Why You Need Data Governance

In this blog I’m going to look at why you really should do data governance. When I tell people what I do, I get a mixed response. Some people seem genuinely surprised that everyone isn’t already doing Data Governance, and an awful lot of people ask why would you need that?

Now I’m biased, as I believe that every organization would benefit from implementing data governance. It may not solve all problems, but it really does provide a framework which can be used to proactively manage your data.

A few years ago the main driver of Data Governance initiatives was regulatory compliance and while that is definitely still a factor, there is a move towards companies embracing Data Governance for the business value which it can enable. For example if your organisation is starting a digital transformation or wants to become “data driven”, you are not going to be successful if your data is currently not well understood, managed and is of poor quality.

If you embrace Data Governance and achieve better quality data, all sorts of benefits start to be seen. But you don’t have to take my word for it; take the DAMA DMBoK Wheel for instance: 

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As you can see, it lists all the Data Management disciplines around the outside of the wheel. There in the middle, at the heart of it all, is Data Governance.  Now it didn’t just get put in the middle because there were no more spaces on the outside of the wheel – it’s there for a reason. Data Governance provides the foundation for all other data management disciplines.

Let’s look at a few of these disciplines to illustrate the point:

Data Quality

Without Data Governance all data quality efforts tend to be tactical at best. This means a company will be constantly cleaning or fixing data, perhaps adding default values when a key field has been left blank. With Data Governance in place, you will have processes, roles, and responsibilities to ensure that the root causes of poor data quality are identified and fixed so that data cleansing is not necessary on an on-going basis.

Reference and Master Data

Anyone who has been involved in any master data projects will have no doubt heard or read numerous dire warnings about the dangers of attempting these without having Data Governance in place. While I am not a fan of wholesale scaremongering to get people to embrace Data Governance, these warnings are genuine. For master data projects to be successful, you need data owners identified and definitions of all the fields involved drafted and agreed, as well as processes for how suspect matches will be dealt with. Without these things (which of course Data Governance provides) you are likely to be faced with a mess of under, over or mismatching!

Data Security

Of course Data Security is primarily an IT managed area, but it makes things a lot easier to manage consistently if there are agreed Data Owners in place to make decisions on who should and should not have access to a given set of data.

I hope you agree that these examples and explanations make sense, but don’t forget that is theory; and explaining this in data management terms to your senior stakeholders in order to get agreement to start a Data Governance initiative is unlikely to be successful. Instead, you are going to need to explain it in terms of the benefits it will bring. The primary reason to do Data Governance is to improve the quality of data.  So the benefits of Data Governance are those things that will improve, if the quality of your data improves.  This can cover a whole myriad of areas including the following:

Improved Efficiency

Have a look around your company. How many “work-arounds” exist because of issues with data? What costs could be reduced if all the manual cleansing and fixing of data were reduced or even eliminated?

Better Decisions

We have to assume that the senior management in your organization intends to make the best decisions. But what happens if they make those decisions based on reports that contain poor quality data? Better quality data leads to more accurate reporting.

Compliance

Very few organizations operate in an industry that does not have to comply with some regulation, and many regulations now require that you manage your data better. Indeed, GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) impacts everyone who holds data on EU Citizens (customers and employees), and having a solid Data Governance Framework in place will enable you to manage your data better and meet regulatory requirements.

So, at this point you are probably thinking, “isn’t it just a generic best practice thing that everyone ought to do?” And the answer is, yes – I do believe that every organization could benefit from having a Data Governance Framework that is appropriate for its needs.

What Happens if you Don’t Have Data Governance?

Well I’ll leave that to you have a look around you and decide what the likely consequences for your company could be, but it is usually the opposite of the benefits that can be achieved.

Remember data is used for dealing with your customers, making decisions, generating reports, understanding revenue and expenditures. Everyone from the Customer Service Team to your Senior Executive Team use data and rely on it being good enough to use.

Data Governance provides the foundation so that everything else can work.  This will include obvious “data” activities like Master Data Management, Business Intelligence, Big Data Analytics, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence.  But don’t get stuck thinking only in terms of data.  Lots of processes in your organization can go wrong if the data is wrong, leading to customer complaints, damaged stock, and halted production lines. Don’t limit your thinking to only data activities.

