Dear Laura: My Data Governance Program Is Being Hijacked

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Click to learn more about author Laura Madsen.

Welcome to the Dear Laura blog series! As I’ve been working to challenge the status quo on Data Governance – I get a lot of questions about how it will “really” work. I’ll be sharing these questions and answers via this DATAVERSITY® series. In 2019, I wrote the book “Disrupting Data Governance” because I firmly believe that poor Data Governance programs are getting in the way of data programs being as successful as possible.

Read the most recent blog posts in this series here and here.

“Dear Laura,

After much perseverance, I managed to get executive management to organize as a Data Governance committee. Then they populated it with the wrong areas. Its name promptly got changed to something that gave the impression that it was about shiny tools and magic problem-solving unicorns. Fortunately, they left my original governance terms of reference untouched. The meeting agenda started off dominated by shiny unicorns. But I took your book’s advice and Trojan-horsed my governance agenda into those unicorns. And they’re slowly coming around to actually confronting the policy decisions around Data Management. However, I think some are starting to spook at the enormity of the governance bits and are starting to focus back on the delivery of the tools. How do I stop tool-preoccupation from hijacking my fragile governance program? 

Suzanne in Sydney”

Hi, Suzanne,

Typically, organizations focus on tools to help control what feels like an overwhelming task. They assign too high of value to the software and too low a price on the effort to get it to a useful state. There are a few things you can do to get your executive council to snap out of their obsession with tools.  

1. Disband the council – before you heave over from shock, hear me out. You said in your description that it took forever to get them there and once you got them there it wasn’t the “right” people, and on top of all of that, you’ve had a difficult time getting them to focus on the “right” things. All in all, I don’t think they are serving the purpose you need them to. There is nothing agile about councils and if they insist on steering you aground sometimes it is better to cut your losses.

2. Insist that if they are going to go down this path of tools that you first, before spending one dollar, do a proof of concept. Sometimes (and I do emphasize sometimes), the complexity and cost of the effort become clear in a quick POC and scares them away. It’s particularly true if your organization hasn’t finalized the basics of DG – which is likely true in your case based on some of your comments. Any tool can only help you to the degree that you can define data and formalize processes.

3. If you are not in the position to disband the council or insist on a POC you may have one more trick up your sleeve. Create a plan that includes a tool in the future. This has a couple of benefits. First, it’s a plan and executives love plans – particularly ones that help them budget. Second, it allows you to get some key foundational pieces in place before any tool is acquired. It’s like you’re saying “Yes, but not yet.”

I happen to know that it’s also the time of year when leaders realize they have a little money left on their ledgers and a mad scramble to acquire things begins. Ask any vendor, the fourth quarter is bananas. Trouble is, particularly for a floundering Data Governance program, shelf-ware becomes a liability in the form of a request for return on investment (ROI).  Let’s cover a few things assuming you acquired a tool earlier than you wanted to.  

The good news is if you stuck to the top data catalog tools in the market you should be fine. They all do basically what you need them to do. Since your leader put the cart before the horse, I would ask her to allow you the opportunity to run a pilot project first. That buys you some time before someone asks you for a return on investment (ROI). Collect a few projects that might work (ideally small, achievable, and valuable) and get her or a group of stakeholders to sign off on one. That first step is really important.  You should pick the projects that you’re comfortable with, but you don’t want to be the final arbiter of the decision, you know, just in case.  

With that same stakeholder group (or just your leader) request that since you weren’t asked about the timing of the tool acquisition that you also get a pass for the first year on any requests for an ROI. The pilot project is now your proving ground for Data Governance and without an ROI breathing down your neck you’re back in the lead.  

It is not an ideal scenario. In a perfect world, some of that communication, planning, and process-building would have been done first. Then a tool would have been selected to ensure that it meets the needs of what you identified. But we all know that the world of Data Governance is not ideal and sometimes you have to make the best of a not ideal situation. The good news is you have their attention.

Hang in there. Organizations need people like you to keep them on the straight and narrow.


Do you have a question about Data Governance you’d like me to answer? Email me at Laura at viagurus dot com.

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