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Single Source of Truth: what is it, and why do you need it?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 02, 2021

You’ve probably seen at least one project manager try their hand at Excel spreadsheets or Access databases to manage their projects.

Unfortunately, these types of systems are riddled with errors due to human input. People delete things, forget to update docs with critical input, or simply type in the wrong info. No one is innocent of making typos.

You might think that your version control system will keep things straightened out for you, but that’s still another data set — and if there’s a discrepancy between that and the other one, then there’s time wasted trying to figure out who’s right.

Data is one of the most valuable resources a company has, but finding a proper way to organize and update it all can easily turn into a bit of a headache, what with version control, formatting, human error, and so on. Managing this can be daunting: Get it wrong, and project failure could soon follow.

While many complex factors can contribute to project failure, most successful projects have at least one thing in common: a single source of truth (SSoT). This is essentially a shared set of accurate data across the entire team. Read on to learn more!

What is the Single Source of Truth?

In project management, the SSoT is the authoritative source of all information related to a specific project. It’s’s often described as “the data you can rely on.” It sounds like a cheesy tagline for some survey company, but it’s the essence of what the SSoT does.

The entire team can reference this data throughout the life of a project without having to consult separate sources or ask others who may have outdated or incorrect knowledge. This saves time because team members don’t need to spend valuable hours looking into what they believe are verified facts from multiple sources. Everyone in managing the project has access to everything they need in one place.

How does the Single Source of Truth work?

The SSoT works by finding a primary location for all data. This location can be an application, a spreadsheet (though not recommendable), or anything else that enables users to enter data and store in one central location. This way, each person working on the project has access to the same information without asking others for updates.

All teams provide access to their data and systems. Then, project management teams use automation to integrate that data into a central system where they monitor the projects’ progress. This provides project managers with a complete, up-to-date view of all aspects of any project at any time. When it comes time for reports and status updates, everyone is on the same page.

SSoTs are effective because they remove the possibility for error in any project management-related data.

Before the SSoT, many projects had to rely on several different sources of information when reporting progress or making decisions during a given reporting period. These include memory, personal notes, emails, phone calls, voicemails, or documents. They may be out of date or inaccessible during certain periods (due to location), etc. All these sources carry possibility of error due to their dependence on human recollection and technology that can malfunction or break. Implementing an SSoT prevents this from happening by providing one singular authority for all data.

Why is a Single Source of Truth important?

Projects comprise hundreds or thousands of moving parts and multiple stakeholders across different departments and teams. The more moving pieces there are, the more complex and stressful projects become. Having a single source for information creates transparency in reporting. That means no more going back and forth between different people to gather information. It is a more effective way of managing projects, which, in turn, means higher quality results in less time.

One of the biggest benefits of SSoT is providing reliable data that’s useful in decision-making.

By having access to accurate and up-to-date real-time project data, organizations can make faster decisions. They don’t have to gather multiple input sources before continuing with any given task or departmental procedure. People can rely on one source for all their organizational needs. That includes what’s happening now, what has happened in the past, and what will happen next.

How is Single Source of Truth different from the system of record?

While these two things sound similar, they’re conceptually very different. The system of record is the primary copy of data. The single source of truth, on the other hand, is a concept that brings together multiple copies of data and merges them into one. It’s possible — and increasingly common — for systems to contain different versions or iterations of the same data set. The single source of truth pulls these together for decision-makers.

How to implement a Single Source of Truth

To create an effective single source of truth, the following components need establishing:

1: A document management strategy.

The SSoT should include documents and other items in one place, and how to name and sort them. Every document in the SSoT needs its own unique name and folder location. For example, if there is a specific color code for any item throughout the life of the project, it should be in one place only in the SSoT. This prevents any recurring mix-ups when naming items in other documents or in conversations between team members.

2: A metadata strategy.

