Data Governance Interview - Alan Duncan

This week I'm delighted that Alan Duncan agreed to be part of my Data Governance interviews.  Alan regularly posts excellent blogs and can always be found starting and participating in data related debates across various social media channels, so I was keen to learn about his Data Governance experiences and I'm sure that you will find it interesting reading too.

Alan D. Duncan is Director of Data Governance at University of New South Wales, Australia and a member of the advisory board to QFire Software. An evangelist for information and analytics as enablers of better business outcomes, Alan has over 20 years of experience in delivering improved business outcomes in a range of industries including Telecommunications, Retail, Transport, Financial Services, Federal and State Government.

A regular blogger and in demand as a speaker on the international conference circuit, he is recognized as an expert in the fields of information management strategy, business analytics and data governance and was named in Information Management magazine's 2012 list of "Top 12 Data Governance gurus to follow on Twitter".

How long have you been working in Data Governance?

As a (hopefully) good Data Governance practitioner, I should say that it depends on your definition of "Data Governance"....

In some respects, I'd really have to say "all my working life." To a lesser or greater extent, my entire career has been based around the collection, use and interpretation of data within a business (and human) context. Though twenty-odd years ago, we wouldn't have called it "Data Governance"!

Based on the current accepted wisdom of what I think "Data Governance" means to everyone these days, I guess I've been at it for about 12 years.

Some people view Data Governance as an unusual career choice, would you mind sharing how you got into this area of work?

For me, Data Governance and Information Management hasn't really ever been a career choice – it's taken me those twenty-plus years to "just fall into it". While I guess some people might consider me to be a "Data Governance specialist", I don't think of myself that way. I'm a generalist management consultant who just happens to use data as the catalyst for his engagement.

But you asked, "how did I get into this area", so I'll try to clarify. (And I apologise, but in order to answer the question properly, I feel like I need to tell the whole story and timeline first):

  • 1992: I graduated with a Batchelor of Engineering degree, without a clue of what I wanted to do – except that I knew I didn't want to do engineering! (But I had some decent information gathering, problem solving and critical thinking skills.)
  • Based on the software design and programming units I'd taken in my final year, EDS offered me a job as a database developer (data modelling, data integrity and business reporting).
  • 1994: I joined a business consulting firm specializing in business process automation and workflow (business analysis, data management and business process engineering)
  • 1996: onto a company focused on design and delivery of decision support solutions - still in the days before we talked about "data warehouses" and "business intelligence". (project management, client relationships, data strategy and business performance).
  • 1998: I joined KPMG UK in their Information Management consulting practice (Enterprise IM strategy, architectures & business change)
  • 2000: Still at KPMG, I was appointed UK Head of Knowledge Management (KM and human learning).
  • 2002: Programme Manager for Carphone Warehouse's data warehouse and Business Intelligence capability (programme management, data-driven business outcomes & value)
  • 2005: Consulting Partner at Acuma, an Information Management Strategy & Services business (Info Strategy, organizational models and data culture, commercial management).
  • 2008: Moved to Australia and joined SMS as national practice leader for Information Management Strategy & Governance. (Enterprise IM capabilities, commercial management & market offerings)
  • 2012: Director of Data Governance at UNSW Australia (data driven cultural & behavioural change).

My point is that there's been no grand plan (trust me when I say there still isn't!). I've changed roles as the opportunity has arisen, and each new experience has contributed a different "piece of the puzzle" to my overall body of knowledge. I've also worked in a wide range of industries, which provide different perspectives. I think it's important to have a real breadth of experience, because that makes you more adaptable and able to evolve.

If you want to be good at data governance, don't start out in data governance.

What characteristics do you have that make you successful at Data Governance and why?

Data Governance isn't a process, or an organization structure, or a system. It's a mindset – a way of thinking about and engaging with organizational behaviour. The data is just the entry point, the "breadcrumb trail" that leads you through the human maze. You need to have a real, deep-seated interest in people – how they act, and why they act that way.

I've got a mantra: "Intellectual curiosity. Skeptical scrutiny. Critical thinking". Those will take you a long, long way. You don't necessarily need to be knowledgeable about a topic, but you need to know how to acquire knowledge, and how to communicate it to others.

Other key characteristics include having the tenacity of a terrier, the enthusiasm of a child and the patience of Job.

(Aside: for more in-depth view of the characteristics of a Data Governance person, you might enjoy my blog post from last year)

Are there any particular books or resources that you would recommend as useful support for those starting out in Data Governance?

Mine, if I ever get round to writing it! It might be a long time coming though, so in the meantime, check out Sunil Soares' "Selling Information Governance to the Business" and "Big Data Governance". Larry English's data quality books are still very relevant too, and cover broader governance aspects as well as the deeper issues of Data Quality.

Online, I check out Jim Harris's blog on a regular basis, the IBM InfoGov Community and MIKE2.0 sites are both worth a look, and offers a range of Data Governance resources. Not forgetting and my own blog, of course!

