How to turn data from an inconvenience into an asset:
A short introduction to Data Governance

Mel Hodge, Head of Practice - Data Strategy and Governance 

Data should be one of your organisation's greatest assets. However, for many organisations, it’s their biggest problem. 

If you’ve ever had your teams complain that they have to spend time trying to make data make sense, you have individuals and teams developing their own personal methods of handling and sharing data, or you simply have teams who can’t or won’t engage with data, then data is the problem rather than the solution. 

To turn Data into the solution, you need your team to feel like data works for them, not that they work for data. How do you get to that stage? Through Data Governance. 

What is Data Governance? 

Data Governance is the foundation of any data initiative, and it’s the very first step to take if you want to become a truly data-driven organisation. 

It is the framework that keeps data usable, accessible, and protected, laying out the rules for data storage, delegating data responsibility, and identifying the stewards of your data. 

Data Governance is not a one-off project, but an ongoing activity. 

Why do we need Data Governance? 

The short answer is that data is too crucial not to manage properly. It’s one of your most valuable assets, if not the most valuable asset, and to lose control of it is to lose control of your operations. 

In specific cases, here’s what Data Governance addresses. 

Simple (but serious) misunderstandings 

There’s a quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that says “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Because both nations speak English, cultural and idiomatic differences can make communication harder, because one side thinks they understand what the other means. 

How does that apply to data? Well, take two departments — Finance and Marketing, for example. Then, take a business term — ‘customer’. To Finance, a ‘customer’ might be someone who has transacted with the business in the last 12 months. However, Marketing may include lapsed customers in a broader ‘customer’ definition, so to Marketing a customer is someone who has bought something at any point. 

It’s perfectly fine for those two departments to have different working definitions of ‘customer’, but it could cause problems when both are working together using customer data. Data governance creates a lingua franca for data. 

Data illiteracy 

On a related point, one of the cultural transformations that Data Governance drives is data literacy — the ability to derive meaningful information from the proper understanding and use of data.​ If people can’t express themselves in data terms or understand the vocabulary of data, they will also struggle to think critically about data, interpret it, and ask the right questions. 

Data literacy is critical to all employees, so that they can understand that data is not only the domain of data scientists, and they can meaningfully engage with it. 

Annoyance, resentment, and wasted time 

At Agile Solutions we speak to users as well as leaders when we are establishing how to approach a Data Governance framework. In one case, one interviewee told us “I spend about 80% of my time trying to make the data make sense.” 

If the data makes sense when the user receives or accesses it, then they don’t waste valuable time trying to cleanse or interpret it, but instead get to actually use it. Plus when data makes sense, it’s not a source of frustration or resentment, but a source of progress. 

That sense is what Data Governance safeguards. 

How does Data Governance work? 

Data Governance uses people, processes, and technology to ensure that your organisation can manage data the way it needs to. 

Here are some of the questions that Data Governance poses: 

  • What data does the organisation use, and how do we structure it?  
  • Where and how will we source, store, and access the data? 
  • How clean is the data? How can we improve and maintain cleanliness? 
  • Who is allowed access to what data, on what basis? 

What does good Data Governance look like? 

How to know when you have a strong Data Governance framework: 

  • You know where data is stored, who can access it and for what purpose? 
  • Subject Access Requests are easy because data is properly understood, classified, and categorised. 
  • People who need data have data. 
  • Data is presented in a standardised and consistent way 

Sometimes businesses make the mistake of investing in the trappings of Data Governance, rather than Data Governance itself. For example, they might imagine that if they hire or appoint data stewards, then they will take care of Data Governance. However, if they haven’t implemented policies and regulations, then there is nothing to steward. 

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to good Data Governance, but Agile Solutions can help you derive the full value from your data. We deliver data projects as they should be — swift, effective, and delivering commercial value at each step. We can design a data governance framework that is bespoke to your organisation. Find out more about the Agile approach to Data Governance here.