If your organization is using data (and to be honest, which companies aren’t?) you need Data Governance.  Some people may not believe that Data Governance is sexy, but it is important for everyone.  It need not (in fact it should not) be an overly complex burden that adds controls and obstacles to getting things done. Data Governance should be a practical thing, designed to proactively manage the data that is important to your organization.

Just one final word of advice: I hope that this article has convinced you that your organization needs to embrace Data Governance; but if that is the case, please don’t just spout the generic benefits and examples I have shared here in your efforts to gain stakeholder buy in. It is very important to spend time working out the specific reasons your company should be doing Data Governance. You can find more advice on that and how to engage your senior stakeholders here.

Does it have to be called Data Governance?

This is a question that I get asked fairly regularly. After all it is not an exciting title and in no way conveys the benefits that an organisation can achieve by implementing Data Governance. Sadly however, there is no easy yes or no answer. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Data governance is a misunderstood and misused data management term

Naturally I am biased, but in my view, data governance is the foundation of all other data management disciplines (and of course therefore the most important). But the fact remains that despite an increasing focus on the topic, it remains a largely misunderstood discipline.

On top of this, it is a term which is frequently misused. A few years ago, a number of Data Security software vendors were using the term to describe their products. More recently the focus on meeting the EU GDPR requirements has led to a lot of confusion as to whether Data Protection and Data Governance are the same thing and I find that the terms are being used interchangeably. (For the record, having Data Governance in place does help you meet a chunk of the GDPR requirements, but they are not the same thing).

Having more people talking about Data Governance is definitely a good thing, but unless they are all meaning the same thing, it leads to much confusion over what data governance really is.

I explored this topic in a bit more detail in this blog: Why are there so many Data Governance Definitions?

In order to understand whether Data Governance is the right title for your organisation to call it, I would start with looking at how you define data governance. And this step leads nicely to the next item for consideration.

  1. Sometimes it is right to include things which are not pure data governance in the scope of your data governance initiative.

This is a topic that I covered in my last blog which you can read here.

To summarize that article, it is just not possible to have one or more people focus purely on Data Governance in smaller organisations. It’s a luxury of large organizations to be able to have separate teams responsible for each different data management discipline (e.g. Data Architecture, Data Modelling or Data Security).  Going back to my point above, if data governance is the foundation for all other data management disciplines, it is only natural that the line between them can sometimes get a little blurred. As a result of this, the responsibilities of the Data Governance Team can get expanded.

So consider what is included within the scope of your data governance initiative and decide whether it be more appropriate to name the initiative and your team (either or both)  something that is more aligned to the wider scope of the initiative and activities of the team.

Is the name going to make cultural change harder to achieve?

Achieving a sustainable cultural change is one of the biggest challenges in implementing data governance and insisting on calling it “data governance” could make achieving that cultural change more difficult if the term doesn’t resonate within your organization. This is related to a topic that I explored in another old blog Do we have to call them Data Owners?

Whether we’re talking about the roles, the team, or even the initiative the same principles are true. It is better to choose a name that works for the culture in your organization than to waste considerable effort trying to convince people that the “correct” terminology is the only one to use.

It would be my preference to explain that the initiative is to design and implement a Data Governance Framework, but if the primary reason for implementing data governance is to improve the quality of your data, perhaps calling it the “Data Quality Team” and “Data Quality Initiative” would fit better? After all, that very much focuses on the outcome of what you’re doing.  It also addresses the question that everybody asks (or should ask) when approached to get involved in data governance of “why are we doing this,” which is usually followed by “what’s in it for me?”

When having these conversations, I explain the initiative in terms of its outcomes (e.g. better quality data which will lead to more efficient ways of working, reduced costs and better customer service). That is a far easier concept to sell rather than implementing a governance structure, which can sound dull and boring.

Is the name causing confusion?

In the early days of a data governance initiative, the talk is all about designing and implementing a data governance framework. Once this work has been achieved you start designing and implementing processes which have “Data Quality” in their titles:

  • Data Quality Issue Resolution

  • Data Quality Reporting

I have been fortunate enough to work with organizations in the past who have had both a Data Governance Team (supporting the Data Owners and Data Stewards) and a Data Quality Team (responsible for the processes mentioned above) but that is fairly unusual in my experience. It is more common for the Data Governance Team to support the above processes. So it is worth considering whether it would confuse people if they had to report data quality issues to the Data Governance Team?

