Data Governance Interview – John Ladley

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview John over breakfast when he was in London in May.  It's taken a while to get the interview transcribed, edited and published but I hope you'll agree that's it was worth the wait!

How long have you been working in data governance?

If you define data governance as the rules of engagement, simply I’ve been doing it for at least 20 years.

We used to call it “enforcing standards”. The most common question I got at conferences in the 1980s was, “How do you enforce standards for development or for manipulation of data?” and the answer then was creative process of people knowing the rules and understanding the rules and adhering to the rules and then have someone with a large stick walk around, making sure they’re enforced. Back in those days, we were not very sensitive to personal human capital issues. So some people view data governance as an unusual choice of a career.

Would you mind sharing how you got into that area?

Just for the money. It’s just for the money :-).  But seriously, If you read my books, there has to be a control side to managing the information asset. There has to be data governance. So it can’t be something that you choose instead of data management or you don’t choose data management instead of governance. You embrace both or you embrace none.

What characteristics or traits do you think you have that make you so successful at data governance?

I’m practical. We all have our success factors. We have our methods for doing artifacts that. But an organisation in the throes of a bitterly competitive market or brand new crushing regulations has a lot more problems than just data. So you have to make sure that what you do enhances their ability to thrive in whatever marketplace they’re in, whether it’s government or business or anything. That’s the key.

There not many books on data governance in the market and I always recommend to my clients that they read yours because I think that’s really comprehensive. But are there any other particular books or resources that you recommend reading if you are trying to learn about data governance?

Yes, and they don’t have anything to do with data governance. But I recommend people read any basic good book on financial accounting. Now a lot of us had accounting basics in our college level education. But if you didn’t, I would go back to that and understand about auditing and accounting principles because that transfers directly to data governance. It is a one-for-one conceptual transfer. 

Or try reading a book on any other type of governance, such as corporate governance, I really do burst bubbles of our peers and our industry sometimes but we are not the inventors of governance. We do not have a monopoly on governance and we’re actually latecomers and we actually look pretty silly when we realise that the data and information field is only just now talking about this.  Any books by Dr Edwards Deming will be useful as well. .

What has been your biggest challenge in data governance so far?

I think others have said this too, it’s the culture. It’s always the culture. Data people as a rule tend to promote what we do as a wonderful attractive abstraction but data people make up, in terms of the way our brains work, only 20 percent of the population. The other 80 percent, want to be told why they should be doing it, . “What’s in it for me?” then be told exactly what to do to pull it off.

We (information management people)  are terrible at that type of engagement with other people. So it’s the culture. It’s making sure that the organisation understands that there’s value to be gained, that there’s a compelling reason. I don’t know if there’s another question along this line coming up. But data governance is becoming in my eyes as transformational for most organisations business reengineering or a merger and an acquisition or Sarbanes-Oxley. It requires a good depth of attention to the organisation.

Are there any industries left that you haven’t worked in that you would like to do data governance for?

Well, that is a good question. What I find, the type of governance we do which is very much based on business alignment and supportive of business strategy;  as reflected in my earlier answer about being practical within their environment. We do an awful lot of reverse engineering of business strategies. We get many, many clients where I ask, “Well, tell me your business strategy,” and you get this image of Mr. Bean rummaging around the office and lifting up plants and such to find this mysterious document.

So we’ve ended up doing a lot of those. What I would really love to do is participate in the actual business strategy itself, to not react to what the strategy is, but how to drive the strategy with an information viewpoint. A lot of organisations are looking at how you can monetise their data. How can we get more revenues from the amount of our data? It’s in all industries. That would be very, very much fun to be part of that.

If there was just one piece of advice you could give somebody just starting out in data governance, what would it be?

I would ask them "why?". I know that sounds glib and you’re laughing but I would ask them why. Why do they think it’s important? And if they say, “Well, I’m in it for the money,” I would say learn something from it, but don’t plan on doing it forever. I would say being passionate about it is key. The second thing I have to say, you have to be resilient.


My free report reveals why companies struggle to successfully implement data governance. Discover how to quickly get you data governance initiative on track by downloading this free report