I conducted this interview with Brigadier Richard Nugee of the British Army a few years back. The interview took place after the army won the first-ever Data Governance Best Practice Award in 2010. The Brigadier provided excellent answers to the questions I posed to him and the answers are still very relevant today as an example of a best practice data governance solution..
Robert S. Seiner (RSS): Brigadier Nugee, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Congratulations on being selected as the first Annual Data Governance Best Practice Award winner. As you well know, the competition for the first award was very close and the sponsors of the award, TDAN.com included, were mighty pleased with the number and quality of the entries this first year. Please share with my readers how you first learned that the award would take place and when/how you decided to enter.
Brigadier Richard Nugee (BRN): Bob, can I say first just how delighted we are to have won this prestigious international award. It is a tribute to my team and the consultants, Detica, who have worked with us, and to the large number of soldiers who have helped us improve our data. We have, I believe, a good story to tell, and on the basis that others may wish to hear of it, I had agreed with Chris Saunders from Detica to make a joint presentation to the European DG Conference in April, Chris having spoken there with other clients in the two previous years. When Chris received the call for papers for this Award, we agreed to enter as we hoped others would also find our story instructive and interesting.
RSS: Please summarize your Data Governance Program – why it was created, who was responsible for Data Governance in the British Army, and how it was created. Please give us your quick overview of the program.
BRN: The simple answer to why our DG program was created – effectively from scratch – was because we were failing. From the first introduction of computer data (as opposed to paper based files) in the 1960s, we had built a highly sophisticated, minutely tuned database, with rules that ensured, we thought, that all our data was perfect; every soldier checked their entry every 6 months. So, in effect, we had a data governance regime intimately tied to a bespoke computer database. In 2007, we moved to a radically new system, which no longer had any of the original checks and balances and yet we assumed that it had the same data governance characteristics; it didn’t.
So, we had to identify the Data owner, which had been a nominal appointment till that time, determine precisely what he was responsible for, and provide the mechanisms for him to exercise that responsibility. For personnel data, this is the Adjutant General, our Principal Personnel Officer, a 3-star General. We obviously needed to delegate the responsibilities of ownership to those who were suffering from the poor data and who could do something about it on a day-to-day basis (my team), and we then built a data governance community around them with the help of data management specialists (Detica). The irony, of course, is that much of the data error we found, which was costing us in terms of money, reputation and huge effort to put it right, was a result of the original data, imported from the old system, being inaccurate!
RSS: I know that you will be speaking about the British Army’s program at the Annual Data Governance Conference in San Diego in June. What details of your program will you be sharing with the attendees at your session?
BRN: I want to take the attendees on our journey of discovery, and if I might, from how poor data was being discussed at the highest levels of the Army to ‘why data has become boring.’ I will cover how the need for data governance arose and how we tackled it, initially unsuccessfully and then using a two-pronged approach: ‘prevention’ and ‘cure.’ But even though we are well on our way to data ‘fit for purpose’ and have already achieved significant benefits of $20m, which has opened up the opportunity for greatly improved manpower planning and personnel administration, I would like to suggest also how this process has changed behavior in the Army and potentially across Defense.
RSS: One thing that was obvious about your Data Governance Program was that the British Army’s solution started demonstrating value very quickly. What was it about your Data Governance solution that was working so well to demonstrate the early value, and what gave you the idea that it was worthy of being the Best Practice Award Winner for 2010?
BRN: On the battlefield, an Army must focus on the outcome, and decisions are made to reinforce success, wherever that may be found. That discipline, forced on us in battle, creates a powerful appetite for results. And so, whilst in the economic downturn money was very scarce, we had to prove, up front and early, that it was worth investing money in data governance. To do that we had to start delivering effect, through improved data, at regular intervals, even before we had a complete and tested data governance regime in place. The data governance apparatus evolved against a well-constructed plan, by creating the Data Champions Working Group and gaining real value from having the Champions discuss and prioritize issues together; whilst at the same time we started to work on data quality management early. But perhaps the critical issue was that data, instead of being talked about by the top of the Army as a source of irritation, became a key part of the business. The interest taken by 3* and 4* generals and the new-found sense of ownership meant that this issue moved from someone else’s problem to a problem owned, which the chain of command had to resolve. Getting buy-in at the very top, and delivering real and quantifiable change made us think we might have a chance to win the Best Practice Award.
RSS: That is something to be proud of. Tell us a little bit about any hurdles you encountered that made the Data Governance program alter its course during the initial or expanded start-up and how you addressed these hurdles.