In summary, I would not want to miss the opportunity to educate more people on what Data Governance really is. But the banner under which it is delivered can be altered to make your data governance implementation both more successful and more sustainable. So if having considered all the points above in respect of your organization and you want to call it something else, then that is fine with me.

Deciding what to call your initiative is only the start of many things you need to do to make your Data Governance initiative successful.   You can download a free checklist of the things you need to do here. (Don't forget this is a high level summary view, but everyone who attends either my face to face or online training gets  a copy of the complete detailed checklist which I use when working with my clients.)

What should you include in a Data Governance initiative?

Scope of a Data Governance initiative

One of the many challenges you will have to face when implementing Data Governance is agreeing the scope of the initial phase of your initiative. By this I don’t just mean which data domains or business functions are going to be in scope. I’m thinking of associated activities like data retention, end-user computing, and data protection. Being a bit of a Data Governance purist I maintain that such activities are most definitely NOT data governance. It is easy therefore to make the logical conclusion that they should not be in the scope of your initiative. So what I say next may surprise you:

Do not immediately go on the defensive and refuse to take any (or even all) of these activities into the scope of your initiative!

Now you may be wondering why someone who spends her time educating people on what Data Governance is would say that! Well, when I’m training and coaching people it is important that they understand what Data Governance is, but when I’m implementing Data Governance in practice, I take a pragmatic approach.

However, I would not want you to think that I would just say yes to an ever-expanding scope. There are a number of factors that would make me consider bringing these additional data activities into the scope of my data governance work, which include:

  • If you work for a small organization that does not have the luxury of separate specialist teams to cover each data management discipline;

  • If they overlap with other projects ongoing at the same time;

  • Or if a senior stakeholder requests it.

Whilst you may become aware of other activities that you want to bring into scope, they are most likely to come to your attention through your senior stakeholders – so let’s consider this question:

How do you manage senior stakeholders who ask you to extend the scope of your initiative?

Now whilst it may be tempting to protect the scope of your initiative, remember they have their own agenda. They are not trying to derail your plans, they just have concerns of their own or issues that they need addressed. The first thing you are going to need to do is to listen and understand what their concerns are before you try to educate or influence them. After all, how can you properly allay their concerns if you don’t fully understand them?

But remember whilst it is imperative that you understand why they’re asking you to extend the scope, when I say educate or influence them, I don’t mean your initial stance is to say no! When talking to your senior stakeholder, ask lots of questions and constantly consider the following:

  • What exactly does this person need done?

  • Does it have any alignment or overlap with your data governance work?

  • What will happen if this additional work does not get done? (And in particular will it cause a problem for your data governance initiative?)

Even if the answer to this last question is no, it may still be necessary for you to consider that if you say no, that this senior stakeholder could divert resources currently allocated to your initiative to address this other issue.

Are there benefits and/or efficiencies to be achieved by taking on this work? This can be especially true if you are talking to the same stakeholders.

My advice is to look for solutions that help everyone. This is not about you or them winning. This is about doing the right thing for your organization. Find out why he/she is concerned about these other topics. Is it because they are not being done, or is it that they are being done but are not visible or are being done but not well enough or quickly enough?

Now obviously I’m biased, but I truly believe that well implemented data governance can be the framework against which you align an awful lot of other activities in your organization (well at least those concerning data)! Once in place, you can use your data governance framework to coordinate, oversee, and escalate other data matters to the appropriate people. That said, it is not the answer to everything and you should resist taking on everything (unless of course you are Superman/Superwoman), or at least agree to timescales for adding additional scope once the implementation of your data governance framework has reached a certain stage.

If you do take on something that perhaps you feel is not in the area of your expertise, that is ok – just be honest and clear on the matter. Explain that whilst, for example, you may not be a data retention expert, you see how including that in your data governance initiative has benefits for the organization. Confirm that you are happy to do the necessary research and support the work if you are given the necessary expert support (for example from your Legal Department).

Remember that whether your data governance initiative is small and focused or has gained additional scope, stakeholder engagement is absolutely vital for success. You need to spend a lot of effort engaging your stakeholders. If you could lose their support by not addressing their other concerns, it’s got to be worth considering whether the additional work is something that you can take on.

Finally, if you want ideas on how to go about engaging your stakeholders, you can download my top tips on stakeholder engagement for free if you click here.

Originally posted on TDAN.com