Approaching data governance from a business perspective

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Are you are having another meeting with your business clients about data governance and it is not going particularly well?

I have a suggestion for you. Change the conversation.

Businesses do not use data. I know that sounds extreme, but it is a point that bears repetition. Businesses do not use data, they use information.

The distinction between those two is both simple and elusive. One is all about form and lineage, and the other is about meaning and context.

Sure, you can get a bunch of stakeholders together in a room and talk governance and meta data and data quality for hours. I can pretty much guarantee most won’t leave with any confidence and their buy-in will be tepid at best – and that is a problem.

By some estimates, governance projects fail 90 percent of the time. That statistic has not changed much over the years so clearly current approaches are not working.

I have sat through data-related meetings and watched business sponsors roll their eyes and work their phones because they were not engaged. I have watched them leave these meetings unenthused, confused and dispirited.

As a person that wants to bring value to a conversation, I have struggled with this. I was in the middle of a data conference when the realization hit me: When we talk to business about data we are simultaneously having two different conversations because they are talking about information. The wrong conversation is driving the agenda. This is why our projects are in peril. In science, if we want to change the results of an experiment we have to change the inputs.

In the case of getting the business to buy in and engage in this process there are two variables – the audience and the content of the conversation. I suggest we change both.

First let’s address content. Governance is about who and how. That is not a context at the forefront of most business discussions. Business is about measurable outcomes. Data may very well be an asset, but all business is predicated upon using assets to generate return. In that very few businesses are engaged in the selling of data, returns from governance are not clearly tangible.

That being said, business does understand the impact of good governance when it is expressed in measurable business outcomes. Things like the time they can save by knowing how to find valuable information about their products, services and customers; the confidence in knowing that information is going to those who need it and are authorized to see it.

How their information assets can be leveraged and protected in the pursuit of meaningful returns is more likely to get their attention. Every aspect of governance has an expression in information management that is both readily understood, and intrinsically valued by business.

This is not just about selling the merits of data governance through discussions about outcomes. This is about eliciting and elaborating requirements using the same techniques.

My IT colleagues continue to tell me about the growing sophistication of their business clients – how they are really starting to grasp the fundamentals of data governance. I think this is a justification for the status quo – and I will say it again: a 90 percent failure rate is nothing to justify.

I can put any stakeholder in a room, surround them with their peers and proceed to ask them questions about things they are not fully conversant in, and I will still get answers. I am not sure they will be meaningful, but I will get answers. It does not indicate sophistication, it is just participation.

If I put the same person in a room and ask them how they want to search for information; who should access information and how they should access it; the level of confidence they have in their current information and the value in improving it; etc. I am going to get valuable business insight into the data governance requirements and an engaged stakeholder.

That leads to the next variable: the audience. Obviously, I am not advocating that business be denied a place in these discussions. I am suggesting that perhaps fewer developers need to be in the room and more translators (business analysts) attend.

Good analysts will understand the technical world from which data governance evolves, but will also understand the world of information management so critical to the business.

We want to create powerful governance models. We want our clients to succeed and derive financial and process benefits from our work. It is only by understanding that our work is but one of many tools required to create business outcomes; and that those outcomes and the people who achieve and measure them are in the driver’s seat; that we will successfully achieve our goals.

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