What Does It Mean to “Govern Data”?

FEA01x - feature image - EDTwo of the hot topics in the field of Data Management are Data Governance and Cloud Computing. Given that I have little knowledge about Cloud Computing (something to do with a cloud and you ship the data off somewhere and it magically is better than it was when you sent it), I have little to say or write on Cloud Computing at this time. In fact, I have only just started to think about what it might mean to govern data in the cloud. I have spent time thinking about what it means to govern data period.

Publisher’s Note: From time-to-time TDAN.com republishes oldie-but-goodie content that was popular years ago and is still relevant today. This article originally appeared in a 2013 issue of TDAN.com.

Data Governance means different things to different people and organizations. There are several definitions floating around the industry. Gwen has hers, Martha has hers, I have mine – and the funny thing is that they all define the same thing just in a different way. Sometimes organizations use the terms Data Governance and Data Stewardship interchangeably. Sometimes they use the term “Non-Invasive” to describe the approach that they take to Data Governance. However, the most important question that needs to be answered about Data Governance is – What Does It Mean to “Govern Data”?

You may want to stop reading the article here … or at least take a moment to think about how to answer that question. We all know that Data Governance is necessary, but in the end … so what? What does it mean to have your data governed?

Let’s start by defining the term “govern” as it relates to data. To do this, I have taken the FreeDictionary.com definition (everybody’s closest definition) of “govern” and I have wrapped the words “to” and “data” around each identifying characteristic (the part of the definition that tells you how that term being defined is unique or different from other terms – I just learned that).  This wrapper around the identifying characteristics of the word “govern” makes the definition easier to read, and it puts it in the context of data management.

The Definition of “Govern”

  [to] gov·ern [data]

       v. gov·erned, gov·ern·ing, gov·erns

  • [To] make and administer the public policy and affairs [of data]
  • [To] exercise sovereign authority [in data]
  • [To] control the speed or magnitude [of data]
  • [To] regulate [data]
  • [To] control the actions or behavior [of data]
  • [To] keep under control [data]; to restrain [data]
  • [To] exercise a deciding or determining influence [on data]
  • [To] exercise political authority [over data]

FreeDictionary.com [wrapper by Bob Seiner]

You could stop reading the article here, and you could dissect the eight “identifying characteristics” of the definition of the word “govern” on your own as it relates to understanding what it means to you to “govern data.” In fact, you can make a list of some random thoughts about each of the characteristics and then formalize them into a list that you can share with your management who asks, “Why should we pay attention to Data Governance” and “What exactly does it mean to govern data”?

For those of you that continue, I will take a quick stab at walking through each of the eight characteristics briefly, and I will throw out a few bulleted thoughts regarding what it means to govern data as it relates to the specific characteristics of governing. Hopefully you can use this starter list to help people to understand what it means to “govern data.”

Identifying Characteristics of Governing

1.  To Make and Administer the Public Policy and Affairs of Data

  • Governing data means that data policy takes the form of written, approved (this is a key point), corporate (or organizational) documents.
  • Governing data means that you have a Data Governance Policy. That policy may be hidden under the name of Information Security Policy, Privacy Policy, Data Classification Policy (highly confidential, confidential, sensitive, public data), or something else.
  • Governing data means that your organization leverage the effort invested in development and approval of the policy rather than allowing the policy to become shelf-ware where very few people know how the policy is associated with the data they define, produce and use on a daily basis.

2.  To Exercise Sovereign Authority of Data

  • Governing data means that there is a way to resolve a difference of opinion on a cross-business data issue.
  • Governing data means that somebody (or some group of individuals) is the authority or has the authority to make decisions on that data.
  • Governing data means that there is an escalation path from the operational to the tactical to the strategic level of the organization for decision making. Rarely does governing data require escalation of data issues to the executive level.

3.  To Control the Speed or Magnitude of Data

  • Governing data means that data is shared according to the classification (confidential, sensitive, public) rules associated with that data.
  • Governing data means that the creation of new versions of the same data is scrutinized closely to manage and eliminate the redundancy of data.
  • Governing data means that people do not place critical or confidential data in harm’s way by quickly (and without knowing the rules) making copies of data that does not follow the same scrutiny and governance as the data in its native form.

