Data Governance Interview - Peter Aiken

For my blog this time, I am thrilled that Peter Aiken kindly agreed to be interviewed.  I was lucky enough to be able to find a time when we could speak to each to do this interview, so you will find that some of the answers are longer than usual for the interview series, but I’m sure that you will find that as interesting and insightful as I did.

Peter Aiken is acknowledged to be a top data management (DM) authority. As a practicing data consultant, author and researcher, he has been actively performing and studying DM for more than 30 years. His expertise has been sought by some of the world's most important organizations and his achievements have been recognized internationally.  He has held leadership positions and consulted with more than 75 organizations in 21 countries across numerous industries, including defense, banking, healthcare, telecommunications and manufacturing. He is a sought-after keynote speaker and author of multiple publications, including his latest the "Case for the CDO" & "Monetizing Data Management." Peter is the Founding Director of Data Blueprint, a consulting firm that helps organizations leverage data for competitive advantage and operational efficiencies.  He is also Associate Professor of Information Systems at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and past President of the International Data Management Association (DAMA-I).

How long have you been working in data governance?

Well, it’s a relative question, so I would say my initial experience, I worked for the Department of Defense in the late 1980s and at that time were doing what we were today would be considered data governance.

I was very fortunate in that I was going through my terminology graduate program and I had a professor named Professor Al Davis, who sat us down one day and said “I am putting together a new special edition for a journal and we are going to cover the subject called Requirement Analysis.” As most people are aware requirements is the first and most important part of any problem solving activity. If you don’t get the requirements part right you can’t build a correct design to any specified proposal. He made us graduate students go through all the papers that had been submitted for the journal. And we were supposed to recommend him to which ones we would accept.

So we graduate students started conferring behind the scenes and saying “I am not seeing any value to most of these papers”.  But of course we did not want to say that to him because it was his friends and colleagues that had submitted the papers. And, he of course forced us to down in the room and said now we’re gonna play a little exercise. I want you to write down, first of all, on a little piece of paper how many of these things would you accept. We had to actually say none. And of course he said “I thought they were all a bunch of rubbish as well.”

We breathed a collective sigh of relief. The key was that most papers were so theoretically in nature that they bore no resemblance to the real world problems that he was trying to address. We then spent the rest of the semester looking at requirements and it was very easy to determine that data requirements were in fact the most objective requirements that one could state and of course one of the primary functions of data governance is to manage the data requirements.

You are an author yourself, but is there a particular book or resources you would recommend, particularly for those just starting out in Data Governance?

I’d like to encourage people to research is the professional association, like IAIDQ, the TDWI and of course we do not want to forget DAMA, as a good place to go. DAMA has put a renewed focus on the business side of things.   I would love to put in a plug for my latest called “The Case for the Chief Data Officer.”

I wondered if you could share perhaps the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced in Data Governance implementation?

There are two types of problems. The first one is of structure. If the structure isn’t right then some of the rest of the effort becomes incredibly difficult. So I’ve walked in to a new engagement the first day and said “I am sorry I don’t think this is going to work”. And people say “oh, how can you be so definitive at this early stage of the project?” I said “well we are down three levels in IT. If I want to see the responsible Executive, it’s going take me six weeks to get on their calendar”. There are not conditions for success for any organization. That’s what I would call a structural problem.

The other type of thing is practice-oriented problem and that is manifest if you have a Data Governance organization but perhaps the person who is running it may not have the necessary soft skills to do this.

Are there any industries that you haven’t worked in yet that you’d like to?

I don’t know if there is anything that I have wanted to get in to but have not yet. But I am sure there is some out there that just have to go back and look!

Is there one single piece of advice you would give someone just starting out in data governance?

I guess it would be to research it before you get into it. There are advantages in going into a new field. I guess if you are comfortable with uncertainty then it would be a good career field. If you are uncomfortable with uncertainty this probably is not the area you want to get into.

Is there a particularly memorable data governance experience amusing or otherwise that you would like to share?

Well, it wasn’t much of a funny one but very effective one. Data Blueprint was involved in the Army Suicide Mitigation Project early on. One of the things we had to do was call a Council of Colonels. This was a group of people who were all trying to contribute data to software to solve the problem of service men and women who harmed themselves after action. A very noble and  very worthwhile project. The Secretary of the Army attended one of these meetings and after the 3rd person got up and said “can this data can be used for this purpose?” he put his notebook down on the table rather loudly with a thump that got everybody’s attention. And he said “ladies and gentlemen I have an announcement to make. From now on we are going to refer to this as my data and everybody else in the room went oooooohhhhh. He then said that anybody that wants to come and tell me why my data shouldn’t be used to save the men and women that are in the armed forces from causing harm to themselves, then make an appointment with me. Of course at that point everybody in the room said ok. I don’t have to worry about covering my butt. The Secretary of the Army has got my back and is going to support me with whatever we do because all we are doing is trying to save lives.

I’ve told this story in a number of corporations and urged leadership in those organizations to help out. If they would take the same sort of courageous stance with that I could save the hundreds of millions or billions, in some instances.

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