Dear Laura: What Role Should Leadership Play in Data Governance?

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Read 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,

We are a multinational company that’s been around for over 100 years. In terms of what we do, the processes haven’t changed much in that time, but a lot has changed about how we manage the data and analytics. For a long time, we were stuck in the ’90s and have worked diligently over the last few years to modernize our data and analytics work, transitioning to the cloud, among other big efforts. We like command-and-control constructs here, so we were working on Data Governance to address some issues with data definitions and ontologies but have failed to gain traction. Disruption, on a small scale, seems to be warranted. I have several questions, but I’ll start with this one: How does the leadership change in a disrupted Data Governance model?  

Curious in Connecticut”

Hey, Curious,

Thanks for reaching out. I know the feeling; I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in the ’90s too. The fashion, the music, the social media-free existence all gets me nostalgic, but I digress.  

I applaud weighing the value of disruption. As my readers know, I love to blow stuff up, but the truth is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It sounds like some stuff is broken, so let’s start with leadership. I also like to start with people because that’s where the work is, and I do think that leadership has a bigger role to play in a modernized version of Data Governance. 

For a long time, we let our leaders off the hook. We asked for an “executive sponsor” in the title alone.  Sometimes we would ask them to participate in meetings, but their exposure to the soft underbelly of Data Governance was casual at best.  Often, these sponsors when pressed would roll over and not defend the work, and honestly, it probably wasn’t their fault. We didn’t do a good job of helping them understand their role. And that is the job – to help the executive sponsor better understand their role with Data Governance.  

For as long as there are organizations, there will be discussions about the top-down/bottom-up approach (and if the data teams should report to business or IT, but that’s a different post). It is not an either/or proposition. The answer is, you must do both. But it’s not just having a top-down executive sponsor, it’s about changing your sponsor’s relationship with Data Governance, and that starts with a good old-fashioned RACI. Yes, the providence of all management consultants: the “responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed” (RACI) model for Data Governance reads something like an economics textbook from 1970. Boring. But somewhere buried in these letters is a big shift: We are going to make our executive sponsor accountable for determining the success criteria for Data Governance and understanding the inherent risk and reward of increasing usage of the data. I generally do this with what I call an “Inception Board.” A team of executives will be responsible for framing Data Governance in terms of its scope, budget, success metrics, and timeline. Once they’re done, don’t keep that board operating for perpetuity. Hand the function off to an operating board, but the executive sponsor should always be around to ensure that things get done in alignment with how they were defined. The Data Governance leader is accountable to ensure that the executive sponsor is well-informed and operating as a sponsor in more than the title alone.  

The main takeaway is, your executive leadership must play a more active role in Data Governance. They must help you determine the scope for the function, support it with a budget, and help determine the success metrics so you can show – with data – how effectively you’re operating.  

For the record, I miss the ‘90s.


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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