Why is data governance so hard?

Or is it? Maybe we just make it hard?

Two things struck us during a recent conversation. First of all, data governance is all too often considered as a project. This means that a budget needs to be set aside, a timeline proposed and people’s availability scheduled. To make things worthwhile, let’s then ask for the largest possible budget and realise as much as we can. This has some drawbacks. First, if we do obtain the budget, such a big bang approach often leads to long time-to-value and a lot of impact to the organisation through changing processes, roles, tools, etc. Second, people often start with textbook ‘ideal’ situations as a goal and try to remould their organisation to fit the idealised model. This, again, has high impact on the organisation and requires lots of change.

If anything, avoid change. Change is the single biggest friction point. And when change is inevitable, make sure you have clear change management in place to guide people. Nothing hurts adoption more than people feeling their job has just become harder.

Coming back to our first remark, data governance shouldn’t be regarded as a project but rather as a continuous effort. This means that quick wins can be scored, often by empowering people with processes and tools in what they’re already doing today. If end-users waste time looking for reports, give them an easy data discovery experience. If they struggle with understanding KPIs, offer a centralized data documentation portal. When choosing tools, don’t focus on a complex feature set, focus on the potential for broad user adoption. If these tools force people through too many screens or ask them to manually document too many fields, you’ve lost them. KISS* still does it!

Our second remark leads to a second conclusion: don’t mould your organisation to your governance model. Rather make your governance model fit the current organisation. This also means you can go step by step. For instance, people are documenting KPI’s and reports (probably in Excel sheets). Why not centralise that knowledge in a tool that’s as easy to fill as Excel but provides a more guided experience and a straightforward search functionality? Nobody took classes to use an online search engine, why should accessing corporate data be more tedious?

When traffic laws were introduced, they took into account the state of the roads, technical capabilities of cars and all the other occupants. As roads and cars got better, higher speed limits and rules were introduced. Now, as roads become more and more congested and people are on bikes or electric scooters, speeds must be reduced in certain areas. Governance is dynamic, an ever ongoing exercise. Therefore, instead of focusing on the what, one should start with the how. Define a modular framework and tools that can help put (and keep) the right governance in place. Look for beachhead efforts which can lead to the whole organisation adopting (or, if need be, rejecting) certain approaches.

Learn to walk before starting to run and get some easy wins under your belt. It’ll make climbing the whole ladder a lot easier.

* This insight was posted in March 2023. To dive deeper into this topic, read this story shared by our co-founder Pieter Delaere: To get far, lower the bar.