What it takes to succeed with data governance initiatives

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For this interview I was able to ask Stuart Squires some questions. Stuart is the EMEA managing director of Comma Group, a data management consultancy specializing in the business, technical and change aspects of PIM, MDM and data governance initiatives.

Nicola Askham: How long have you been working in data governance?

Stuart Squires: It has been a gradual creeping interest from back in the day before it was called data governance. My career went on a data tangent in 2002 and back then all of your data issues could be solved by implementing ERP – or not as the case may be. As the industry matured from this “technology will solve everything” view, to a “we’ve spent loads of money and still don’t have a single view of X”, to an “ah, it is about the people isn’t it?” realization, I matured with it.

Askham: Some people view data governance as an unusual career choice, would you mind sharing how you got into this area of work?

Squires: A series of (un)fortunate events. When you spend many evenings and weekends getting legacy data into a fit state for SAP you either go insane or develop a passion for making sure that your work is not going to go to waste once the data is loaded. The seemingly endless hours with a stapler on the enter key waiting for data to load were spent contemplating strategies for keeping the data in check, especially in the face of continual business change (my first seen years were spent at working at the same gas turbine plant, but for five different companies).

I started sharing my thoughts (a little too passionately maybe) on a subject that no one was really thinking about or interested in. To find interested people I moved into consultancy, and then advisory and now to leading Comma Group’s EMEA business.

Askham: What characteristics do you have that make you successful at data governance and why?

Squires: I am naturally bad at following process. This means that I have to consciously force myself to think about controls, measures and the impacts of not following process. These controls are different for every situation, be them work life, home life, playing sport, or anything: there is not one formula of governance for all situations. This is the same for different businesses, departments and people. I really enjoy guiding people on the journey of discovering the appropriate levels of governance and understanding the changes to the day to day life of individuals and groups that are required to realize the benefits.

Askham: Are there any particular books or resources that you would recommend as useful support for those starting out in data governance?

Squires: I’m a big fan of Bob Seiner. While his book “Non Invasive Data Governance” is not a detailed playbook of how to solve all the challenges you will face, it offers a set of simple principles that are undeniably critical to success. For detail, and for building muscle/developing a bad back, I often carry DAMA DMBOK 2 around with me.

Askham: What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in a data governance implementation?

Squires: The challenge we face time and time again is one of convincing people of the value of DG. It is very important to start proving value as soon as possible; a good place to start is to map business outcomes to data quality improvements, start measuring and producing pretty graphs.

People like pictures. If you see improvements then you can start attributing it to the fact that you are now actively policing the area and behaviours are improving accordingly; if there is no improvement then at least you have facts that form the basis of a case for change, “Fix this and you will move the needle on your business performance.”

Askham: Is there a company or industry you would particularly like to help implement data governance for and why?

Squires: Nicola, you are asking me to reduce my potential client list!

I am interested in how data is collected and used in education; especially with the devolution of control to academy trusts, free schools and the like. Education is the lifeblood of society and teachers spend far too much time juggling spreadsheets rather than teaching.

There is an irony that the organizations that need the most help are the ones who can afford it the least; putting together a compelling, affordable “Data Governance in a Box” for education would be a very worthwhile endeavor

Askham: What single piece of advice would you give someone just starting out in data governance?

Squires: Learn about the technologies, but consider them only an enabler.

Askham: Finally, I wondered if you could share a memorable data governance experience (either humorous or challenging)?

Squires: Not humourous or challenging but surprisingly fulfilling. We are currently helping a client set up and embed a DG operation. We have been in attendance at the first six weeks of data governance working group meetings and the first data governance council and steering group meetings.

The DG council meeting consisted of two hours of reviewing DG operation success criteria, agreeing ownership and approaches to DQ issues, signing off business term definitions, and making/escalating policy decisions.

As we were leaving the following phrase was uttered, “I really enjoyed that,” followed by a conversation that can be summarized as, “It is great to know that [steering group] will get sight of our views and be able to make decisions that will give us the authority to make a difference.”

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