More Than One Way to Skin a Data Governance Cat

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I love an unexpected analogy. Therefore I was quite taken with Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality blogger Jim Harris's comparison of how most organizations approach data governance to the buttered cat thought experiment in which folks ponder what would happen if one dropped a cat with a piece of buttered toast strapped to its back from a lofty height. As Harris writes:

... Presumably the very laws of physics would be suspended, leaving our fearless feline of the buttered-toast-paratrooper brigade hovering forever in midair, spinning in perpetual motion, as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat's feet attempt to land on the ground.

(You must click through to Harris's post, if for no other reason than to see the cartoon illustrating this "buttered cat paradox.")


Harris says many organizations find themselves in the same uncomfortable state as this kitty when they consider whether they should adopt a top-down approach to data governance, which stresses executive sponsorship and the role of the data governance board, or a bottom-up approach more focused on data stewardship and the role of peer-level data governance change agents.


Many organizations recognize the need for all of these things, become overwhelmed and find themselves "hovering forever in mid-decision, spinning in perpetual thought, unable to land a first footfall on their data governance journey-and afraid of falling flat on the buttered side of their toast," Harris says.


He concludes his post with a poll, asking readers to vote for one of four data-governance approaches: top-down approach, bottom-up approach, a hybrid approach that begins top-down or a hybrid approach that begins bottom-up. The winner, with 16 of 28 responses or 57 percent of the vote, is top-down hybrid, followed by bottom-up hybrid with 35 percent.


That gets my vote as well. I think most enterprise initiatives work best if they have strong executive support. To be truly effective, this support should give employees a feeling of empowerment. You want employees to say, "Yes! Right on! We can do it!" You don't want them to mutter, "Yeah, right."


But guess what? Things rarely go that smoothly. IT Business Edge contributor Loraine Lawson gave this data governance issue some thought in September. She concluded that while an executive-championed initiative had the best chance of succeeding, at many organizations data governance ends up under the purview of the IT organization.


Some survey results she shared last month bear this out. More than 40 respondents to a CBR survey, for example, said IT was responsible for organization-wide data governance. When asked to name barriers to data governance, respondents said: too complex, senior management doesn't see it as important (uh-oh), individual business units won't buy into it and lack of resources.


Loraine's pragmatic advice for organizations struggling with these issues is to start where you are. (Bonus: It sounds like a Dr. Seuss title.) She writes:

Ideally, data governance should be a top-down initiative with strong executive sponsorship. Forrester's Rob Karel says executive buy-in is the big key to success with data governance. He recommends focusing on the business process to increase momentum. But sometimes, you've got to start where you are, and realistically, data governance tends to be a bottom-up effort. IT should be able to work with that-after all, you've had practice with other initiatives that started in IT and then spread out to the business, including project management and computers in general.

IT will probably find a more receptive audience with business folks if it's able to link good data quality with the success of initiatives that are getting a lot of good general buzz right now, such as business intelligence.