How Data Governance and Data Literacy Overlap

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In today’s tech-driven world, with 120 zettabytes generated annually, most of us already use data – and lots of it. “Everyone who reads a paper or scrolls through the Internet is already acquainted with data,” said Wendy Lynch, founder of and Lynch Consulting, in a recent Elevating Enterprise Data Literacy webinar. “We depend on data, compare data, react to data, debate data, and celebrate the results of data.” But using data all the time and being data-literate – knowing how to effectively read, write, work with, analyze, and communicate with data – are not the same. To improve Data Literacy, you also need strong Data Governance.

During the webinar, Lynch explained how business leaders often ignore, dismiss, or misunderstand the important relationship between governance and literacy. Two special guests joined her for the discussion:

  • Josh Reid, Data Governance and Delivery Leader at Succeed Data Governance Services
  • Bill Wood, Manager of Data Analytics at Centene Corporation (formerly Data Governance Officer at HealthTrio)

Together, they explored the intersection of Data Governance and Data Literacy and offered suggestions for how organizations can bring the two Data Management practices together.

The Data Literacy Food Chain

In everyday life, Lynch asserted, we implicitly assess data as part of our decision-making, with varying degrees of confidence and precision. We take some ubiquitous data points for granted, such as the day’s temperature or the speed of the car we’re driving. When shared systems and authorities begin to break down or enter gray areas, however, the quality of our organic data competence can degrade: A celebrity endorsement might lead us to embrace a dubious medication, or a nod from “four out of five dentists” might result in our switching toothpaste brands. In short, according to Lynch, people “make data-driven decisions all the time. We simply want them to make effective, valid, accurate, reliable decisions with the data they’re already using.” And that skill requires Data Governance.

To illustrate how governance and literacy overlap, she offered the analogy of a modern food production chain. On the one hand, there are various supervising agencies in place to regulate the safety of the “farm-to-table” pathway, from sourcing to transportation to presentation at a grocery store or restaurant: This is governance at play.  Conversely, consumers inform themselves, to varying degrees, as to the safety and quality issues involved at every phase back up the same chain: This is literacy. “Literacy is required on the consumer end,” Lynch summarized, “and the more involved the consumer becomes in governance ascending up the chain, the better choices they can make.”

This parable is, of course, applicable to chains of data as well as food. Moreover, it serves as a roadmap for exploring the dynamic relationship between Data Governance and Data Literacy. How can the two data disciplines grow from each other? Lynch asked her co-panelists to delve deeper.

Josh Reid: The Data Literacy Dilemma

From his years of observation as a data strategist, Josh Reid emphasized that there is a clear disconnect between Data Governance and Data Literacy. He believes that the two should be closely intertwined and that “Data Literacy should ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of Data Governance in a hierarchical relationship.”   

According to Reid, a fluid, process-driven community of people who are responsive to every step of Lynch’s “food chain” should spearhead this hierarchy. He warned that while emerging technology is a crucial part of crafting a model of Data Literacy that is accountable to Data Governance, people should be part of the equation. Data managers must implement a well-thought-out Data Strategy based on where literacy is needed, how much, and by whom within the organization.

“You can make a multimillion-dollar investment in your organization by modernizing your technology,” said Reid, “but if you don’t make literacy engagement part of that strategy, then you’ve missed out on the people side of it. You’re going to have all these wonderful new tools, all this wonderful new data. But you’re going to have a whole bunch of people that don’t know how to use any of it.”

This strategy, Reid insisted, must start with senior leadership implementing top-down policy changes and allocating the resources and support needed to make them a reality. Paradoxically, although CEOs and upper management must serve as lawmakers and visionaries, they must improve Data Literacy themselves before sending changes down the line. It’s also upper management’s domain to ensure that each link in the personnel chain understands their roles – and the importance of those roles.

“A lot of people don’t see change management as part of Data Literacy,” Reid lamented, “and human resources is criminally overlooked as a place to establish a community practice that includes subject area mentors when their education to date doesn’t help.”

All in all, Reid cast his vision of “better Data Literacy through Data Governance” in an “as above, so below” reflection: It plays out simultaneously at the level of the individual and the enterprise. At the level of the individual, management must take great pains not to overwhelm those in the early phases of literacy. “Participants are under a microscope as they go through a Data Literacy program,” Reid observed. “It’s really hard to execute this, to learn something new and then be expected to perform. The pressure really is on.” Most importantly, business leaders must understand this process not as a project, but as a cultural shift and an ever-evolving journey that will not unfold the same way twice.

Bill Wood: Data Governance and Data Literacy from Ground Zero

To round out the webinar, Bill Wood shared his unique journey in implementing a Data Governance program during a corporate merger. Several years ago, Wood was tasked with improving the state of data at Online Insight, a small company he had recently joined. He was surprised to discover that his new employers had no governance program to speak of, so he decided to systematically build a program from the ground up.

Just as Wood embarked on this ambitious feat, Online Insight was acquired by HealthTrio, a company that was about 10 times larger. Wood was refreshed to see that HealthTrio already had some Data Governance in place: a DG charter and committee with two co-chairs, and crucially, a CEO who already embraced Data Governance.  However, what seemed to be a solution to Online Insight’s data problem presented problems of its own. “It was very much like trying to build the airplane as you’re flying it,” Wood recalled. “So you know, we’re kind of cobbling this together and trying to figure out things and figure out definitions.”

Although Wood was appointed the title of Data Governance Officer and tapped as a key member of HealthTrio’s governance committee, he was also moved to the Data Technologies Team within the amalgamated Online Insight. Like Reid, Wood recognized that within the culture of his workplace, not only was governance embedded within the IT department and viewed ultimately as a tech function, but Data Literacy was also merely an afterthought. When his governance committee could not agree on a single literacy assessment to administer, Wood authored his own – which was met with lukewarm enthusiasm. It was only after some time that he could steer governance towards a serious focus on Data Literacy.

Through all these travails and misfires, Wood received an object lesson in growing Data Literacy from the ground up. He saw the limitations of delegating literacy to the more automated, less people-driven arenas of the organization, as well as of executive sponsorship of literacy – when executive understanding was itself limited. He realized that while governance is by now accepted as an essential component of Data Management, literacy is still in need of evangelizing and clarifying, as almost any two definitions of literacy are different. Finally, Wood stressed the importance of structurally intertwining governance and literacy early on, if possible. And, as all of the panel members agreed, no matter what course you take, patience with the process is a must.

Watch the Elevating Enterprise Data Literacy webinar here:


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