Crossing the Data Divide: Closing Gaps in Perception of Data as Corporate Asset

It’s my great pleasure and honor to begin as a columnist for has a long and distinguished record of giving voice to ideas in the data space and I will do my best to continue that tradition.

The Crossing the Data Divide column will be aimed at data leaders. That is to say, people who have a responsibility to apply the use of data for achieving key business objectives. These objectives include growth, efficiency, and compliance. Indirectly, that is everyone who works in data, but my focus is the budget holders, decision-makers, and people whose peers are managing other core business functions such as finance, human resources, production, etc.

The divide is the challenge data leaders face pivoting their organization’s culture to one that is driven by data. That challenge has many facets including technology, but perhaps even more importantly, it includes change management, communication, planning, literacy, and a whole host of other things. This is the fertile ground that I will plow in this column.

Challenging Perceptions and Piercing Cliches

We believe data is a critical corporate asset, right? Of course, but you would expect that, after all, we are the data people. We also see a lot of business leaders’ heads nod when the cliches ‘data is the new oil’ or ‘data is a core corporate asset’ are used. I want to test this, almost reflexive, response by drilling down and examining what that means compared to other corporate assets.

What are other key corporate assets? The clearest and most tangible assets are money, people, and physical property. Intellectual property (IP) is also a clear corporate asset but is a bit less tangible than the others. Customers sort of fall in between being considered external stakeholders and internal assets. That is a bit of an academic debate. It’s indisputable that they are critical.

How does a corporation validate and demonstrate that these are truly key corporate assets? First, they have leaders who are responsible for their management and effective use. For money, it’s the Chief Financial Officer. For people, it’s the Chief Human Resource Officer. For physical property, it can be the Chief Operating Officer or head of asset management. For IP, it’s typically a Chief Legal Officer, but it can also be a Chief Intellectual Property Officer. For customers is the Chief Revenue Officer or Chief Customer Officer.

Who is responsible for data and is the peer of these leaders? Obviously, it’s the Chief Information Officer (CIO), who has a Head of Data Management and frequently also has a Chief Data Officer (CDO). So, check that box.

Second, these other corporate assets have widely accepted standards and in some cases, regulations requiring specific management procedures. For instance, General Accepted Account Principles (GAAP) and federal and state labor laws.

What do we have for data assets? Well, our profession is younger, so our standards are less mature, but I would argue that data management standards and methods for assessing their implementation do exist. For example, the EDM Council’s, Data Management Capability Assessment Model (DCAM). So, even though their implementation may be spotty, I am still going to give us a check of that box as well.

Third, there is governance and oversight of those who are responsible are managing assets. In the accounting world, it’s outside auditors. In most other cases, it’s a Chief Risk Officer with a responsibility to a board-level governance committee. They use a risk management framework to identify risk, define controls that the leaders must put in place, and collect evidence that these controls (processes) are being performed.

What do we have in the data world? Typically, we have a data governance organization, but they report to the CIO. That’s a problem because of an obvious conflict of interest.  If data is a corporate asset that is equivalent to the others then its oversight should be included in the corporate risk management and governance process. Not having this fosters the perception of data really not being as crucial as other assets.

This does not mean the data governance team goes away or they change who they report to. It only means they should integrate and coordinate with the corporate governance body and process. So, for this one, I cannot check the box. 

Fourth, key assets are all managed in systems that are considered their authoritative source. Customers are managed in a CRM system. Employees are managed in an HRM system. Accounting and finance have ERP systems and for physical property, it’s an asset management system.

What is our equivalent in the data world? Whoops. Now we have run into trouble. Is it the data warehouse, data lake, catalog, data governance platform, or internal marketplace? If we are really honest with ourselves, we know it’s not really any one of those. None of them is complete and comprehensive enough to be the authoritative system for all enterprise data. When I say complete, I am including transactional, analytics, structured, and unstructured across multi-cloud and hybrid architectures. I will share an opinion regarding the solution, but first, let’s examine the negative impact.

Like it or not, fair or not, when the CIO can’t point to a single unified system for understanding all the enterprise’s data assets, the perception is that they do not have the same mastery and control over their assets as their peers. We, as data experts, know there are reasons for that and that it’s really hard, but the old saying comes to mind, ‘perception is reality’. For those who are not data experts, it forms an impression that data is not really a key corporate asset with the same standing as the others. That is bad for the CIO, but more importantly is really bad for the enterprise, because it contributes to perpetuating a state of low data maturity where trust and confidence are undermined. It also makes the already difficult job of leading a shift to a data-centric culture almost impossible.


So, what is the answer? I firmly believe CIOs and CDOs need to move away from trying to ‘sell’ the organization on data governance, data lakes, etc. as the authoritative data asset systems. I am not saying these things are not important and needed. What I am suggesting is that our data leaders need to elevate their vision and messaging to describe a new type of system that is the authoritative reference for all enterprise data assets. This new type of system needs to take its place next to the ERP, CRM, and HRM systems within the enterprise. This means it must provide value for everyone, both technical and non-technical, and also provide context for data assets that include its trustworthiness, source, owner, experts, reviews, and much more, all wrapped in a consumer-grade user interface experience.

What is this system? I call it a social data fabric (SDF). That term has been used lightly in the social media world, but I am commandeering it for our purposes. I define an SDF system as a combination of an enterprise data catalog and an internal marketplace where employees can explore and ‘shop’ for data. The catalog portion of the system should ingest and manage a broad number of data, business intelligence, and data-related assets such as term glossaries, KPIs, analytic models, and business processes. The marketplace portion of the platform should expose a portion of the rich curated metadata in the catalog to users with varying degrees of interest and skill. It should also inform, enforce, and provide data provisioning based on policies and usage contracts. The essence of an SDF is that it fully supports both data producers and consumers, which ends up being everyone in the enterprise.

In a future column, I will delve more deeply into describing the full characteristics of an SDF system, including the social interaction and knowledge-gathering aspect, but for now, I am returning to the primary point.

If data is to be a corporate asset equivalent to others and we want to move an organization up the data culture maturity curve, then we need two things:

  1. We need to integrate the governance of data, with the corporate governance process, demonstrating that it’s equally important as other assets.
  2. We need a business-facing enterprise system that is universally accepted as the authoritative reference for data assets.

Achieving both of these will require strong leadership, but the reward for the CIO and CDO who accomplishes this is the elevation of their standing in the enterprise and also positioning themselves to lead the enterprise up the next rung of maturity toward a data-centric culture.

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John Wills

John Wills

John Wills is the Founder & Principal of Prentice Gate Advisors and is focused on advisory consulting, writing, and speaking about data architecture, data culture, data governance, and cataloging. He is the former Field CTO at Alation, where he focused on research & development, catalog solution design, and strategic customer adoption. He also started Alation’s Professional Services organization and is the author of Alation’s Book of Knowledge, implementation methodology, data catalog value index, bot pattern, and numerous implementation best practices. Prior to Alation, he was VP of Customer Success at Collibra where he had responsibility for building and managing all post-sales business functions. In addition, authored Collibra’s first implementation methodology. John has 30+ years of experience in data management with a number of startups and service providers. He has expertise in data warehousing, BI, data integration, metadata, data governance, data quality, data modeling, application integration, data profiling, and master data management. He is a graduate of Kent State University and holds numerous architecture certifications including ones from IBM, HP, and SAP.

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