Monday, May 7, 2012

Data Governance and the Self Licking Ice Cream

A friend and colleague regularly uses the self licking ice cream phrase to illustrate to the project management team he mentors that projects need to provide value to the enterprise and not just operate in a vacuum. No matter how well those in the project build a system, or how well that project is managed, it's unlikely to be perceived as a useful and successful exercise unless the various stakeholder groups agree that the work was needed and worthwhile. From their point of view all that the project will have achieved is keeping those on the project busy and employed for its duration.

But that can't be said for data governance, can it? Every organization has at least some data quality problems, conflicts around data ownership, data silos preventing leveraging the data asset across the business, so therefore every organization could benefit from a data governance program.

That may be true, but I'd still like to bet that many, if not most, data governance programs are seen by many in the organization as self licking ice creams. Ask an exec or senior manager from one of those firms and chances are they'll not see the value of the data governance initiative. If you're heading a data governance program and your execs don't recognise the need for it then, even if you think what you're doing is worthwhile, I've got bad news for you - to others you're licking your own ice cream! It won't matter if you've been making great advances in improving data quality, finally getting the data stewards to work together to understand master data issues, or building understanding across your data landscape and producing mountains of documentation along the way. From the outside you'll just be seen as doing little more than using scarce funds and making a call on their peoples' time for no other reason than to keep yourself in a job.

Of course securing an executive sponsor for the program and working to win wider executive awareness and buy-in will help avoid this scenario. However, this will be difficult to achieve and retain unless you continue to find ways to make your data governance work relevant and demonstrate value that can be seen by key stakeholders in the organization. For me, to do this it's critical to have demand placed on a data governance program. If people in the enterprise don't recognise they have data problems and aren't coming to you to help solve them, then you need to find something tangible for your program to tackle. If you're lucky enough to be facing upcoming system changes with associated data migration then that may be a great driver. If not, then try and find the areas where non trivial amounts of money can be saved due to data problems or look for the issues that keep your execs awake at night because they lack confidence in the data. If you believe that those situations can be helped through data governance then start to work on them, if not keep looking - trying to force them to be data governance issues won't do you much good.

If there's nothing in your organization that you can apply data governance to (and be seen to create value) right now then don't be afraid to let things lie for a while. Pushing ahead on things others don't perceive as valuable may actually torpedo the longer term success of a data governance program. Better to lie low and bide your time rather than have others shut the program (and perhaps your career prospects) down. But, keep your ear to the ground because there will come a time when there will be a big problem facing the organization which data governance could help solve. Be ready to seize the opportunity. If you don't and one of your execs later reads about data governance then being a self licking ice cream will be the least of your worries - you may fall victim to airline magazine syndrome!


  1. Hi Scott

    Excellent points.

    Sadly, the worlds of 'Data' + 'Architecture, 'Quality', 'Governance', 'Management', etc. do tend to suffer from being seen as a remote pseudo-academic clique living in an 'Ivory Tower' and looking down with a mixture of pity and disdain on the rest of the business.

    Sadder still is that this is far too often the case!!

    All activities in the many-titled data world must add value to the business or they are of no value! A truism, yet sadly ignored by those who see their role as that of either enlightening the masses in data theory or policing the data misdeeds of others.

    The good new is that there are many excellent data practitioners out there who add value in all that they do. Still more of this type are needed.

    I would go further with your advice to data governance practitioners and say that if there is nothing in there organisation to which they can add value, and data governance is their primary role, then they should resign.

    If data governance is their passion then they should seek a post in this field in another organisation. If it is not then they should find their passion.

    Again, great post.


  2. The only way to align the interdependencies of disparate people, processes, lines of business, and technologies is through a well- orchestrated Data Governance program with a metadata repository at its core.