The Business of Data

Data Governance Has an Image Problem

Welcome back Donna Burbank as a regular columnist on the pages of Visit during the second month of each quarter for Donna’s new column The Business of Data.

Let’s face it—data governance typically isn’t seen as the most glamorous of tasks in an organization. Compared to flashy new campaigns such as online marketing, or cool new technologies like Big Data analytics, data governance is typically placed a step below other tedious tasks such as expense reporting and timesheets in terms of the “hipness” factor. As such, it’s often difficult to get funding and buy-in for new data governance initiatives.

Why is this the case? Certainly, finance and accounting, while not seen as particularly exciting business functions, are given high priority in an organization. Press releases and company meetings are launched around each new financial report. Those flashy new technologies such as Big Data analytics are at their core rather technical and dry in their implementation. Big Data is hot.

So why, in an era where more and more organizations see data as a competitive differentiator and a critical part of their strategic plans, is data governance given short shrift? Why is it that, even when there is support from the highest levels in the organization, often at the CEO and/or CIO level, data governance initiatives fail to gain traction within the organization?

This is where the “image problem” for data governance comes into play. As difficult as it may be for us to hear, we as data professionals are often responsible for the lack of enthusiasm for data governance. To put it bluntly, we data professionals are guilty of making data governance:

  • Confusing and overly technical
  • Unrelated to employees’ primary tasks
  • Sound difficult and complicated

Why Should We Care? Aligning with Business Motivation

Most organizations have corporate mission statement and principles and many of these are readily available, being posted on the company’s website and/or in posters lining the walls in meeting rooms and corridors. How often do we stop to see how data governance initiatives support the key drivers of the organization?  As any good salesperson will tell you, to effectively sell a product or service, you need to first understand the core motivations and drivers of the person you’re selling to. And, whether we like it or not, part of our job is sales when we’re trying to achieve buy-in for our data governance initiatives.

Say for instance that you work for an online sports retailer whose tagline is “Workout Wear for the Way You Live”, and whose mission statement is “Helping Everyday People Integrate Exercise into Their Daily Lives”. You might think that, on the surface, nothing about this company shouts data governance. But let’s take a closer look. What are the data-driven levers that the organization can work with to achieve its mission?

Core to any retail organization are customers, so that is a logical place to start. Do some investigation into what customer-centric programs are underway where better data could help. For example, perhaps there is a customer segmentation project run by the Sales department, an online marketing campaign from the Marketing department, and a billing automation project sponsored by the Finance department. All of these initiatives require robust customer data at their core.

Even the most cash-rich organizations have limited resources, however, so it’s key to prioritize activities. Which initiative does it make the most sense to start with for a data governance project? Generally, it is best to start small with one identifiable, time-boxed initiative, show success, and then move on to another high-value initiative, gaining buy-in and goodwill as word of mouth spreads the success you’ve achieved. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t try to boil the ocean”, and that holds true with data governance as with any project.

How do you choose that key project to start with? There are many factors in the decision, but here are three to begin:

  • How open is the staff to working with you? Some teams are more open to working with you than others—that’s the nature of any organization. So give thought to the people aspect, which we’ll address in more detail in the next section.
  • How visible is the project within the company? With this one, use the “Goldilocks Principle” – you want a project that is not mission critical, but not unheard of either. For example, picking the mission-critical launch of a new website, while highly visible, may not be the best place to start. The chances of failure are high given the high-pressure environment and competing objectives, and the visibility of a failure would be high as well. Similarly, choosing a legacy system that is about to be sunset would be a bad choice for obvious reasons. Pick a project where success will be highly visible but not necessarily mission-critical.
  • How complex is the data challenge? Give consideration to the complexity of the problem. A new program to integrate a ‘single view of customer’ integrating Customer MDM with Big Data Analytics may be highly visible with staff who are motivated to work with you, but that might be too big of a task to undertake initially. Is there a subset of that initiative that you can start with? For example, try working on governance and quality around customer contact information.

In our example, using the criteria above, you use the marketing department as your first target. They have a new, targeted campaign aimed at new customers over the age of 40, which is in clear need of better customer data. They have a defined budget and visibility with upper management. Once you explained how you could help them get better data that would improve their campaign, they were eager to work with you. The key to getting their buy-in so quickly was to explain how data governance can help them do their jobs better. This generally works better than making this something they have to do—make it something they want to do.

What Do I Need to Do? Demystifying Data Governance

Along a similar vein, I’ve had a number of business stakeholders tell me “I know that data governance is important, I just don’t know what I need to do to make it happen”.  Somewhere between the top-down directive from upper management and the bottom-up efforts from IT exists the business stakeholders whose daily jobs are critical to the success of governance. It might be the support representative entering data, the finance clerk managing customer accounts, or the salesperson entering information into the CRM system—they all have a stake in better data governance.

In communicating governance tasks to business stakeholders, remember to

  • avoid technical jargon
  • align governance with stakeholder motivations and goals (i.e. what’s in it for me)
  • keep tasks as granular and clear as possible to avoid making them sound too complicated and time-consuming

Here’s a sampling of some ways to present common governance tasks in a way that uses the businessperson’s language and provides some rationale and motivation for the task.

  • List the most important pieces of information we need to know about customers, so that we focus on what’s critical to your business.
  • Define key business terms so that we can make sure information is used correctly.
  • Let us know when there is an issue with the data, so that we can get it resolved.

While all of the above are key aspects of data governance and stewardship, none of them should seem overly complex to the average business stakeholder.


Data is seen as increasingly important by more and organizations in today’s information-driven economy, and data governance is key to managing data effectively. By focusing on the success of the business, and not on the success of your governance project, you’ll have a better chance of getting buy-in from stakeholders. The goal is not to have people talking in the hallways about the great new governance project and their metadata repository, but to have them talking about the team who helped them get better data for that successful marketing campaign— then asking for help with another initiative.

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Donna Burbank

Donna Burbank

Donna Burbank, is a recognized industry expert in information management with over 20 years of experience in data management and enterprise architecture. She currently is the Managing Director of Global Data Strategy Ltd, an international data management consulting company. Her background is multi-faceted across consulting, product development, product management, brand strategy, marketing, and business leadership in organizations such as CA Technologies, Embarcadero Technologies, and PLATINUM Technologies. She has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa and speaks regularly at industry conferences. She has co-authored two books: Data Modeling for the Business and Data Modeling Made Simple with CA ERwin Data Modeler r8. She can be reached at and you can follow her on Twitter @donnaburbank.

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