Decoding Data Governance: Going Beyond its Name

Author: Jim Barker

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet. The famous adage of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet was intended to make the point that there is little in a name and the two young lovers should be together at the house of Montague.


In that case, there is little meaning to a name. The same could be said for the title “data governance.” Many argue about the name for data governance and want to avoid the name or activity altogether. I would argue that there is so much good that comes from the core set of data governance activities; we need to get beyond the name and focus on the needs and benefits.


Data enablement 

There has been a movement to rename data governance. Atlan pushed the idea that data governance is enablement at DGIQ in 2022, and it was expanded by many. They had a big sign on their booth that said “governance = enablement.” Late last year, Bob Seiner did a piece in TDAN on the topic: Making the Case for Data Enablement (Rather Than Data Governance). In the piece, Seiner talks about the benefits of the positive spin that this renaming provides, something that, at its heart, I support. Talking about the positive side of data operations is a big deal. Seiner also describes the challenges around lack of accountability, reduced focus on maturity, and not getting the support for cultural change.


The idea in this rename of data enablement is that data governance sounds scary, and renaming it softens the message to gain executive support. Some firms successfully made the name change, and it helped get that elusive leadership support. In my view, if that works, all power is given to those who make that change, but there needs to be one massive caveat.


Firms that designate data governance as data enablement need to make sure that they are addressing the core aspects of data governance. These include data quality, data privacy, data security, compliance, and supporting the actions related to collecting details as part of their dataOps execution (building data capabilities with populated business and technical metadata, as well as appropriate job aids and knowledge transfer devices).


The big picture  

Over the last several years, there has been consideration of what to call data governance. An influence on my doctoral work in data governance was at InformaticaWorld in 2013, where Conde Nast, HealthNow, and Nike spoke of the challenges of their data governance programs. Justin Glatz of Conde Nast described how their leadership understood the importance of data governance, the real business need, but asked that it not be called data governance. This happens often in firms around the world. The messaging of this data operations focus and cross-organizational stewardship needs to be made with internal characteristics in mind. Find terminology that works. 


There are concerns about what to call the data governance function while still doing the operations that we must do and how to articulate what is being done to have trusted and compliant data use for the firm’s benefit. The most successful firms using data have great communication, collaboration, and consistency. I have seen firsthand over the last 25 years that the most successful firms find ways to work together to progress forward.


Governance at its best 

Governance often gets a bad rap due to its alignment with government. Often, governments have negative reputations for being inefficient, having excessive bureaucracy, or implementing overly strict regulations. This makes getting people onboard for data governance more difficult. 


Think about what happens when government runs the way it should: (1) Health and safety of the community improves due to the work of laws and the enforcement and support of police, fire, and ambulance services; (2) Clean streets and green spaces/parks are maintained through the efforts of public works departments; (3) Effective garbage and recycling pickup occurs; (4) Snow is removed to improve safety; (5) Streets, highways, and sidewalks are built and maintained for safe, effective transportation. These services, when done well, make all the difference in the world. Sure, some of these are delegated to private enterprises, but these and other services together make communities run well. 


I never saw it this way until recently, and with decades in this space, it took a eulogy at a memorial service for three first responders to conclude this. A question was asked of these first responders about why they do this job, the answer: it needs to be done. Above all, we need to remember that just like public service, firm service in data is something that may not be glamourous, but it needs to be done.


The name 

Data governance should be viewed as firm service. We do it because it makes it so others can do their jobs, make good decisions, and operate at a high level. The better the data governance operation is, the better long-term performance is. 


A name that I have grown to love is enterprise data governance and enablement (EDGE). Use the acronym as a noun and grow your promotional message around it to progress your organization forward. 


For assistance with your data governance or data program, reach out to Wavicle today.