Every document in the SSoT needs to have its own set of metadata tags. These do not replace or redirect any existing file title system for documents. Rather, they supplement them so that every document contains specific descriptors about its content. For example, suppose there is a particular color code for any item throughout the project’s life. In that case, the team should tag every single color-coded article of information with this descriptor. This ensures two things: Firstly, that documents will contain accurate and important data, and secondly, that the SSoT will be searchable and organizable in a way that allows it to grow exponentially.

3: A communication plan.

Every document should include information about how people will find the SSoT when they need it. Also, what format it takes (i.e., web format or print), and who is responsible for updating and publishing each entry in the database.

4: An accessibility policy.

If the SSoisn’t’t accessible, its benefits are lost entirely. It must be available to all stakeholders at all times — even during times of crisis — through whatever means are most appropriate for each party. That’s whether by Internet connection on their smartphones, laptops, work computers, etc. or on an internal company-wide intranet site where people can access it on their desktop computers.

5: A process for maintaining the Single Source of Truth.

That includes how frequently it should be updated, by what method, by whom, and so forth.

6: An availability policy.

The SSoT must be kept online at all times throughout the course of the project. Allowing it to go down for even a short period might result in errors that are impossible to correct later.

7: A naming convention.

If pages are carefully named ahead of time based on thSSoTs’s’ purpose or content, people can easily find them when needed without having to guess at their URLs or struggle through trial-and-error guessing processes.

8: Buy-in from all project teams and end-users.

Everyone must understand whether there’s an SSoT, and why it must be followed. Share data and show everyone how easy it is to maintain via your project management platform, and buy-in should soon follow.

9: Finally, make sure the team meets compliance.

Ensure that the date you’re using is accurate, complete, and up-to-date. You don’t want to violate organizational compliance rules, so double-check that you’re using the correct standards and that everything is handled correctly.

What are the challenges to creating Single Source of Truth?

You might face some roadblocks when setting up a single source of truth. Some of the most common ones include:

1: A lack of understanding.

People in the project might not realize why so much emphasis is on a single source of truth. They might be confused when you start asking for information to be input into it, believing that it’s unnecessary, or believing that they already have all the info you need. Educating them about its benefits can help dispel this misunderstanding.

2: No process.

The team members might not have a proper workflow for collecting and organizing information in preparation for entry into the SSoT. This can lead to headaches when figuring out where data should go in the system or how to deal with inconsistencies between multiple entries in different places. Make sure that there is a clear process in place before you begin.

3. Not enough training.

If there’s no comprehensive understanding of how the system works, then mistakes are going to continue to happen. That’s either because incorrect information will get input into it or because people won’t know where they should file properly-formatted data when it comes in. Make sure everyone knows what goes where. There’s too much data for one person. One person shouldn’t be responsible for inputting every piece of information coming in from all different sources. This makes it harder for them to make sense of it and harder for them to communicate changes in priority. Consider empowering some team members to be able to create their own reports.

4. The data being input is not standardized.

Suppose there are different types of information coming in on different forms and in a different format. In that case, it’s going to be more difficult for you or anyone else to get a comprehensive idea of what needs doing next. Work with your sources of information to find out what kinds of report, they’re willing-able to give you, then figure out the best way to present that information into one format for easy analysis.

5. You don’t have enough space.

Sometimes all the files are getting stored locally on a user’s computer because there isn’t enough room on the server. This makes it very difficult for anyone, especially the project manager, to know where all the important files are. This also means that there’s no backup of critical documents should something happen. Project management software with cloud-based storage is the best solution here.

How project management software can help

Setting up clear processes will help you manage data and make your project a success — and dedicated PM software — like Backlog — can be a big help in managing this.

Teams using Backlog can store all their information in one place, manage projects seamlessly across multiple workspaces and devices (desktop/mobile), and attach comments containing descriptions and other important information directly to the source of truth, helping keep all your project data in one secure place.

If you’d like to see for yourself how Backlog can help speed up your PM practices, create your free account today.


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