Data Governance Interview - Gwen Thomas

In all aspects of our lives we are influenced by people we consider to be experts. My experiences with data governance has been no different. I continue to gain knowledge from others who work in this space. I thought that you might also be interested to glean some insight from the data governance gurus who have inspired me over the years and I am very excited to start this series of blogs with an interview with Gwen Thomas.

Gwen Thomas is a pioneer in the field of Data Governance. As founder of the Data Governance Institute and primary author of its framework and guidance published at, she has guided the thinking of an entire generation of Data Governance practitioners. Recently Gwen joined the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group) as their Corporate Data Advocate.

How long have you been working in Data Governance?

I have several answers to this question. In 1986, I co-founded a quarterly magazine that was inspired by the New Yorker in that it combined fiction, poetry, articles, and lots of listings about literary groups in the US Southeast. This was before electronic publishing and workflows, so we had to design and execute governance over the hundreds of content chunks and data elements that made up the magazine. The next decade I began my career working with banking data, while also doing technical communications within software development environments. When you're assembling user documentation consisting of many thousands of inter-related field-level definitions, and you know it has to go through 8 update cycles per year and will be touched by up to 20 writers and editors, you have to have strong governance over those chunks of data! I learned so much in those environments So one answer is that I've been practicing Data Governance almost three decades. On the other hand, when I worked with database and data warehouse specialists in the 90s, they had a rather narrow definition of Data Governance, I thought; that focus was more on field-level controls, data definitions and standards, metadata. Then when I created the Data Governance Institute and purchased the URL "" ten years ago, a Google search for the term "data governance" only yielded 67 hits. For many people in our field, those "aught" years when there were only a few of us dedicating ourselves to the discipline and profession are considered the beginning of modern Data Governance.

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

I gave a partial answer above. Here's the rest of it. When I was 18, I wanted to be a classical composer. On my way to getting a degree in Music Theory and Composition, I realized it was actually the architecture of music (more than the sound) that thrilled me. I felt that same part of my brain light up when, during a technical writing project, I worked with a Data Manager who was trying to locate within an undocumented IT system a set of fields that were subject to compliance audits. I instinctively knew where they would be, even though I didn't know anything about Data Architecture yet. And so, in the course of a week's work, I made the decision to make a drastic change in careers. It wasn't until I'd been doing the new stuff for a while that I could see the connection to the governance work embedded within my previous publishing experience. Even so, I didn't realize I would focus all my energies into this arena until two factors collided. In the IT world, new focus was being placed on controls, such as those required by Sarbanes-Oxley. In my personal life, I had a yearning to be a peace worker. Eventually I realized I had the opportunity to address peace through the conflicts and pain generated around data decisions; through Data Governance, it might be possible to stop natural, inherent conflicts about how to treat data from escalating into suffering for those involved. Just like a pebble thrown into a pond will create rings that grow to fill the pond, those data-related conflicts could ripple out to affect projects, personal attitudes, and even after-hours relationships and family lives. For me, Data Governance has never been just about the data. It's about teaching approaches to conflict that we can apply to many realms.

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

First and foremost, it's that I really need to learn this! As the saying goes, one teaches what one most needs to learn. What else? Flexibility of mind – the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives. A love of frameworks and organizing structures that can be used to describe situations and environments. The love of language. A willingness to look stupid as I'm trying out new approaches. Also, I am willing to stay with a problem for a really long time.

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

A few years ago, this would have been an easy question to answer. But the list is growing constantly, so I think I'll resist the urge to start naming titles, because I'd be sure to leave out something important. I will say I'm partial to .

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

It's always the human factor. Here are two examples, from organizations that I won't mention. In the first, I was asked to design a DG implementation for a senior manager who had already published to his peers that he would be introducing formal DG for the data produced by a huge company's back office functions. Upon interviewing his peers, it was clear that they had tight control over their own data domains, with no intention of implementing any changes in decision rights. I had to deliver the news that he "couldn't get there from here." In the second example, the junior manager of a new DG program shared with me that it was her intent to use the program to gain personal power, depose her department manager, and jump several levels within the organization. (Yes, really! She was very clear!) I could not support those efforts, of course. For some reason, the manager in charge was aware of her efforts to personally undermine him, but chose to let her continue. It was a miserable situation for me.

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

I am there now! A few months ago I gave up consulting and came in-house to serve as the Corporate Data Advocate at the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. Now, I can draw a direct line between what I do, the effect my efforts have on corporate data, the effect THAT has on corporate decisions and projects, and the effect THAT has on people around the globe. It is thrilling!

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

Don't underestimate your own abilities. Remember that, because Data Governance involves so very many different types of skills and knowledge, it's impossible for any given person to have them all. Here's a secret: Every single Data Governance Manager (with less than two years' experience) that I've asked has privately confided that they feel under-qualified for their job. If you find yourself in a situation you've never been in before, think about something you've done that was similar and apply what you learned there. I learned, for example, that the processes involved in governing the content of magazines and data warehouses have a lot in common. Learn the jargon within your environment, and learn who to call on to fill in the gaps for you.

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

I'd love to. I'm going to be careful how I describe this, though, because I don't want to cause anyone personal or professional embarrassment. But I think it's humorous. A couple of months ago I started getting emails that weren't addressed to me. I deleted them; who knows why these things happen? But they kept coming. They were addressed to various people who work for an organization that has the words data and governance in its name. But their email domain was definitely NOT Finally, I did some research and located both the owner of their email domain and the leader of their organization. I explained that I was now receiving a LOT of their emails, including ones that contained confidential strategies and client information! I laughingly added that I understood that the root cause was probably some twist of technology or data treatment that was easily fixable, but certainly not from my end. I added that it was "kind of funny" considering our line of business, and I was sure he'd want to look into it. (He replied that yes, of course, he would.) This incident reminded me about the difference between "little g" governance (whatever errant control that was making this happen) and "Big G" governance – those activities that have to come from the top of the organization. Why have I been reminded of it? Because the situation has never changed. The "data breach" continues on a regular basis. I'm cool – I just delete the messages. But really, folks. Really? Oh, well.....

I hope you have found this interview with Gwen as illuminating and amusing as I did. Join me next time to find out which data governance guru will be sharing their insights with me next.


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