers to get out of story line cul de sacs. Of course, more often than not, the Doctor has a considered reason in the story for using his screw driver. But that didn’t stop the War Doctor berating the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors for whipping out their Sonic Screwdrivers when faced with a threat

“What are you going to do with those? Assemble some furniture at them?”

As Information management professionals, we need to remember that the vendor demo or sales pitch may be a sonic screwdriver. We need to understand basic principles first so we know when to use what tool appropriately.

4 Did I mention that people are FANTASTIC

This is not a repeated point. It has just regenerated.

People are FANTASTIC. We need to remember that when we are elbows deep in data and technology

3 Past Successes (the “story of you”) can help motivate people, but it’s important to encourage people to step up to their own potential

The Doctor is a 2000 year old Time Lord. His enemies know his reputation. Some races call him by names such as “The Destroyer of Worlds”. As the last of the Time Lords, he wiped his own race into a parallel universe to stop a Time War. But often his reputation and history is not what solves the challenge. Often his example is enough to motivate others to step up to their own potential.

In our roles managing information, our personal stories and experiences in prior projects or other disciplines can be used to motivate our peers and colleagues. And then they too can be FANTASTIC!

2 Strong values and ethics can survive a change of face or style

The Doctor regenerates. His face and mannerisms change. However, his values and ethics remain largely the same. In the real world, this is a way for writers to keep the character fresh, for actors to move on to new things, but for the audience to know what they are getting. In the show, it’s a way for the Doctor to inspire once more his companions, as often he has to rebuild his relationship because he looks different.

As data leaders we can learn from this. We need to ensure that we have a strong value and ethical framework in our organisations around how we manage and use information. If we achieve that, and if we can get our teams and colleagues to share those values, then it becomes easier for us to ‘regenerate’ and for new faces to take our roles in the organisation, while still ensuring continuity. This transition is an important consideration in succession management in organisations. Perhaps the Doctor has it easy.

1 Sorry, Fixed Point in Time

Even the Doctor encounters rules that he cannot disobey. While he can bend the laws of physics, the laws of Time must be respected. Fixed points in Time are those moments that have to happen a particular way in order for future outcomes to exist. When the Doctor meddles with a fixed point in time, he pays a personal penalty.

In our role as information management professionals we have access to incredible technologies and tools. We have incredible capabilities to process, analyse, and present data. However, there are often rules and laws that we need to respect. These are Fixed Points in Data, and no matter how much your organisation might want to do something, it may be that that thing simply cannot be done.

Of course, if there is a loophole in the Laws of Time that lets the Doctor off the hook, he’ll find it. Because he understands fundamental principles, he usually finds a solution.

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