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Should data governance have a stand-alone team in your company?

By Ariane Bernard

INMA

New York, Paris

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In media, data governance tends not to be a stand-alone function — at least at the present moment. It tends to be handled by a mix of IT folks (integrity of system access), some engineering stakeholders with good vision over your platform architecture, and key data stakeholders who are closer to data design (and so understand, roughly speaking, what data flows are in service of what piece of your data-driven product).

In organisational terms, this means data governance is often handled by folks who combine both strategic and operational responsibilities. 

Data governance often is handled by a people on a variety of teams, yet a dedicated team may be what's best.
Data governance often is handled by a people on a variety of teams, yet a dedicated team may be what's best.

As someone who comes from product, I have a favourable bias toward this type of scenario. As many a product person will tell you, there’s nothing more frustrating than being handed a mandate from the ivory-tower strategy team — which entirely ignores how this company actually works or how systems actually get built.

But as data organisations mature and grow, the usefulness — and perhaps even the necessity — for a more (if not fully) dedicated data governance function grows. 

News UK, for example, expanded its data governance function. “We have built a bigger team for governance, giving them more influence and more power,” said Pedro Cosa, News UK’s data general manager, when he presented at our Smart Data Initiative module of INMA’s World News Congress of News Media earlier this month. “Governance was sitting somewhere as an unknown team, unknown function. We definitely wanted to elevate data governance as something that can unlock a lot of value for us.”

I found this remark particularly interesting because, dear reader, I had never thought of governance as a place to create strength for the data operation. My thinking of governance was that it was a place to create clarity, order, enshrine non-arbitrary rules for decision making.

I thought of governance the way I think of good management in general: If a group of individuals had perfect vision of the totality of your systems, they’d naturally be able to bring more order to it. There would be fewer aberrations, repetitions, dead branches. Better documentation. All good and desirable things, certainly. But I hadn’t particularly considered the angle of governance needing to exist from a place of strength.

But strength, of course (she says now), is what it’s about. Because something that is easily overlooked when strategy and operations are separate is that strategy is inherently weak and operation is inherently powerful.

Put another way: You can spell out policies and goals, but whoever is the doer still gets the final say. Or, put another way, when the ivory-tower strategy team comes down to deliver an idealistic mandate for the product/engineering team to execute, they forget that while the product team may seem like they have been streamrolled, they will ultimately do what they want. 

So how do you give strength to governance?

One avenue is creating it as a stand-alone function, like Pedro Cosa mentioned. It means that you’re not so much splitting the focus of folks sitting astride operational and strategic purviews. And this model, while less common in media, has been prevalent in other “hard” industries for a while. 

A couple of weeks ago in a meeting with the Smart Data Initiative advisory Torstar’s Souleles mentioned his own experience working at Bell Canada, the telecom company. “We had a full-time team focused on that because in a big organisation with 55,000 employees and …. millions and hundreds of metrics, you needed that functionality. It wasn’t a big team ... maybe two or three people,” but their goal was to make sure there was alignment on the definition and usage of data points even was before this data was being created. 

Pedro’s own goal with governance was preventing what he called the “mushrooms” of data that would crop up with repeating or overlapping data sets and tools. But what John identified as a key preoccupation was data design — the creation of metrics or data items that would be coherent across the company. 

The presence of a dedicated function would mean that the single focus of a group of collaborators is to create a coherent, strong foundation for the data organisation to work — and for the organisation to lean on data that is coherent throughout. 

I still think a purely strategic mandate has the inherent fragility of being subject to operational “interpretation” (whether willfully different or just not being executed quite like what was put on paper). But putting governance as its own function does address one fragility of such a purview: When governance is wrapped in the jobs of collaborators with other responsibilities, these collaborators just don’t have singularity of focus. By definition. And everybody looks for ways to bend the rules and for an easier path here or there.

Our messy data is not usually made messy by any one bad action or thoughtless application. It’s a collection of small adjustments and corners cut — of rules we ignored “this one time.” 

So this place of strength that Pedro was speaking of is actually a place of focus. Governance made stronger because it is, in fact, the only preoccupation of a group of people rather than a general responsibility spread across various functions whose purviews, on paper, aren’t strictly governance.

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About Ariane Bernard

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