Driving Data Governance, but Keeping It a Secret

Is the term <em>governance</em> too heavy for today’s business audience?

Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

Not once, not twice, but three times in recent conversations with different people under different circumstances, the same basic thought has emerged. Data governance is growing in importance to the business, but it needs to be called by a different name to be acceptable for discussion with a broad business audience:

  • “Organizations are practicing stealth data governance,” said one chief data officer (CDO), “because no one will attend a meeting where the stated topic is data governance.”
  • “Organizations want data governance, but they can’t call it by that name,” said an IT industry analyst. “Governance sounds like something that will slow down business, not speed it up.”
  • “The individuals charged with driving data governance are calling it by different names,” said a governance consultant. “They want their initiatives to succeed, and a term with such heavy baggage can get in the way.”

A reputation for being ponderous

Whether the term is data governance or information governance—sometimes they are used interchangeably; sometimes using “information” signals a broader definition that includes unstructured information as well as structured data—it sounds important. No organization wants its critical information to be ungoverned—in other words, out of control.

And yet, years of experience with governance of all types, including corporate governance and information governance, have left a legacy of processes that appear slow and costly, and that seem out of step with the current requirement for fast turnaround, real-time information, instant gratification, and self-service everything. Can a concept based on standards, policies, and controls exist within an always-on environment?

There is a logical basis to the assumption that governance is a ponderous task. If the identical processes are followed for all types of information—from all sources within and beyond the organization, for all intended uses, from financial reporting to market trend analysis—then governance may well be too cumbersome. And it may well be too brittle for the world of big data and the Internet of Things. The term governance may correctly conjure up images of big committees and tedious reviews of data for accuracy, currency, relevance, and sensitivity.

But people, processes, and technology have come a long way since data governance pioneers started charting best practices. People have gained experience that can be shared easily with newcomers. Processes have become highly automated, to the point where many governance-related steps can be made available to application developers and business users with self-service immediacy.1

Technology now includes capabilities such as big data matching, collaborative stewardship centers,2 de-identification of data3 moving in and out of Apache Hadoop repositories, and shared catalogs of data4 to be defined and governed according to business rules. There’s a new recognition that data governance needs to be adaptable, with requirements and processes varying by data type and intended use.

Despite the cognitive dissonance between speed and control, current information governance capabilities are keeping up with the new demands caused by the speed and proliferation of data from all sources. These up-to-date capabilities are a good thing because those factors are bringing the need for control to the awareness of the business community.

Growth despite the name

Today, large organizations that started their data governance journeys several years ago are continuing to improve their organizations and adapt their programs to encompass advanced architectures, data types, and sources. Sometimes a new CDO is a key player and leader. Other organizations that may have had an unsuccessful attempt at a governance initiative a few years ago are now embracing the increased importance of data to the organization and giving governance another try. Learning from their mistakes, they are typically making a broad effort to line up executive support—and finding that it makes a big difference to the success of the program.

Still other organizations that have never launched a governance initiative are doing it today. And they are making sure their approaches encompass Hadoop, the Internet of Things, social media data sources, and other current data realities right from the start. The following examples represent just a few successful outcomes for organizations that have recently lined up support and are driving data governance:

  • A US marketing organization was able to engage its C-level executives to connect the importance of information governance to critical business initiatives and processes.
  • A large financial services firm has been able to introduce governance disciplines into its new Hadoop ecosystem—very quickly and with little resistance from business partners.
  • A Midwestern US manufacturing company leveraged a new governance initiative to accelerate collaboration between business and IT to help drive an advanced revenue stream that leverages big data.

Across industries, organizations are successfully deploying data governance in alignment with and in support of business priorities.

Governance by any other name

If the need for data governance is growing, and the recognition of that need by the business is growing, what language should be used to change its perception of something heavy and slow to something adaptable, fast, and focused on the business? Can data governance be reframed as a business enabler and a confidence builder? Is there a need for a different term or a refreshed image for the existing term?

Andrew White, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, has commented that the word governance, suggesting control from above, may be partly responsible for concerns that governance is all about a Big Brother approach rather than one that brings value to the business. According to White, “Replacing it with terms such as ‘stewardship’ or ‘custodianship’ might help to allay any fears users have in that regard.”5

Data stewardship? Data custodianship? Data value management? Is there a term that gets to the heart of the value of data governance to the business and that resonates with both businesspeople and IT? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

1 IBM® DataWorks™ technology website at
2 Master Data Management website at
3 InfoSphere Data Privacy for Hadoop website at
4 InfoSphere Information Governance Catalog website at
5Master data! Master data! My Supply Chain for Master Data!” by Andrew White, Supply Chain Quarterly, Technology, Q2 2013.