Data Governance Interview – Daragh O’Brien

I'm thrilled that my next interview is with Daragh O Brien who runs a boutique consulting practice, Castlebridge Associates, specializing in Data Governance, Information Quality, Data Protection, and general Information Strategy.  Daragh has been a great inspiration to me and has also provided me valuable support while growing my own Data Governance business, for which I'm very grateful.

"We change how people in organisations think about information" is the tag line and our focus is on the business change elements of these disciplines, but with technical subject matter expertise as needed.

Daragh is a former Publicity Director of the IAIDQ and holds roles in DAMA and the Data Governance Institute, as well as being active in developing Capability Maturity models for EIM with the Innovation Value Institute through the IT-CMF framework.

How long have you been working in Data Governance?

I often joke that with a name like "Daragh" I've been involved with Information Quality and Data Governance my entire life as you can spell the name Daragh up to 13 different ways, it exists in at least nine different languages, and it is a gender neutral name in pretty much all the languages I've seen it in. And don't get me started on phonetically similar names...

So I grew up with an alertness to data being wrong and how that can be an irritation at best.

I've been working in Data Governance roles pretty much I started my career in the phone company back in 1998. I was a business-side resource who had a fascination with data and databases, and eventually wound up inheriting the Single View of Customer program via a number of Call Centre data system and reporting implementation projects and a stint on Y2K compliance.

I finished my stint in the phone company as a senior member of the Retail Regulatory Assurance team, finding and fixing billing issues amongst other things. And 90% of those issues began during the design phase of new products or services so I ended up putting a lot of time and effort into understanding what commonly goes wrong with those kinds of governance and execution processes.

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

Entirely by accident. I was a nerd with a law degree who was working in a phone company while saving up to go on to qualify fully as a barrister.

However I started seeing how the structured thinking approaches that I'd learned in law, and the organizational psychology principles I'd encountered in my degree, made me think differently about technology projects and systems implementations.

One of my friends from college recently told me that it looks like I spent my time in school and college developing a skill set that the Universe finally realized was necessary. I'm not sure about the divine intervention aspects but that is a nice notion.

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

I'm not sure how to answer this question to be honest, as my view on what makes me successful may be different to what other people would say. Indeed, other people might have different views about my level of success.

If I allow myself the luxury of some introspection I'd have to say that I think the key characteristics I have that make me successful are my fascination with taking problems apart and breaking things down to first principles. That, combined with my apparent talent for synthesizing ideas from multiple domains of knowledge (from business strategy, to IT architecture, to Change management, to Dr. Who), seems to have helped me.

Finally – I have a very strong belief that the job is serious, but doing the job or learning about the job doesn't have to be. There is always humour to be found, even in the biggest crisis or challenge. If it can be found and harnessed it can be a useful tool.

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

There is no on-size fits all answer to this question.

People coming to DG from an IT perspective need to open up their understanding of business, business strategy, psychology, change management, and a host of other disciplines. People coming from the Business perspective need to understand some of the technology terminology, skills, challenges, and language.

The key challenges is for the Data Governance (or for that matter Information Quality) practitioner to be seen as competent and confident by both business and IT so that they can engage equally with both.

In terms of books, Tom Redman's "Data Driven" is one of the best "hybrid" books out there that puts a relatively technical subject firmly into business terms. Alex Borek's new book "Total Information Risk Management" is also worth a read.

However you need to get your thinking out of the "data" silo, so I'd suggest reading anything by Peter Drucker for a start. "Delivering Profitable Value" is a book by Michael Lanning that one of my mentors Andrew Griffiths of advised me to read a few years ago that jiggled my thinking. Frankly, as I look at my bookshelf in the office, there's a LOT I could recommend. I might need to do a few blog posts about books.

Regarding other resources:

  • IAIDQ, in particular the IQCP certification and very specifically the Job Analysis report is a great resource to learn more about the breadth of skills.
  • DAMA are great for the more technical end of Data Management
  • Data Governance Institute has some good content, as does the
  • Data Quality Pro
  • Mike2.0

Twitter is another great resource and there are some great resources on LinkedIn. In fact, in the four years since I stepped down from the IAIDQ board there has been a massive explosion in the amount of content that is available online. The biggest challenge now is not whether you can find content or resources but whether it is any good.

