Governance is Relevant

Register now

I have no problem, zero, bearing witness to righteous complaints and justified backlash to pandemic IT fads and boondoggles we've lived through in our business and technology careers. That experience is and should be built into our common sense.

Likewise, few of us miss marketing blitzes built around three letter acronyms that are thankfully in our wake for the most part. I can also understand overtaxed business leaders looking for relevant solutions out of the box. Sometimes, waiting for the big picture to come around isn't a good enough answer to the problem at hand.

Still, it feels odd to be standing here defending the idea that data or information governance is relevant when so many organizations are getting it closer to right and benefiting from it. Based on reader and LinkedIn comments excerpted here, it seems it has to be done.

I don't know why the very idea of governance - which includes the policies, processes and rights for data use and ownership - makes some people recoil. If you play a sport, you set boundaries that give both sides a chance to compete. If you race a car, you follow rules to prevent a pileup. If you govern a broad constituency, you might strive to divide power, parcel responsibility and create representation.

You'll quickly get an idea why, after sampling commentary on data governance and information governance from LinkedIn and this blog I chatted up a couple of widely-known sources, Ted Friedman at Gartner and Rob Karel at Forrester Research for their reactions. (Their views are their own and do not necessarily conflate with other opinions in these short responses.)

"What's wrong with [calling it] just plain ol' 'data management' or 'information management?' Why do we need the governance word to glamorize it?" -- LinkedIn comment.

Ted Friedman: "Actually that's an interesting question I like to ask people. I ask something like, 'Are you doing master data management because you need to improve the quality of governance of your master data or do you see improvements in information governance competency and data quality as being a path to achieve MDM?' Which one is the goal, which is the enabler? MDM initially and still to a large extent has been looked at as the goal but I think that's backwards. I think the goal is well-governed information and MDM is a set of competencies and one of the pieces you need to have in order to govern your overall information landscape well."

Rob Karel: "It's a big challenge in governance just to come up with an enterprise standard on how to define the data and how it's going to be used in a thorough, effective policy. You need to understand all the different usage and consumption points for this data to make a set of standards and usage policies that are going to support all aspects of the business. Calling it data management doesn't describe what it is. We might as well call it a blueberry muffin."

"The term data governance and now information governance is a pretentious, opaque and meaningless term just like its predecessor, corporate governance ... Let's get back to data management and leave the existential meaning to philosophers."-- Blog comment.

Rob Karel: "There are a lot of moving parts in data management but you can't just do data for data's sake, nobody cares about that. What we focus more on now is the involved culture and change management piece, roles and responsibilities, data governance more than anything else. People still build a business case and a solution and wonder why things break. If you only have a data-centric view you're ignoring all the context."

Ted Friedman: "I do talk to organizations that say to me, 'We want to do information governance but we can't call it that because it sets people off.' I get that a lot actually. I do get that a slice of the market has latched onto the term as a marketing ploy, but I am talking to more people in roles like head of EIM, director of EIM, chief data officers, chief risk and compliance officers who are all over the information governance thing for the right reason as an organizational and process and policy-based thing."

"I encourage everyone to manage the term 'information governance' into extinction" -- LinkedIn comment.

Ted Friedman: "From 2009-2010 we saw a 50.1 percent increase in the number of Gartner clients inquiring about information or data governance. In 2009, probably 70 percent came in under data governance, 30 percent information governance. As of the end of 2010 those are in more balance, more like 60/40 and I can see the term information governance having a more positive trajectory. Whatever you decide to call it, part of the reason information governance is coming around is the classic distinction that you want it to be about all information, not just structured information."

Friedman and Karel will both tell you in their own way that cultural change and the political mindset is the hard part of governance and the root of the term. It was former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill who famously said, "all politics is local." He meant that issues of the day needed to speak to the needs of local constituents to have relevance.

Where voters cast their local preference, the top of the enterprise has a different view of profit and cost control and compliance and differentiation. As Friedman points out, there's an increasingly informed leadership learning about governance that needs to be heard and answered.

"In the last year I've spent more time not only with CIOs, but CEOs and CFOs and non-IT executive leadership who want to talk about the [governance] concept. I spent half a day with a pretty large insurance company ad the CIO barely spoke. It was the CEO and COO wanting to know how to get people lined up behind the idea of governance and it was pretty cool."

Friedman also sees "a lot of work going on in data quality where people are fighting fires that are far from the lofty ideals and terms we just talked about."

In everyone's defense, let's agree that managing and governing information are hard things to wrestle and maintain. Governance has often wrongly fallen to IT and been a largely thankless pursuit. Now that it is gaining executive visibility, we can all hope to do a better job understanding who is at the table and why.

Progress would be a good thing.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.