What do a mission to Mars, riding a bike, and data governance have in common?

Do you remember NASA’s $125 million mistake in 1999? The Mars orbiter was lost as the result of a failed information transfer in which one engineering team used metric units while another used imperial units.

I remember because I could relate. After moving to the U.S. from Canada for graduate school, I had to communicate my height in feet and inches instead of meters and centimeters and give directions in miles instead of kilometers.


Andrew Donaher wants you to think about implementing a business-friendly approach data governance
Andrew Donaher is back to share his thoughts about data governance

On a trip to Vancouver, Canada, Andrew Donaher reminded me about NASA’s costly mistake and how it could have been avoided with a business-friendly data governance program. Following much positive feedback from our last blog, I invited Andy to discuss data governance. You may recall that Andy is the Director of Information Management Strategy at Groundswell Group, a Western Canadian consulting firm that specializes in information management services.

Q. According to www.governyourdata.com, data governance is not about the data. It’s about the business processes, decisions, and stakeholder interactions that you want to enable. What’s your take on the value of data governance?
A: The goal of data governance should be to give people confidence in the data they use to make decisions or take actions. They benefit by not wasting time and energy vetting data or creating new processes. That is a huge value to the organization both in terms of risk mitigation and opportunity. At the absolute highest level, data governance is critical to establish trust and confidence in data.


Donaher says that IT leaders  typically make the mistake of approaching  data governance the wrong way.
IT leaders may approach data governance the wrong way — from a restrictive or policing perspective

Q. Explain how IT leaders could approach data governance the wrong way.
A. Typically data governance is approached from a restrictive, security-focused and policing perspective. I have found it much more productive to approach it from an enablement, conversational and guiding perspective. The benefit and value of the rules, policies and procedures associated with governance are that people do not have to re-invent the wheel every time. All those things are set up so people can leverage them to provide value faster.

Think back to when you were learning to ride a bike. Hopefully your parent didn’t stand at a distance barking instructions on what to do and what not to do. He or she started by holding the back of your bike so you felt stable and supported, providing you with guidance on how to do it, words of encouragement about what you’re doing well, and constructive advice on what you could be doing better. Then something would click and you’d get it. When you looked back with a smile on your face, feeling proud of yourself, you’d see your parent was no longer holding your bike. He or she was a few steps behind you smiling back while you rode your bike all by yourself!

Data governance is more  successful when it’s approached from an  enabling or guiding perspective
Data governance is more
successful when it’s approached from an
enabling or guiding perspective

Remember that feeling of confidence and elation? That is a form of governance too. It isn’t about shutting things down, it is about enabling and supporting. To do this properly you need to listen and understand what the goals are and what is important. I encourage IT leaders to work closely with line of business leaders to ensure trust and confidence in the data. Everyone should know how to get the proper data they need to help the organization move forward.

Q. Can you share some examples of data governance rules, policies and procedures that are more policing than enabling?
A. An example is when “Hold” or “No” are the default responses to every access request. Typically every database request submitted sits in a queue until an administrator reviews the access request and contacts the person with a series of questions that typically add little value. Sometimes the request is granted or it’s escalated for further investigation. While there is absolutely a level of security and policing that needs to occur on sensitive information, sometimes security and governance can unnecessarily become synonymous.

A potential policy alternative is first distinguishing between sensitivity in data structures and then codifying access policies. For example, imagine someone requests read-only access to a generally available schema in the enterprise data warehouse. This person has a particular job title and works in a particular department. Another person with the same role has similar access. The process requires an “approver” to manually review and approve the request. In this instance, you could set up the access request for automatic approval.  The risk will have been mitigated through the applied rules, so you have the necessary governance, but you’ve enabled the business to move faster. That’s a win for everyone involved.

Q. Can you give some concrete advice about how to kick off a successful data governance initiative using an enabling approach?
A. I have two recommendations:

  1. Recruit Business Partners: Make certain you have some highly respected, experienced and motivated business partners to participate in the kick-off.
  2. Quantify the Value: As a group, quantify the value of risk mitigation and opportunity cost. For example
  • To quantify the risk, measure the dollar value of a wrong metric going to the investor community, the impact on the market value and the percentage chance of it happening. Or quantify the executive team making a wrong decision based on incorrect information.
  • To quantify the opportunity, calculate the value of speed-to-market, getting a product to customers quicker than a competitor. You should be able to find examples of how much it cost your organization when you launched a product before a competitor and when you launched a product after a competitor. You can leverage that in your calculation to ensure everyone knows exactly how important enablement is.

When you work collaboratively, business and IT will be on the same page. Business leaders should understand the pressures the IT group is under to protect corporate data.  The IT team should understand the pressure business leaders are under to get answers to questions quickly to cut costs and find opportunities for growth in revenue and profits.

Q. Any tips on how to enable data governance processes with technology?
A. You may want to consider these two valuable elements to make data governance and analysis even easier:

  1. Metadata Manager provides a frame of reference or the context to give data meaning. It enables IT staff to manage technical metadata and perform an impact analysis of a proposed change before it is implemented. While root cause analysis enables business partners to dig into a term in a report to understand the source of the data and how it was moved and transformed before it was added to a report.
  1. Business Glossary maintains a standard set of business definitions, accountability for its terms and an audit trail for compliance. It enables business partners and IT to collaboratively manage business metadata. To use a healthcare example, does “Claim Paid Date” mean the date it was approved, the check was cut or the check cleared? Turn to Business Glossary to find out.

Q. Can you rescue a data governance initiative that was built based on a policing approach?
A. Absolutely. It takes effort and thought but it can absolutely be done. The key to doing it is realizing the opportunity cost of having people create their own business rules and metrics. While there is a cost to the wasted labor, the greatest cost is lost opportunities. If people are spending time trying to recreate rules and reconcile numbers, they won’t have time to focus on the game changing insight you get from predictive analytics or optimization, which is where the real competitive advantage lies.