4.  To Regulate Data

  • Governing data means that the data regulations associated with your industry and business are documented and recorded in a place that is easily accessible to every person that defines, produces and uses data as part of his/her daily job.
  • Governing data means that someone has the responsibility to translate the regulations into appropriate and actionable behavior associated with the regulated data and that this behavior is communicated to the appropriate operational, tactical, strategic and supporting levels of your organization.
  • Governing data means that there are consequences associated with not following the behaviors associated with the regulations and that there is an appropriate network of people and responsibility in place to prevent, identify, and enforce the appropriate behaviors.

5.  To Control the Actions or Behavior of Data

  • Governing data means that appropriate processes are put in place and monitored to manage the definition, production and usage of data at all levels of the organization.
  • Governing data means that proactive and reactive processes are defined, approved and followed at all levels of the organization and that situations where these procedures are not followed can be identified, prevented and resolved.
  • Governing data means that the appropriate behaviors around data are brought to the forefront of your staff’s thought processes rather than being pushed to the back of their minds as an “inconvenience” or a “nice to have.”

6.  To Keep Under Control and to Restrain Data

  • Governing data means that access to data is managed, secured and audit-able by classification (confidential, sensitive, public, …) and that processes and responsibilities are put in place to assure the access privileges are only granted to appropriate individuals.
  • Governing data means that all individuals understand the rules associated with importing data into spreadsheets, loading data to laptops, transmitting data, … any activity that removes the data from its native source.
  • Governing data means that the rules associated with managing hard copy versions of data are well documented and communicated to those individuals that generate, receive or distribute those hard copies.

7.  To Exercise a Deciding or Determining Influence of Data

  • Governing data means that the “right” people are involved at the “right” time for the “right” reason in order to influence that the “right” decision is made about the “right” data.
  • Governing data means that the information about “who” in the organization does “what” with the data is completely recorded, shared and understood across the organization. This provides the ability to get the “rights” right.
  • Governing data means that there is a formal escalation path for known data issues that moves from operational (business-unit specific) to the tactical (cross business unit) to the strategic (enterprise) to the person or people that are identified as the authorities on that specific use of that data.

8.  To Exercise Political Authority of Data

  • Governing data means that somebody or some group of people have the authority to make decisions for the enterprise when it comes to data that impacts the enterprise.
  • Governing data means that the political nature of decision making is leveraged in making the tactical and strategic decisions that best benefit the enterprise.
  • Governing data means that there is a formal escalation path for known data issues that moves from operational (business-unit specific) to the tactical (cross business unit) to the strategic (enterprise) to person or people that are identified as the authorities on that specific use of that data.


The few bullet points I have listed under each of the identifying characteristics of the definition of the word “Govern” have been provided to assist you in getting a jump-start on explaining to people that ask what it means to govern data. Once you have answered the question of what it means to “govern data,” the next question they will ask is “What is the best way to govern data?”  And to that question you can answer … the Non-Invasive Data Governance™ approach.


Non-Invasive Data Governance™ is a registered trademark of Robert S. Seiner & KIK Consulting


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About Robert S. Seiner

Robert S. (Bob) Seiner is the publisher of The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN.com) – and has been since it was introduced in 1997 – providing valuable content for people that work in Information & Data Management and related fields. TDAN.com is known for its timely and relevant articles, columns and features from thought-leaders and practitioners. Seiner and TDAN.com were recognized by DAMA International for significant and demonstrable contributions to Information and Data Resource Management industries. Seiner is the President and Principal of KIK Consulting & Educational Services, a data and information management consultancy that he started in 2002, providing practical and cost-effective solutions in the disciplines of data governance, data stewardship, metadata management and data strategy. Seiner is a recognized industry thought-leader, has consulted with and educated many prominent organizations nationally and globally, and is known for his unique approach to implementing data governance. His book “Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success” was published in late 2014. Seiner speaks often at the industry’s leading conferences and provides a monthly webinar series titled “Real-World Data Governance” with DATAVERSITY.

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