The "data" part of the term "data governance" should imply that it really is about data, right? Actually, effective data governance isn't about data at all. Instead, it's about changing how companies view their data.

Without data, there is no governance, but effective governance goes way beyond bits and bytes. It calls for no less than a cultural shift away from thinking about data as a commodity toward thinking of data as one of the company's most valuable assets, and creating an organizational mindset of accountability. The $64,000 question quickly becomes how we'll build a culture of accountability for data.

Accountability by definition pertains to willingness to be answerable for something. In everyday usage, responsibility denotes an obligation to something – to do it or to see that it gets done. So, building a culture of accountability for data governance really means getting everyone in the company to assume an obligation to help implement the data governance program and to be answerable for its success or failure, according to the role they play.

A culture of accountability rests on four foundational pillars: education, buy-in, responsibility and communication. The first pillar, education, involves making people aware of the data governance program and creating a deeper level of understanding of how data is used, what processes use data and how that data impacts other processes downstream.

Fundamentally, for data governance to take hold, people must know how the program will benefit them specifically in their job. It's easy to spout the standard lines about how quality data and standardized data policies and procedures will help the company, but it's also critical to show individual knowledge workers how data governance (or the lack of it) impacts them – and how they can impact others as well.

For example, if during the execution of a business process, the finance department produces and uses a particular data set that is then used by marketing in its processes, the people in finance must be aware of how that data and its quality affects the marketing process. It's essential to educate people about how they can benefit by having data governance policies and procedures that enforce data standardization and consistency.

The data governance council (you do have one, right?) bears responsibility for educational efforts. There should be a clear, consistent message to spell out and effectively communicate the benefits of the data governance program. That message should be targeted by role so that everyone can understand what the program is and how it personally benefits him or her.

Once knowledge workers achieve a genuine understanding of the purpose and the benefit of the data governance program, the foundation is laid for the next pillar of data governance accountability, which is buy-in. When people buy into a concept, they've become strongly convinced that the concept is beneficial, and that it is simply the right thing to do. It becomes a personal investment in the success of the program.

To achieve buy-in – especially among knowledge workers – it's essential to make people integral to the solution. Drive home the message that the people who execute the business processes that produce and consume data are truly data owners and stewards. Give them ownership of the data, and entrust them to carry out data governance policies and procedures. Tout positive results often and enlist the aid of knowledge workers to improve the data governance policies and procedures that need tweaking. It won't be too long before people are invested in the success of the program.

Knowledge workers need to believe in data governance, but the data governance program requires the buy-in of the C-suite. Without strong executive sponsorship, the program may never get fully off the ground. Strong executive sponsorship is necessary to serve as a catalyst for the data governance program, but it is also absolutely essential to the ongoing success of the program - especially as it pertains to the allocation of resources to move the effort forward.

This is where the position of chief data officer is indispensable. These days, the CDO typically reports directly to the CEO and is responsible for setting data-related strategic priorities for the organization and for directing the management of data as a critical enterprise asset. The CDO is also the ultimate liaison between the technical and business sides of the organization.

It is crucial that the CDO demonstrates the value of the data governance program to the C-suite. With the buy-in of senior executives, the data governance program is more likely to be treated as the priority it truly should be, and line managers are more likely to heed requests for help in enforcing data policies and procedures and for allocating their resources to assist with the implementation and ongoing administration of the data governance program.

The third pillar of a culture of accountability is responsibility. It's not enough for the C-suite and knowledge workers to simply believe in data governance success. Everyone in the organization must be responsible. Some workers are eager to accept responsibility for something they see as beneficial to themselves and others. Unfortunately, many are not.

To instill an ethos of responsibility, it's necessary to incentivize people, often with a formal delineation of roles and tasks, tied to their compensation. The data governance council comes into play again here. At the outset of the program, there should be an effort to formally define and assign data governance roles and responsibilities. Data ownership, stewardship and policies and procedures should be established throughout the enterprise. This is the time to develop realistic metrics to measure the effectiveness of the data governance program and install an incentive mechanism to reward those who meet or exceed their performance targets.

The fourth pillar of a culture of accountability is communication. Note that an organization can establish executive sponsorship, persuade knowledge workers of the importance of the program and formalize roles and responsibilities, but the data governance program can still fail due to poor communication. Communication is, in effect, the foundation for the other three pillars necessary to build a culture of accountability.

From the outset of the data governance program, communication, especially from the C-suite, is crucial to building awareness of the program's importance. Communication is vital to getting buy-in from the organization as a whole. True internalization of the value of data governance can be reflected in many ways, one of which is the formal communication of how those who shepherd the data governance program are valued by the organization. The chief data officer will be the leader in this initiative. Communication from the executive sponsors and the CDO is key to garnering buy-in from knowledge workers in the lines of business.

Finally, clear communication can bridge the gap and achieve alignment between the formally defined roles and responsibilities and the internalization of those roles and responsibilities by knowledge workers. One way to foster this alignment is through a data governance roadmap. At a high level, a data governance roadmap communicates three things:

  • Roles, responsibilities and requirements for data governance throughout the organization.
  • A plan to help meet those requirements and to sustain data governance competency going forward.
  • Metrics to help measure the progress and performance of the data governance program.

Think of the data governance roadmap as a type of maturity model for the data governance program. It will lay out the stages of data governance capability and provide milestones that the organization can strive for in reaching each level.
Data governance helps companies more effectively manage their data and treat it like the valuable enterprise asset it is. Further, with the Byzantine mass of regulatory requirements and mandates that public companies must meet and the consequences for not meeting them, implementing and sustaining data governance has become almost fundamental to IT success.

Data governance cannot be implemented by fiat, however. Everyone in the organization from top to bottom must be made aware of its importance. They must buy into that importance, and they must accept responsibility according to the role they play for the continued success of the data governance effort. In other words, the entire enterprise must be willing to be accountable for data governance success. It won't be easy to build this culture of accountability, but in the end, it will be very well worth it.

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