Monday, October 3, 2011

Pragmatic Data Governance - It's a Matter of Trust.

This post had its genesis in a comment I wrote in response to a great piece about data governance written by Jim Harris (Twitter: @ocdqblog) over at Obsessive Compulsive Data Quality ( I hope Jim won’t mind if I expand on those comments here. This post has grown organically and I'm not totally sure it captures all of the key issues bouncing around in my head, but getting it our there might help my thoughts develop and gel. So look out for a follow up post in the not too distant future.

Among other things Jim talks about the need for data governance to be applied with a degree of flexibility rather than following a set of rigid rules. This is a great perspective which exposes one of the key reasons why data governance initiatives often fail. In my opinion too often it seems that those involved (or those sponsoring) expect that hard and fast rules are what's needed.

I wonder how much of this stems from organisational cultures where staff time is closely budgeted and monitored. A common pushback I've struck in the past is managers of potential data stewards (almost) insisting on an exact breakdown of what data governance activities their people will be working on and how long each activity will take. Add to that the desire to help out new data stewards by providing them with tools to use as they learn what their new role involves and a situation where the rules and their strict application come to the fore can quickly emerge! The problem is compounded if the stewards feel that they may be blamed in some way if others are not happy with their choices or the downstream effects of them.

In my opinion, when setting up data governance programs we need to make sure that data stewards have top coverage – that is senior management endorsement and support when it matters- to give them time to act and the freedom to make considered and pragmatic choices that might involve bending or extending data governance “rules”. We must trust and allow the stewards to interpret rules according to the circumstances at hand whilst still being mindful of past precedent and any negative impacts their choices might have.

Without this support I’d question the value that a data governance program is going to deliver. Sure, maybe some cosmetic short-term data quality wins might occur, but chances are they’re the low hanging fruit and would probably have happened eventually anyway.  In the longer term all that is likely to happen is that the data stewards will come to be seen as blockers to progress - the holders and enforcers of a set of petty rules, putting up hoops for others to jump through. The hard issues (the ones likely to be standing in the way of unlocking real value) may never get tackled, the program will slowly wither and die as complaints mount against it and future data governance efforts will have a much harder time gaining any traction.

When a steward feels the need to build in a degree of butt covering into what he or she does there is a problem. If he or she can claim to have exactly followed the rules as a means of avoiding any blame storming about a bad situation that may have manifested from a data governance decision chances are the best outcome for the business isn’t going to manifest. We need to give data stewards the room to think, reason, weigh up the contributing points of view and then make the appropriate choice in the circumstances. A little trust in human nature and faith that people will want to do the right thing is required. If the organizational culture doesn’t support this then a successful data governance initiative might be possible, but it may mean that the data stewards need to sit higher in the food chain. But, ideally you can seek out and find stewards who already have the trust and respect of senior management and then will have the flexibility to act pragmatically when needed. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Having been involved in the implementation of a Data Governance Framework, the single biggest issue I discovered was engagement. It was very hard to get nominated Data Stewards to take their job seriously. More often than not the pervasive tone was "its an IT problem". The second biggest issue was "its MY data". I think find an effective "data steward" can be classed as one of the key milestones of any Data Governance endeavour.