Battling Data Demons with Data Governance

ART01x - image_rIntroduction

The stories you hear on the news often mention how this person or that person was battling their demons. Alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive behaviors like gambling … Demons take many forms. They almost never result in good things happening. The word “demon” does not describe something that inspires you to do something good – and that should be what we hear and read about. But demons rule the day.

Organizations have demons too. Just like people, some organizations are battling those demons and some know they have demons and do not attempt to address them. Organizational demons may be politically-based, culturally-based, gender-based or even … Data-based.

Data demons ‒ defined (by me) as data-related behaviors that we know are wrong and we continue to employ ‒ run amuck in many organizations. Many organizations work on these demons daily and many have a difficult time acknowledging that they have demons. Let’s look at the forms these data demons take, and what can be done to address them.

Data Demons generally take three forms:

  1. Data Definition Demons
  2. Data Production Demons
  3. Data Usage Demons

Data Definition Demons

Let’s start where data is defined. Data definition takes place throughout data modeling exercises, software package implementation, application development, incorporation of external big data sources, and by going back and defining databases and system or data warehouse data that has evolved (read “become bastardized”) and been used over time.

Data should be well-defined at the beginning of its lifecycle so that it is well understood throughout that lifecycle. Sufficient data definition requires thorough collection and development of data requirements, which is one area where organizations have data demons. Taking the time to collect business data requirements and develop sound business definitions for data has not always been the focus of traditional information system development methods. Agile development efforts have further complicated matters by requiring quick and incremental delivery of complex information systems, leaving little time to flush out data problems while accumulating data debt.

Data Governance can battle Data Definition Demons in many ways. Data Governance calls for “executing and enforcing authority over data,” meaning that authority must be used to make certain that data is defined to the degree that it will assist the organization to get the most out of that data.

Data Governance can battle Data Definition Demons by formalizing the involvement of the “right” people at the “right” time in the data definition process and by getting the “right” people to authorize that a data definition is thorough and complete.

Data Definition includes many types of metadata including business description and naming of the data, data lineage and location, business rules, and compliance and handling rules … Whatever the organization determines is important to squeeze maximum value out of their data.

Data Definition Demons become evident when the data definition is not complete or shareable / shared with the business users of that data. If business people do not understand the data, know where they can find the “right” data, and don’t know how they can use the data, Data Definition Demons are among you.

Data Production Demons

Data must be produced to meet business needs. The production of data can have demons too. Data Production Demons rear their ugly heads when the people or process responsible for producing data do not understand why the data is being collected and how it will be used. Cashiers entering the store’s zip code rather than the customer’s zip code, office staff reordering patient diagnosis codes, accepting default data rather than entering correct data and sharing data that is supposed to be held private are all results of people not being held formally accountable for how they are producing data.

Data Production Demons are the result of an inability to communicate effectively with your data source stewards regarding how the data must “look” when it is transferred, the inability to prevent bad data from getting into the systems, or the poor timing or quality of required data sources.

Data Production Demons may result from laziness, or allowing a customer to be added to the central customer database a second, third or “eighteenth” time (spelled or abbreviated differently as a person on the phone with me stated minutes ago). This same demon may appear because the customer information is housed in numerous unsynchronized data stores. This same demon may appears for vendors, doctors, patients, or whoever is the customer of (or has an important relationship with) your business.

Data Production Demons are often a result of Data Definition Demons – where data is not defined completely or accurately, making it impossible for quality data production.

Data Governance can battle Data Production Demons by, again, getting the “right” people involved at the “right” time with the “right” understanding and “right” limitations to produce quality data.

Remember that my definition of Data Governance is “executing and enforcing authority over data” meaning that authority must be used to make certain that data is produced in such a manner that it will assist the organization to get the most out of that data.

Data Usage Demons

Data Usage Demons may be the most prevalent demons in organizations. Data Usage Demons result from improper or ineffective use of data for many reasons: lack of understanding, lack of access, lack of knowing the handling rules, lack of consistency and quality … You name it.

Data Definition and Data Production Demons result in poor data quality that makes it difficult to improve efficiency and effectiveness of data usage. Executives want dashboards and consistent answers when they ask critically important questions. Strategic people want to use data to help them make daily enterprise-level decisions. Tactical people want to use data to research and develop great products, services and customer relationships. Operational people need to use data to perform their daily responsibilities.

Data Usage Demons rear their ugly heads every time someone says “just give me all of the data and then I will tell you what data I need,” or use data that they don’t fully understand.

Data Usage Demons result in grueling processes associated with “pulling the right data together“ for a variety of purposes – customer reporting, government or industry reporting, or to respond to an Executive’s request for “numbers.”

Not to be repetitive here, but Data Governance can battle Data Usage Demons in many ways. Data Governance calls for “executing … data” meaning that authority must be used to make certain that data is used efficiently and effectively to get the most out of using that data, protecting sensitive data and sharing data to become the data-centric organization of the present and future. These demons require improved communications and awareness about the data that is being governed.


Data Demons can be nasty little buggers … Or they can be a big nuisance … Or they can be what prevents the organization from being all it can be. You may recognize that your organization has a few Data Demons, or maybe it has many.

If you let the demons fester, you can expect things to stay the same – reporting and decision-making will not improve, data inefficiency and ineffectiveness will continue to be a liability, and the people of your organization will become demons themselves as they find their own way to solve data matters because of a lack of formal governance.

Implement an effective Data Governance program to battle your Data Demons. Data Governance is the only way to apply formal accountability for data, execute and enforce authority for data and deal with the fiends, ogres and behemoths that we are.

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Robert S. Seiner

Robert S. Seiner

Robert (Bob) S. Seiner is the President and Principal of KIK Consulting & Educational Services and the Publisher Emeritus of The Data Administration Newsletter. Seiner is a thought-leader in the fields of data governance and metadata management. KIK (which stands for “knowledge is king”) offers consulting, mentoring and educational services focused on Non-Invasive Data Governance, data stewardship, data management and metadata management solutions. Seiner is the author of the industry’s top selling book on data governance – Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success (Technics Publications 2014) and the followup book - Non-Invasive Data Governance Strikes Again: Gaining Experience and Perspective (Technics 2023), and has hosted the popular monthly webinar series on data governance called Real-World Data Governance (w Dataversity) since 2012. Seiner holds the position of Adjunct Faculty and Instructor for the Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College Chief Data Officer Executive Education program.

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