BRN: The biggest hurdle, without a doubt, was to convince others that we needed a new approach to data governance and to fixing the problems. Right from the start, the common accusation was that it was the new computer system that had caused all the data issues, and that, just like in the old system, all we needed was a change to the computer and all would be well. Even the authority for the new computer system saw us as a threat, although they quickly realized the opportunity, that our data governance efforts would make their life significantly easier. In other parts of the ‘system’ we hit skepticism about our methodology, entrenched views that ‘their way,’ of a small industry of monthly data cleansing, was more effective and a general apathy (“not my problem”).
This deep resistance to change made the application for funding difficult, but which forced us absolutely to hone, refine and prove our case. In the end, this was the only non-operational additional funding secured in 2009-10 and even that did not lead to the perfect solution – we had to reduce the size of our new Army Personnel Data Management Organization (APDMO) to fit the funds available. We overcame these hurdles through a top down and bottom up engagement process. We persuaded our generals, directly, of the logic of our case, and we held workshops at the lower levels to gain trust and acceptance, and to thrash out the design and processes of the APDMO. If we hit further resistance, I personally intervened, at my level, to ensure that we got support across the data community. But the result, albeit delivered a little slower and a little smaller, is not far removed from the original design – which the staff helped build.
RSS: Please tell the readers what area of your ‘business’ you started with and how the lessons learned in that area are being taken into consideration as you expand your program across the British Army.
BRN: We started with personnel as our data and our processes were far below the quality required. The cost of our poor data was running into tens of millions of dollars, through misattribution, paying for soldiers no longer in the army, a lack of awareness of how much of the Defense budget should be attributed to manpower and a resultant overspend, or lost opportunity for spend elsewhere. And in the economic downturn we were recruiting very well, and retaining those in the Army – few wanted to leave – which provided additional financial pressure we had to address. But because of our DG program, we have become seen as the model of best practice. Our systems and even the exact DG construct are now being investigated by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, to see how they can learn from our experience. I suppose the generic lessons we have learned are about trust and buy-in, across the relevant parts of the Army, engagement at all levels and about process: The Data Champions have to stick by what they say they can deliver.
RSS: Can you share your thoughts on the differences between building a Data Governance Program for the military and building one for a business? How has being in the military influenced the approach you used and how has it helped/hindered your success?
BRN: Bob, that’s a bit of an unfair question, I only have experience of this in the military! But my experience of operating with other business organizations on different matters would suggest to me that it’s more about the similarities than the differences. Despite our hierarchical approach, optimized for the battlefield, away from combat we still need to persuade people and explain the logic, rather than just giving orders. We need to justify our case, and not assume that everyone will understand the need just because we say so; having a Chain of Command has its benefits in getting things done, but people still need to understand why. But at the same time, we need to balance our imperative to improve with the fact that for most people (me included) this is not the most important part of their job. For my job, it is a vital and obvious enabler – for others it is less obvious. And we need to compete for scarce resources, with the moral pressure that, for every cent spent on this, it is one less spent on the front line for the troops in combat. One area where it helped being in the military is that few people expected us to be good at this – and we ourselves rapidly learnt that our own ideas were not good enough. So, we turned to expert consultants to help us, to harness best practice from across business, which of itself brought similarities rather than differences. And then we chose those areas that would fit our organization, cherry picking what we thought would lead to success.
RSS: As we (the judges on the Data Governance Award 2010 panel) learned through our process of selecting a winner, the British Army did an excellent job of putting their Data Governance Program in place. And believe me when I say that your competition was strong. Are there any final words of wisdom that you would like to share with the readers of The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN.com) about the Award, the process leading up to the Award, or on Data Governance success in general?
BRN: I’m not sure how qualified I am to expound wisdom, but I can give a feel for some of our thoughts on reflection. Perhaps controversially, a catch phrase that went around my staff was ‘just do it!’ On the backfoot, having to prove this enterprise was worth supporting with time and resources, we had to get on with data quality issues, even before the plans for the APDMO and the data governance mechanisms were in place. And as in war where no plan survives contact with the enemy, so spending too long on a plan, that may not come to fruition, was not something we could accept; we had to deliver. But at the same time, we knew we had to develop a governance piece as well, as we had already failed without it. Second, I am skeptical of the value of consultants – they are not readily available in some of the nastier parts of the world – as we are by nature self-reliant. But in this enterprise, we used industry leading advice from Detica, which proved that we could trust outside organizations to help, provided they can be flexible and provided they understand that every situation is different. Next, as in any change program, it is essential for the business to own the issue and drive it forward, not a bunch of backroom boys who nobody quite understands what they do. Only with buy-in from the top will change really happen. And finally, if you get it right, the rewards, both financial and in time not wasted, are very significant; but similarly, a failure in this field can be very costly.
RSS: Thank you again for taking the time to hold this conversation with me. I wish you continued success with your Data Governance Program.