Why having a good data governance policy matters

data governance policy

For starters, data governance helps you do the cool stuff.

When it comes to a data governance policy, companies are aware they need one, but few of them know where to start. A lot of them are at a crossroads when it comes to creating a policy that works for their organisation. But the first instinct of reaching out to a standard policy wouldn’t work because it won’t meet your corporate strategy.

To clear the air from all uncertainties, we had a chat with Nicola Askham – a known data governance coach and expert, after her presentation at Data 2020 Summit 2019 to discuss what is necessary to consider when writing a data governance policy.

Nicola Askham
Photo by Hyperight AB® / All rights reserved.

Hyperight: Hi Nicola, welcome to Data 2020 Summit 2019, we are pleased to have you as one of the speakers again this year. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Nicola: Thank you for having me, I love coming back to Data 2020 Summit, it’s one of my favourite data conferences because I love the feel and the vibe we get here. I’m known as The Data Governance Coach and my mission is to help as many people as possible to be successful in data governance. I’m a consultant, but I love doing training and coaching so I can help people do data governance themselves. They understand their organisations and challenges, but what they don’t know is how to do data governance. And I’m lucky because I get to work with lots of different companies in lots of different sectors.

Hyperight: Nicola, you presented on the topic “How to write a good data governance policy”. What are the key points companies should have in mind when creating their data governance policy?

Nicola: As far as the key points go, I would mention: 

  1. Don’t use a standard data governance policy and definitely don’t google somebody else’s and just put your own company name in it. There is no such thing as a standard way of doing data governance. You have to do something that’s right for you. When it comes to policy it’s important to work out why is your company doing data governance because your policy needs to be structured in a way that delivers that and meets that need.
  2. You can’t be a data governance manager and sit at your desk and write the policy on your own. Drafting the data governance policy is a part of the early-stage engagement in the data governance initiative so you should be involving senior stakeholders and your potential future data owners. Because you’re not enforcing the policy on people, you’re helping them write a policy about how they want to manage data.
  3. Do a principle-based approach. If you get these senior stakeholders to agree on some key principles about how you want to manage your data, then the rest of the policy is really easy because it’s only providing details about how you are going to implement those principles. And it’s a lot easier to get senior people to sign off on 6-10 principles then it is to give them a 10-page policy. If they agree on the principles first, then you then add the details to fill out the policy and they’re comfortable with it.
data governance policy

Hyperight: Who from the organisation should be involved in drafting the data governance policy?

Nicola: If you have a data governance lead or manager, they’re probably leading the work. But you also want to look into the wider data management function or team because you need to make sure it’s aligned to everything else there’s going on. You definitely need to include your executive sponsor because they’re probably going to be the person signing off and you don’t want to wait until it’s finished and for them to see it for the first time.

I would also include your potential data owners – they’re key people when it comes to data and they’re senior stakeholders for your Data Governance initiative so get them involved even if it’s just in a workshop to brainstorm the principles. I usually involve key consumers or producers of data as well, because they’re going to be impacted by what you’re doing in a good way. They need to feel like they’ve had a say.

And finally, I look at the legal, risk, compliance teams to see if they want to have any involvement in it. Because if you work in an industry that’s regulated, there may well be a regulation that says you need data governance and these teams may have very particular things they want to have included in your policy. Having all these departments and stakeholders involved may sound hard, but it actually makes it a lot easier when you have all these people involved.

Hyperight: What department should initiate and define the data quality strategy?

Nicola: In an ideal world, you’d have a Chief Data Officer and it would be within that area. Having a CDO is becoming more common, but there are still a lot of companies that don’t have one.

You want to include it in a function that is looking holistically across the whole company. Most specialised areas will not be a good place, for example, if the finance department initiates it, they are going to look at it from a finance point of view only. In addition, I always advise that IT is not good home because they should be worrying about the systems and less about the quality of the data.

Nicola Askham
Photo by Hyperight AB® / All rights reserved.

Data governance in itself doesn’t sound exciting, but if you don’t do it, you can’t do the cool stuff like AI.

Hyperight: Who is responsible for data governance in an organization?

Nicola: Hopefully it’s the Data Governance manager, but they have more to do with making sure it happens. But again if you have a CDO, a data governance team should report to them. If you don’t have a CDO look for someone with an organisation-wide view. So perhaps your COO, or if you are in the financial services sector, the Chief Risk Officer works.

drafting data governance policy

Hyperight: Based on your years-long experience with data governance, what are the most common challenges companies face when drafting a data governance policy?

Nicola: One of the things is being too aspirational. You go from having no control on data to somebody saying you got to have all of these things in place. It’s often too big a step up.

I’ve also seen people doing the opposite end of the extreme as well. They worry that if make it too much hard work nobody will sign it off. So they include very little in their policy and end up not helping the organisation to mature in terms of their data governance. 

Hyperight: Data is already the lifeline of every corporate enterprise and organisation. Why having a sound data governance framework is essential?

Nicola: [When it comes to data governance] it doesn’t seem to matter what industry you’re in. I always joke and say that the financial services don’t even have tangible products, their products are only data. So they really need to manage it well.

I’ve talked to people from many different industries, and they all understand that they need to manage their data. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making things, selling things, repairing things, you have data about that. Without that data, you are going to lose a competitive edge in today’s world. Particularly with digitalisation you need good data to support that and make good decisions. 

We’ve heard that successful digital transformation is all about meeting the customer needs, but how can you do that if you don’t understand your customer and haven’t managed that data and made sure it’s good enough quality. So a sound data governance framework is key at the moment.

Nicola Askham
Photo by Hyperight AB® / All rights reserved.

Hyperight: Nicola, in your presentation you state that having a “standard” policy won’t result in the desired data governance results. So why is it important for companies to have data governance policy custom-fitted for their organisation?

Nicola: When I asked people jokingly at my presentation who works for a standard company, nobody put their hand up. Every company is unique, even if you have loads of competitors in your sector, each company has its own structure, culture and particular issues and challenges, and your policy needs to address that. Having an off-the-shelf policy isn’t going to deliver that, it just going to sound like you’re putting control and governance just for governance sake. Whereas we’re doing this to help the company and enable it to meet its corporate strategy.

Hyperight: Looking at data governance policy practices, what can we expect in the next 12 months?

Nicola:  I don’t actually think the underlying principles of how you do data governance will change. But I see the demand rising all the time and I don’t think that’s going to end. Today so many people have been talking about AI and machine learning, but they’re also understanding that you need to have understood and manage the quality of the data before they can successfully embrace these technologies. So I think that demand will continue to rise over the next 12 months. One of my clients actually summed it up really well, they said that data governance helps you do the cool stuff. Data governance in itself doesn’t sound exciting, but if you don’t do it, you can’t do the cool stuff like AI.

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