Politics in Data Governance Program
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Politics in Data Governance Program

By Alex Kangoun, Director: Data Governance, Athena IT Solutions

Alex Kangoun, Director: Data Governance, Athena IT Solutions

Without a doubt, politics is one of the most important factors in data governance. Its impact is pervasive— data governance touches all different layers of the organizations: different geographies, different departments, even different functions within same department. In addition, politics affects numerous technology systems, including data repositories and processes. Of all enterprise initiatives, it is especially sensitive to the political landscape.

"The data governance program creates a unique situation when everybody needs to agree on a path forward to improve things"

The word “politics” is loaded with negativity. In reference to people or policies, it is viewed as “forces that you have to deal with”. People perceive “politics” as an artificial barrier that needs to be overcome, or a turf war that theyhave to engage in. As one executive mentioned regarding his goals for data governance: “just do not move my cheese…” Data governance is acceptable, he meant, as long as it does not interfere with his business mission.

In many situations, data governance activities look like any other large corporate initiative. The struggles center around who will get the resources to implement it; how the byproduct of this implementation will impact people’s power; and whether its success will derail their career goals. For example, incorporating audits into data management policies may prevent development managers from making independent decisions about how to manage data, at the same time, it can force business managers to make more decisions about data, when he would rather avoid additional responsibilities that relate to data.

Before I provide any recommendations about how to handle these conflicts, I will suggest you try to change your mindset. Politics in the case of data governance is actually a positive force! Many, if not all, corporations are struggling with a siloed view of data: each department, or every functional area has its own set of data, processes, and technologies that they are working with. Data governance initiatives can be a way of overcoming these barriers.

When a company launches a data governance initiative, participants on all levels, from executives to analysts and developers,should start looking at their data as corporate assets. Often, they realize they are overwhelmed with process inefficiencies and problem patching. The data governance program creates a unique situation when [or “because”] everyone needs to agree on a path forward to improve things.

At the same time,“improve” means something different for everybody. This fact has a significant impact on the outcome of the data governance program. In many cases, technologists jump to the technology solution, such as Master Data Management or analytics or to specific products that they happen to have available or may want to purchase:” We have product X, let’s augment it with product Y or even replace it with Z”. In contrast, “better” for a subject matter expert might mean to extend existing system functionality to clean and organize data for more robust reporting.

Because many data governance projects are not started with a proper understanding and assessment, they often fail. In many cases, the failure was blamed on vendors. In other situations, nothing was wrong with tools or products. It was the implementation process that was at fault. Yet after failed implementation, companies may try to re-implement with new technologies, setting themselves up for another round of even more expensive failures.

Instead of repeating a listing of the steps for a data governance program,which have been described in many articles, I am proposing several ways to address the political barriers to successfully navigate a data governance program. I suggest that with the right approach, politics can be a positive factor in data governance. But first, project teams (internal and external) need to spend time to understand political landscape in order to avoid becoming victims of politics.

Suggestion 1 – Be flexible in your approach

• Political landscapes vary, and no single solution fits all situations. What works for one company may not even be under consideration for another. On the other hand, some principles and approaches are consistent across companies building data governance capabilities. One of the ways to have a productive discussion is to propose options and let teams discuss them. Try to avoid authoritative and restrictive statements such as: “This is the industry standard” or “This is how I did it in my previous company.”

Suggestion 2 – Take time to understand and appreciate the political landscape.

• It helps in some cases to create separate Roles, Responsibility and Authority matrix in relationship to the data governance program. For example, this matrix can document ownership down to every individual data element. This simplifies politics by enabling clarity.

• Lead with questions, especially in the initial phase of the program, even for basic tasks. For example, scheduling meetings can be easy as creating an entry in Outlook, or it can take a couple weeks of emails back and forth, hunting for convenient times for everyone. Making sure that everyone is notified and included helps smooth over the politics. I learned it the hard way: after a project started for one of my clients, I leaned that in that company we needed to schedule meetings weeks in advance and only through department admins. Lessons learned: be nice to admins and make a point of introducing yourself to everyone involved in the process.

• Have a clear understanding of the corporate strategic goals. Data governance program, needs to be aligned to the main corporate initiatives and all of the stakeholders need to be clear of its objectives. It sounds obvious, but I have been in several heated discussions which came to a standstill when teams were having different ways of understanding objectives, scope and priorities.

• Consider having “pre-meetings” before actual meetings. People don’t like to be surprised in meetings. Speaking informally to people helps build relationships and develop trust.

• Do not separate people into “supporters,” “influencers,” and “adversaries,” even mentally. This type of categorization is counterproductive. Everybody’s voice needs to be heard, and labeling someone an adversary might cause you to block their input, even if it is useful. Having an open forum will help create ownership and guarantee future investment in data governance initiatives. By helping people relate to the core problems rather than getting bogged down in interpersonal conflicts, you can build consensus.

Suggestion 3 – Just be honest

• I know it is a cliché, but in my experience, honesty is the best policy. Try to create an environment where everyone can speak openly and directly. In many cases, subject matter experts who understand the problems of data governance do not feel comfortable discussing them directly for various reasons. For example, they are cautious about disagreeing with the majority. By focusing on the facts and actual data, you will be able to help them discuss the issues openly and formulate possible solutions together with the group. Also try to avoid overly “creative” ways of running the meeting. Just keep it simple and straightforward.

Data governance program is a unique undertaking. If successful, it uncovers a newand exciting potential in a corporation. Even though the politics of data governance may seem daunting at the beginning, working them through can lead to many positive effects. New working relationships can be developed, and all the stakeholders can gain a better view of enterprise data. Ways of overcoming data silos may be developed, leading to more effective use of enterprise information, more educated decision making and creating competitive advantage. 

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