Earlier this year, in the days before social distancing, I was lucky enough to catch up Neil over breakfast and he kindly agreed to be interviewed for my blog. Neil is an independent data evangelist who has worked in large multinational companies from the early years of the data adoption. He passionately believes that everyone is a data citizen or as he says a ‘Citizen Steward’.
He views Data Governance like safety, it stems from individual behaviour, and how we shape that to form the day to day activities embraced as a culture.
How long have you been working in Data Governance?
In 1991 I began my data career before Data Governance was even talked about.
Somewhere around 2008 Data Governance started to become more of a mainstream activity with the software vendors adding the word Governance to their sales pitches.
I have always represented the business side of data, advocating that business stakeholders must be leading and supporting data initiatives. If I take the simplest aim of Data Governance to apply a consistent lens or approach to the use of data, then the business must take the lead.
Some people view Data Governance as an unusual career choice, would you mind sharing how you got into this area of work?
I didn’t deliberately set out on the data path as a career, I kind of fell into it. I was working in Finance and realized I was spending all my time as a spreadsheet jockey, which made me question my value. I was fortunate to be asked onto a major finance transformation programme as the reporting lead where data through the migration was critical to my success. Many years of data migrations through a progressive roll-out, and a very good mentor, convinced me there was a fledgeling career in data.
It wasn’t until 2005 that my Data Management role was formalised as the global MDM manager on an SAP finance transformation programme. Across the world, Master Data Management was an emerging discipline and I was lucky to be able to network with like-minded early adopters.
It was an exciting time to be part of something new.
Back then 90% of the focus was on the technology and IT was wrestling with adoption across their businesses. It was a hard sell to land data as a discipline, and that remains true today.
But at the heart of any data initiative is the need to articulate what it is you are trying to manage and how you measure whether it is working or not. Data Governance wasn’t seen as an enabler to the business processes, more a compliance and control regime which business areas could choose to adopt. To overcome these hurdles Data Governance needed a business lens applied with a focus on behavioural change.
So, in 2006 I started to develop the processes that would help the business to adopt and embrace Data Management. We now refer to this as a culture change, but it is a ‘hearts and minds’ challenge.
What characteristics do you have that make you successful at Data Governance and why?
Passion, integrity, honesty, resilience, patience, adaptability, storytelling, simplicity, and being able to talk to various stakeholders in the language that they feel most comfortable. I call it ‘talk business’.
Once you come to the realization that this is about changing people’s perceptions about data, how they contribute to its management and how they would benefit from making those changes, your approach becomes far more tactile. I cannot understate the importance of developing soft skills. And like any relationship, you must adapt your style to different personalities. For example, at C Level, the message needs to grab their interest in the first 30 seconds which means presenting a concept, with language that supports that message.
I always put myself in the position of the recipient and try to anticipate what I would want to know and ask, how they think, their pet subject, things that would influence a positive discussion.
I use an ice breaker unrelated to the data narrative because Data Governance will challenge their beliefs and I am trying to develop a relationship that creates trust and ultimately influence.
At the end of the day, each of us develops our own styles through trial and error. Go with those that you feel most comfortable.
Never underestimate the power of WIIFM, what’s in it for me. Understanding those personal drivers of your stakeholders and how they would benefit from Data Governance will be fundamental to your success.
Are there any particular books or resources that you would recommend as useful support for those starting out in Data Governance?
I’m not a big reader, but in 2006 Jill Dyché and Evan Levy published, at that time, an inspirational book called Customer Data Integration. This has been the only data book I have ever taken to heart because of its narrative. Jill is a wonderful storyteller where she brings to life the data challenges. If you ever get the opportunity to talk with Jill or listen to her, go out of your way to do so. (https://jilldyche.com/)
What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in a Data Governance implementation?
Getting started. We hear the saying ‘they just do not get it’ and use that as an excuse for not landing our data message. Looking under the covers I normally find that they do get it but data is not high on their list of priorities, or they have been subjected to the technology bias too often, or they cannot see the value in dedicating energy to a vague concept.
My biggest challenge has been turning that supertanker. Convincing stakeholders who are either disinterested or openly negative to the changes being proposed to establish a company-wide data discipline. Remember changing a culture requires commitment.
Is there a company or industry you would particularly like to help implement Data Governance for and why?
Company or industry for me is no different. Data is data and its management are broadly the same process.
However, I am a little different in that I look to a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) as the ultimate consumer of data, they would benefit directly through a well oiled and efficient data discipline. Harks back to my days as a spreadsheet jockey. Give me better data that I can trust.
Many people would disagree with my target audience, and to be honest, 5 years ago I would have agreed with them.
My rationale is that Data Governance starts predominantly through the management of master data. These are the foundations of every business process, customer, supplier, material, people etc. Every process executed in business has either an explicit or implicit financial impact that lands in finance. Much of the master data is touched by a finance process, for example, customer credit, material costing, supplier bank details, payroll.
Therefore, by inference finance really does have ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to consistent trusted data. Why would you not at least start the data journey in finance?
What single piece of advice would you give someone just starting out in Data Governance?
Keep it simple. The saying ‘think big, start small’ really rings true to Data Governance. You want to take your stakeholders on a journey of discovery and enlightenment, not a slog up Mount Everest.
There is no right answer, just many paths with potentially different outcomes. Choose wisely.
Finally, I wondered if you could share a memorable data governance experience?
My first day in a company as the Global Data Governance Manager I attended the inaugural Data Governance Executive Forum, only to be told by my boss that he was not able to attend and that I should chair the meeting.
My first day.
I didn’t know the people, their subject areas, what had gone in the past, even the format of the meeting. This was to be my introduction into the world’s largest multinational of this industry.
I was petrified.
I learnt a great deal about the people, but more importantly about myself. In the room were a group of supporters, a group of antagonists with the remainder ambivalent.
By the end of the 3-hour meeting we had achieved a consensus on the way forward for Data Governance, the challenges I would have to overcome and most importantly the frequency in which I would sit down with them one on one over a coffee.
The outcome was the embryo of Data Governance that would ultimately get established and span the entire company.
On reflection, if I had made a mess of that first-day induction, Data Governance would have been consigned to the ‘failed project’ bin.