Data Governance Interview - Alex Leigh

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Alex has worked with over fifty UK universities, most of the sector agencies including University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and a host of practitioners in the Higher Education (HE) sector. Alex designed and developed the HEDIIP data capability framework, led the team to create the HESA in-year collection model and designed both a sector level and a HESA instance of a best practice data governance approach; and is currently working with universities to develop and implement their Data Governance frameworks,

How long have you been working in Data Governance?

I was working in DG before anyone really called it DG! Around fifteen years via data architecture and running data management teams.

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

My route in was via developing and implementing Enterprise Architecture frameworks while I was working in Deloitte UK consulting practice. There was a lot of maturity around the business, infrastructure and application architecture but data felt very fragmented between the technology of building warehouses and databases and the link to the business objectives.

So I focused my efforts on creating frameworks and approaches to pragmatically align how data was managed to how it was used. That was fifteen years ago and I’m still trying to change the perception around data.

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

Passion for the right outcomes, resilience when I can’t achieve them and an ethos for openness, transparency and showing everyone why doing things differently isn’t just about the organisation, it’s about helping them.

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

I’m a big fan of John Ladely and use his books as my primary source of reference. Bob Seiner has some great ideas about implementing DG and I’m an avid reader of TDAN. I also carry around the latest DMBOK which is a big improvement on the original in terms of applicability.

There’s so much good stuff online now. I’d encourage any new practitioners to read and research lots of different ideas, as no one size fits all.

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

Believing everyone was as passionate, sold and committed as I was to doing things differently. So losing support once the initial enthusiasm had lapsed. Both from those working with data every day and those who had the budget, resource and will to help change the way data was governed.  Now I am very careful to make sure everyone is starting in the same place, and make far less assumptions around priorities.

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

I love working in Higher Education (HE). It’s collaborative, desperately in need of the professionalization of its data assets, and – finally – ready to make some of these changes. I’ve worked in 7 industry sectors, but I’ll never move out of HE. If I can help make a difference to this sector, it feels a really important thing to do. Having kids about to enter the HE environment makes this personal as well as important.

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

Don’t try to fix everything at once. At the heart of good DG is changing behaviours of many people. This is not a simple thing. Talking about frameworks or technology and the like early in a DG initiative is not helpful. Find some people who share your passion for data, look for quick wins where doing things differently makes a measurable change and communicate way more than you think you need to.

Finally, I wondered if you could share a memorable data governance experience (either humorous or challenging)?

I once asked an attendee at a workshop why she looked so glum. Her reply was "This is how I feel about data. I work in planning and I know at the top of the ‘data mountain’ it is sunny and lovely and all the data is perfect.  The data gets to me in this dark valley at the bottom of the mountain via a stream that all the sheep has wee’d in. That’s why I look so sad"

It was an amusing anecdote but made me realise that you really have to show people how things can be better, before actually asking them to do something about it.