We need to talk about Colin.
Data Governance is a damaged brand, apparently. The first word is mostly thought of as someone else’s problem while the second acts as an axiomatic proxy for tedious bureaucratic processes. If perception is indeed truth, the obvious solution is a vigorous re-brand to catch the zeitgeist of whatever is exercising those holding budgets and organisation priorities.
This is exactly the same conversation we had – and are still having – around the value of Enterprise Architecture. Both suffer from definitional drift and a patchy history of visible delivery. The temptation to re-boot or re-imagine these disciplines is strong, but must be resisted. There’s broad agreement Data Governance has an image problem, but the solutions are far more fundamental than addressing just that.
Data Governance doesn’t need a rebrand, or a name change or a flotilla of marketeers to sail in and make it live. We just need to look at what a business does to work out how to help them do it better. Data Governance is a big part of that – whatever you call it.
This is serious stuff. There really are no short cuts. A wise friend calls exercises attempting to simplify real complexity into anodyne simplicity ‘unicorn hunts’. A one stop shop to enlightenment where everyone suddenly ‘gets it’. Data Governance isn’t like that, it’s a slow burn as with any people led change.
Which doesn’t excuse the lack of progress made due to the approaches taken far too often. We’ve only failed to shoot ourselves in the head due to all the ammunition discharged into our foot. Monetisation of frameworks, allying with initiatives more likely to take data hostage than release it, promising way more than we can deliver, or merely failing to find the right ways to sell the data governance story.
Any kind of data improvement is entirely pointless unless it visibly contributes to one or more objectives of the organisation. Being better at data because it’s a good thing is a worthy cause but not one that’ll survive the white heat of daily operations or well-formed business cases. It’s always easy to take the fastest path especially if there is no credible body explaining why that’s a bad idea. Fast, Cheap, Sustainable. Pick any two from three.
Without proper governance, data is being sliced into a thousand pieces every day in a way that it cannot be reassembled. Nearly everyone knows there is a problem and understandably they blame the data. The data is ‘Wrong’ they say. The data isn’t. It is not sentient. It does not know. The data is as it is because of the way we govern it. Or fail in our responsibilities to do so.
The number one issue facing Data Governance today is it’s extremely hard to define in a way that engages those not heavily involved with data. The closest to an ‘industry’ definition is ‘the exercise of authority and control over the management of the data asset’ which is accurate, if not entirely useful. Organisation A may implement this through enforcement, organisation B through planning and monitoring. The value is derived from how it is implemented, which is entirely dependent on the organisation it serves. There’s certainly a toolkit of parts, but the success of any DG initiative is predicated on knowing how to best assemble those parts and in what order!
A lack of data governance is not because our organisations are filled with bad people. It is our job to explain that elevating data to the same asset status as Finance, People and Property will have wide benefits and – more importantly – narrow ones helping the person you’re talking to right now. Once you can lock the success of someone else’s objective with a change in the way data is managed, you’re on step one of a righteous data governance journey.
So let’s not be apologists for doing the right thing. Our role isn’t to pitch Data Governance as something it isn’t. Instead we must patiently and repeatedly demonstrate why it is an important missing link between objectives and execution. That doing things differently is not a framework, or a five-year project or a bunch of consultants or making everyone’s life more difficult than it already is. It’s unlocking the potential of the fourth organisational asset at a cost in time, people and process which barely registers when compared to the value of doing so.
And if we can do that, fine let’s call it Colin.