Anyone who works in data governance will tell you that it’s full of challenges. CDOs, CIOS, and other data professionals struggle to communicate the true business value of data governance and in turn fail to secure buy-in from stakeholders.
Enterprise Data Governance Online 2022 is out to change all that. An annual virtual event, this years’ conference featured six live presentations from some of the world’s foremost experts on data governance. They covered everything from improving data quality and implementing a data catalog and business glossary to the five essential elements of a data governance framework.
In the day’s final session, The Top Five Data Governance Questions, industry vets Peter Aiken, Karen Lopez, and Robert S. Seiner came together to discuss the five most common data governance challenges facing data professionals today.
Their insights (and a few key points from the keynote Building a Data Governance Program with Delta Dental’s Toby Hall and Curtis Mischler) were too good not to share.
We’ve gathered the panelists’ most provocative, practical, and downright inspirational quotes below.
Data governance challenge #1: Business and executive support
Securing executive support for data governance is top of mind for most data professionals, and with good reason – data governance initiatives that don’t have the full support of the C-suite are far more likely to fail (or fade over time). The panelists shared their perspectives on this key question — How do you get management to see and promote data governance as a high priority?
Peter Aiken (Ph.D. Professor of Information Systems, VCU and Founder, Anything Awesome) suggests leading with a different definition:
[It helps] if you get them to understand a proactive definition of data governance. The one I like to use is “managing data with guidance”. If you make it that simple, one of the things that management sees is that “Oh, so if I’m not doing data governance, I’m managing data without guidance and that’s bad.” And if I can get that part of [data governance] explained to them… we’re going to have lots of conversations about it.
Robert S. Seiner (President and Principal, KIK Consulting and Educational Services and Publisher of TDAN.com) recommends leading with a new message:
The people who need to be convinced at the highest level of the organization, they’re tired of hearing us say over and over again that we need a governance program.
What we need to do is take that message from the rest of the people in the organization… And if we can get people in the organization to articulate what they can’t do because they don’t have the data or don’t have access to the data. And what would they be able to do [if we had the data]?
Let’s carry that message to the highest levels of the organization.
Data governance challenge #2: Value and benefits
Most data professionals struggle with demonstrating the day-to-day value of data governance.
Curtis Mischler (Vice President and Chief Data Officer, Delta Dental of Michigan) shared how his team tracked their success metrics:
We have a massive spreadsheet… as we accomplish different things to the program, you put it up on the list. And then at some point, we’ll go in there and say, do we think it’s worth trying to quantify this into some kind of savings metric? It could be time saved, it could be real dollars, that we reduced expenditures, it could be cost avoidance, opportunity cost, whatever it might be…
And it’s kind of impressive. Sometimes you pull the whole spreadsheet out and people can see the whole list by itself, even if we haven’t quantified the item on the list, just to get an appreciation of all the different things that we’ve done. And we’ve been surprised ourselves, sometimes [by] how many different things we’ve accomplished.
Data governance challenge #3: Engagement and ownership
Another essential component of data governance success is bringing lines of business into the conversation. For data practitioners who have experienced challenges getting traction with executives, changing vocabulary may be part of the solution.
Peter Aiken advises dropping “data owner” for good:
I don’t let anybody that I work with use the words “ownership” and “data” at all… Where I always point them is to answer the question “Who owns accounting data?” It’s coming from all parts of the organization. So certainly, there are responsible stewards…. And there are a number of different roles that stewards can play but if you give somebody the actual ownership of the data, it causes nothing but problems in the organization.
Karen Lopez (Sr. Project Manager/Architect, InfoAdvisors) shared a new term:
A term that’s being used a lot in data science and by some of the new people who come into the data management world [from other disciplines] … is data curation – like a museum curator. I like that one because it’s about care and it’s about protection. It’s about archiving, it’s about archaeology and forensics… like all things, we struggle for the right label.
Toby Hall and Curtis Mischler of Delta Dental advocate for using humour to keep executives engaged in data governance:
We wanted to have fun, because we knew data governance wasn’t always going to be the most exciting topic at face value. We brought in some different things like making [80s pop star] Richard Marx our unofficial mascot.
We’ll put easter eggs in minutes… We had one that was ‘Which senior executive has a subscription to Tiger Beat magazine?’. We have another one which is that Toby has agreed to pay the cost for anyone who gets a tattoo of certain data governance artifacts that we’ve created.
Data governance challenge #4: Sustainability
So you’ve launched data governance at your organization — how do you keep it fresh and relevant? With its focus on policies, processes, and roles, data governance can be painfully bureaucratic. Can data governance ever be modern and agile?
Peter Aiken recommends an flexible approach:
I am doing a lot of “restarting” of data governance. [Programs need to be restarted] because people end up being in meetings and coming to the realization that they’re arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And it’s not adding business value. It’s demoralizing to the folks that are involved, and it’s not productive for the organization.
Keeping it relevant is really the most important thing and also avoiding comprehensive approaches. I know that sounds crazy. But think about where our planning was three years ago, and how well did any of that come to fruition? I’m very much a believer in adaptability, which some would say is agile, as opposed to trying to slavishly follow a plan from start to finish.
Karen Lopez believes we should rethink how we refer to governance:
This is my speaking point that a lot of people don’t agree with, but strategically, I want data governance as a label to just fade away.
When we think about traditional engineering, like building a building, they don’t talk to their customers and their managers about “engineering governance”, because the definition of professional engineering includes governance.
They have processes [that are] embedded into law [and] into their normal practices. Engineers themselves are legally required to follow those processes… [They have to] make sure what [they’re] designing is legal, ethical, cost-effective… [and they have to] get approvals and acceptance on those designs, then people are going to go build it and the engineer herself has to verify that what was built actually matches the requirements or has waivers in case it doesn’t. And then once it’s built, there are engineering services that go through and check that it’s still working.
All of those things are actually governance, but we don’t call it engineering governance. So, I want data governance to just be part of managing data.
Curtis Mischler explained how Delta Dental came to choose an iterative, sustainable data governance rollout:
We very consciously rolled things out over time to increase our footprint of folks that were involved in the program. The idea here is we wanted to keep building on what we’ve done before, and we wanted to make it sustainable. We tried to stand up all this stuff on day one and realized it wasn’t going to work. So, we spread it out over time.
Data governance challenge #5: Roles and structure
And finally, the age-old question at the heart of data governance — should your initiative be led by IT or the business?
Robert Seiner shared a unique perspective:
When I’m asked the question of where data governance should reside, if it should reside in the business or if it should reside in IT, I answer “Yes”. It needs to reside somewhere. I’ve seen organizations (although this might not be the preferred approach), where the function of data governance resides in IT… Typically, it’s in a business area, oftentimes in a risk area.
But the fact is that it’s not going to happen by itself. It needs somebody to guide it. If it’s in IT and viewed as only being an initiative for IT’s sake, it’s going to fail. If it’s in IT, and the business people are truly the stewards and they’re engaged as stewards, you’ll have a much higher likelihood that you’ll be successful.
Want more advice from business and technology leaders who are solving data challenges?
Data governance is no easy task. It takes genuine commitment, constant vigilance, and an understanding of business priorities. Leaders who successfully employ these strategies, though, can look forward to a number of benefits: a defined set of data standards and processes, higher quality data, and robust data-driven decision-making.
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