I'm particularly unsure about "forums" that are springing up that are back and bankrolled by vendors. There are perfectly good professional associations that can do that knowledge curation if they were adequately supported by members and by vendors, but a forum that is run by a vendor will always have an overhand of editorial bias in my opinion and risk becoming crowd-sourced market research. None of which is bad in and of itself but it must be done very openly and transparently, and perhaps would be better done by an entity that was not vendor-driven.

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

People. People are always the challenge. The day you forget this is the day things start to fail.

Also over-estimating your own ability/clout/political backing are all things that can be a challenge – you need to have faith you are standing on solid ground when you are building but sometimes you are challenging some pretty sacred cows or uncovering issues from early in the careers of senior managers that they'd rather have left alone.

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

I'm a problems and outcomes guy, not really an industry guy. There are industries that I believe could benefit greatly from better and better governed management of information not for their own benefit but because it would deliver benefits to their customers.

Ultimately I like solving complex problems. Currently I'm doing work in the education sector, Charities, telecommunications, and Financial Services. When I strip the labels off and look at them through the data lense, the issues and challenges are very similar.

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

Single? Jeepers Nicola, you know how to set a stretch goal.

I suppose the best piece of advice I can give comes from the writings of Morehei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido;

"Success comes to those who practice".

Other than that, I would advise anyone starting to broaden their scope of learning and reading so you bring more than just a data-centric view of things to the table and are able to get inside the heads of your co-workers or clients more effectively.

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

Unfortunately a lot of my engagements are covered by a very strict NDA (mine) so I have to be selective and careful. However as we are dealing with humans and human nature there are always opportunities for humour, usually going hand in hand with the challenge.

For example I had one engagement where the client was asked for documentation on the process and information flow for how they sold and serviced their core products. They didn't have any documentation. "Everyone knows this" was their answer. Except that when we mapped the flows we found two data feeds were actually going the wrong way and were potentially over-writing some critical data. No-one was accountable or responsible and no-one had mapped the end-to-end flows across process silos, so nobody knew there was even a risk of this happening.

You do a lot of writing and presenting. How has that helped you develop your understanding of Data Governance?

Writing and presenting are great ways to get your ideas out and expose them to sunlight. The good ones will survive and the bad ones will be tested to destruction. I personally find writing a great way to synergise thoughts from different areas into my personal framework. When I teach and train I always suggest to students that they should keep a "learner diary" for exactly this purpose.

Presenting is a great way to get exposure and also to get access to free or low cost training by getting to conferences you might not otherwise be able to afford to go to because presenters usually get some level of discount or speaking fees. It's also a great way to have your ideas challenged by your peers or present your insights on common problems or new challenges.

The differentiator I look for when I look at presentations now is whether the presenter is telling a great case study (so they know how to make one thing work) or if they are presenting insights on some fundamental principles (so they have figured out a core rule of the universe and are sharing it), or are they presenting something new and profound that has potential to shake things up – and it is often a small insight that can do that. People who can do that are the future of Data Governance and Information Quality – any one can tell you what they did on their holidays, but insightful thought leadership is a gift.

In terms of how it has helped me understand Data Governance and Information Quality, by getting off my backside in 2001 and starting my conference presenting career I have had the pleasure of being able to talk directly with the founding lights of our professions, from English, Redman, and Ladley, to Gwen Thomas to Danette McGilvray, and many more. It has been great being able to go directly to the horse's mouth with issues, challenges, and successes and having support and mentoring. I was able to take my knowledge beyond what was just in books and present my synergistic perceptions and ideas and discuss and debate them with the gurus as well as with other "front-line warriors" who sometimes took things and tested them in their organisations or gave me a nifty trick to try back at the ranch.

You are sometimes a little irreverent in your views on egos. Do you think you are one of the gurus in Data Governance now?

Gurus live on the top of mountains, isolated from others, and more often than not blue skinned from being clad only in a loin cloth.

If anyone wants to compare me to a blue-skinned creature, I'd rather be a Smurf. Because Smurfs work together and recognize that each of them has a contribution to make in any set of circumstances. I do my best, I share my thoughts and try to encourage others to share and collaborate to make things better. If things I say or write appear enlightened or profound it's either because I've surrounded myself with some smart Smurfs who I've learned from or I've just gotten lucky that particular day.

Now, I smurfing well have to get back to work... it was great sharing with you.


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