The Data Governance Journey: One Purposeful Step at a Time

I recently had conversations with several data governance leaders who expressed concerns related to the scope of work involved in launching a data governance program. There are plenty of books and white papers promoting examples of robust programs with huge teams. And plenty of technology vendors, anxious to impress, tout the robust features available to solve the most complex use cases. All of this lead many to the conclusion that data governance is a competency and a massive investment best left to the largest and most complex organizations. The current approach using spreadsheets and emails isn’t so bad for the rest of us, right?

I understand these concerns are often triggered when technology vendors demonstrate the broad scope of capabilities they can enable to support data governance. However, I would recommend a different perspective when you’re considering technology enablers for data governance: what you’re seeing is the art of the possible, not the journey. Any technology solutions should represent a foundation that can grow with your program as you progress on your data governance journey, and you should challenge any vendor (us included!) to demonstrate how they provide capabilities that will help you streamline your efforts at every step along the way.

I find that many of our most successful customers start leveraging data governance technologies in a focused way that helps them achieve short-term business objectives, while preparing the foundation for a broader enterprise focus in the future. 

Two Approaches to Data Governance

The two most common approaches to getting started with data governance take either a horizontal focus or a vertical focus. A horizonal focus is broad and tends to address a specific kind of information (e.g., business glossary, reference data, customer master) across the organization. Alternatively,  a vertical focus tends to aim at a business use case and all of the information that pertains to it. To elaborate further:

  • A horizonal focus: Some of our customers have a program centered around defining a common vocabulary to be used across their organizations. Those organizations tend to start with a focus on the business glossary facet, along with supporting workflows to support change management. These initiatives also generate data governance-related processes and policies, explaining how they want stewards and business users to interact with the governance process. The use of these facets is often limited as they only pertain to the specific details of the data governance program and how it is administered.
  • A vertical focus: Other organizations focus on a series of sprints or projects that address a specific business need. COVID-19 is a recent example of one of these. Healthcare organizations use the data set and attribute facets to focus on identifying which reports or data sources are pertinent to surveillance, research, and treatment—and to list the kinds of information that are contained in the report. They define related business glossary terms to create a common understanding of the content of the report. They also define processes to be followed when creating and submitting the reports so everyone is following the same protocol. And, they define pertinent policies and regulations that they need to comply with, as well as workflows related to data access requests, change management, etc.

Both vertical and horizontal focuses tend to run in sprints or waves. Over time, as the program evolves and your needs change, you may have a combination of project types going at any time. 

Begin Your Data Governance Journey With a Single Step

It is important to select enabling technologies that are simple and can be used out of the box to start working to address your immediate needs. Then, as your program—and the value you are delivering—gain momentum within your organization, you can expand as you need while the lessons and skills that you learn working with one type of content are easily transferred to any other type you choose to start using. As you start adding use cases and content, the fabric of the solution should build a detailed picture of your organization’s operations: how things should work, what it all means, how actual operations compare to the ideal, and more. 

Here is the advice I share with all of my clients: As the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Data governance is such a journey and should not be over analyzed. Start with mindful steps toward your goal. Make sure that the steps are meaningful to the organization and that they deliver immediate value, but also pull it forward in the right direction. Finally, don’t bite off too much at one time. Put parameters around your goals so that you have measurable results that demonstrate the value of the program. 

At Informatica, we call this approach “Just Enough Data Governance.” I have seen it applied successfully time and time again.