I'd also strongly recommend going outside of "Data Governance" subject-area, as a more rounded understanding of how the world works is really valuable. For a general perspective on how businesses function, Geoffrey Moore's "Crossing the Chasm" is excellent, Scott Adams' "The Dilbert Principle" is as funny as it is insightful on the topic of workplace dynamics, and for outcomes-based planning I still make a lot of use of the Office of Government Commerce "Managing Successful Programmes" (PRINCE2 not so much!)

Additionally, I draw a lot on ideas from sociology, psychology and philosophy when dealing with the human factors involved in delivering information-enabled business outcomes ("Data Governance" is really the business of communicating, coaching, cajoling and coercing people to doing what we want!). Books I make regular use of include Machiavelli's "The Prince", Lao Tsu's "Art of War", "The Sayings of Confucius", Aristotle's "Rhetoric", John Stuart Mill's "Utilitarianism", all of which are all available free on iBooks. Bloom's Taxonomy is useful when your thinking about how you want people to learn. And Madsen Pirie's "How To Win any Argument" is invaluable (both in terms of helping you frame communication of your own ideas, and spotting other people's dirty tricks!)

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in a Data Governance implementation?

Joining the university, without a doubt. I've had to completely re-think my own philosophy, attitudes and approach to implementing Data Governance. At any age, challenging your own perceptions and re-evaluating what you do (and how you do it) is tough! It's taken quite a bit of soul-searching for me to come to terms with what's needed, and be at peace with myself.

In most typical businesses, making money is the prime directive. Everyone's role contributes to this one way or another, either directly or indirectly, and the organisational structures and process disciples are put in place to support that one goal. That makes it pretty straightforward to find the right context for any data-centric activities: 1) "how does data X support people Y in carrying out activity Z?" 2) "What else do we need to do to the data to make things more efficient/more effective/less risky?" 3) ROI. Data Governance's role is then just (just? Ha!) to herd the cats – and over the years, I think I've become a pretty good Cat Herder.

However, the organizational dynamics and social contract at the Uni are entirely different. We have the principle of "Academic Freedom", which means each academic has the right to pursue his or her own area of study without interference. By association, "academic freedom" also implies a fair amount of "institutional freedom" - at times it's not so much an organization, as a dis-organisation! That's not me being unkind. It's just that most people here are super smart, very autonomous and entirely focused on their subject matter, so the institutional processes and functioning of the university entity aren't really part of their world. The motivators are primarily about intellectual pursuit, academic excellence and reputational status, which can mean about as many different things as you have people – at UNSW, that's over 5000 permanent staff, plus about another 6000 contract, casual and associate staff, and something in the order of 50,000 students. All of whom are happily beavering away at whatever-the-heck it is they're doing, in their own way, without any strong linkage to what anyone else is doing, or how they're doing it.

It's not so much like herding cats, it's more like bee-keeping. I'm ok with all the protective gear (i.e. all my templates, tools, documents and tutorial materials), but I'm still learning how to blow smoke up their asses and not get stung.

Is there a company or industry you would particularly like to help implement Data Governance for and why?

I think there's a whole lot of room for a change of thinking at the parliamentary level of government.

Unfortunately, what I observe is that our politicians tend to adopt entrenched positions based on preconceptions, with little in the way of hard facts to support their opinions (and what information does surface is only used to substantiate the original point of view). An example of this is in the area of drug policy, where all evidence shows that the treatment of drug abuse is much more successful when dealt with on a medical, rather than criminal, basis – yet for our governments persist with a prohibitionist approach.

I contend that governments should be providing societal leadership on a pragmatic and rational basis, using a strong basis of information and evidence to support policy formulation and decision-making. Let the data do the talking.

What single piece of advice would you give someone just starting out in Data Governance?

Data is nothing without context. It's the narrative that matters. So you need to tell stories.

Which means you have to listen. REALLY listen. Use active listening to go deeper. Don't just listen to the words, listen for how people are feeling. Listen to everyone around you, and absorb as much as you can.

Because then you can make your stories really relevant and compelling, and that's when the magic happens.

Finally I wondered if you could share a memorable data governance experience?

While I was at Acuma, I was consulting on the setup of a data governance programme for a major bank in Saudi Arabia – a country with a very formal, hierarchical and reserved culture. At one point, I had a meeting with the bank's executive team to get feedback on the proposed programme plan and to raise awareness on a range of serious data quality issues. I was doing all my usual facilitation schtick – open questions, illustrative examples, provocative statements aimed at getting a reaction - but I was getting nothing back. Just stony faces, folded arms, silence. It was probably the least reaction I've ever had in any workshop-type session. It felt awful.

At the end of my presentation, the Executive Vice President of Retail Banking stood up and said: "Data Quality is like a public toilet. We all want to use it, but nobody wants to clean it." They voted, and the whole multi-million dollar programme was approved, just like that.

I don't think I've ever had an experience where my perception and the reality have been so much at odds. (But they must have liked me, because they kept me engaged on an advisory basis right through until I moved to Australia.)

Thanks for asking me to do this Nicola – it's been very cathartic!


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