Implement Data Governance Using the Hammer or the Soft Cushion

ART04x - image - EDOh no! Not the soft cushion!

Some people may recognize the use of the soft cushion as a torturous poking tool best represented in a 1970’s Monty Python (British comedy group – sketch called “The Comfy Chair”. In the hilarious sketch, an old woman accused of heresy (among other things) is being tortured with a soft cushion during an inquisition to gain information. You must see it (check it out on YouTube) to laugh-out-loud and understand.

I share this senseless story with you to demonstrate that there are always multiple ways to get things done. There is a painful way and there is a less painful way. This is especially true when it comes to instilling new discipline into an organization that is set in its ways. The discipline I want to inform you of today is that of governing data and information. The truth is it’s all in the technique.

From my experience, organizations are typically less than adequate (my way of saying crappy) – from an enterprise perspective – in the way they formally govern their data and information. Many organizations will acknowledge this as fact. These organizations lack formal governance around their primary big data sources that are increasing in number faster than you can say “Spanish Inquisition”. This is an important issue that must be addressed, and there are at least two options for how organizations can solve this problem.

Organizations can use 1) The Hammer or 2) The Soft Cushion. By the hammer, I mean to say that organizations can take a forceful, command-and-control, bonk-you-on-the-head approach to the governance of data, or they can take a kinder-and-gentler (might I say non-invasive) approach, like using the Soft Cushion, to encourage people to do the right thing. I will explain the difference between The Hammer and The Soft Cushion as it relates to how to instill the data governance discipline within your organization.

The Hammer

The Hammer approach to governing data requires massive amounts of top-down authority. The Hammer involves assigning people new responsibilities around how they manage data. The Hammer involves the definition of new meddlesome practices that people will follow, or they will suffer the consequences. This approach feels like someone is hitting you in the head with a hammer and implies that the governance over data is new and intrusive. Nobody like intrusive.

People have day jobs. Day jobs are the responsibilities people already have that must be recognized with acceptable business performance. Adding to this list of responsibilities potentially decreases the amount of time people have to complete their required assignments. This is not a good thing.

With the Hammer approach to data governance, people often push back from accepting new responsibilities. With this approach, people do not understand that the anticipated end result is addressing important data issues because all they see is more work, less time, and the same pay.

The Soft Cushion

The Soft Cushion approach to governing data focuses on formalizing people’s existing responsibilities for the data they define, produce, and use in their daily job. Formalizing accountability requires that you first document people’s existing relationships to data, and you formalize accountability based on these relationships. Let me explain.

There are three ways that people have a relationship to data. They can define, produce, and / or use data in their job function. Sometime people are related to the data in all three ways. This method of defining the actions people take with data simplifies how we can think of what needs to be governed about the data.

It makes sense to document who does what with your organization’s most important data. Ask the question of “Who has the responsibility for assuring data success in your organization’s most critical (or even less critical) data-oriented projects?”. Aren’t all projects data-oriented? These people are perfect examples of people that have a definition-based relationship to the data. Let’s call these people data definers because they already have data definition responsibilities.

To hold data definers formally responsible for their relationship to the data requires that the organization provide the resources, access to the business stakeholders, and provide governance of who gets involved when and who has the accountability for formal approvals of the data definition.

The same holds true for the data producers and users. Ask yourself “Who in the organization produces and / or uses each different type of data? Understand that to formally set up the governance of data with a Soft Cushion requires that rules are documented and communicated very effectively for how to produce and use data, but they are only enforced for those people that have these relationships to the data.


I am a Data Governance Consultant. I assist organizations in standing up programs that focus on successful governance of data and information. I broaden organizational understanding of how data governance can be implemented by formalizing existing relationships to data. I assist them to implement Data Governance using The Soft Cushion rather than The Hammer as the tool of choice. I call this approach Non-Invasive Data Governance. I have mentioned this in my publication many times. Interested in learning more?

Maybe with the next lesson we will talk about how to protect your data from someone with a banana. Again, a Monty Python-ism.

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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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