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Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Status of [Data] Governance

In the past 10 days I have addressed DAMA chapters in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin on the topic of governance. As part of the presentation, I attempted to learn the status of governance initiatives within the participating organizations. These organizations ranged from the small (< 1000 employees) to the very large.

There was no enthusiasm surrounding the state of any governance activity and only a few who were even willing to say that they had any governance in operation.

As a result of this admittedly informal survey, I am willing to state that recognizable [data] governance is virtually non-existent. But wait, you say, I have read press releases about enterprise data governance being rolled out at some really big-name corporations.

I have done some personal research at one such big-name company by interviewing in person or on the phone several individuals within the corporation who are directly involved at several different levels. This more formal survey revealed a considerable degree of anxiety among those directly responsible for some piece of the effort. At the same time there was a sense of interested detachment from those involved in the "governance" of Enterprise Data Governance. Meanwhile those who should have been heavily involved by virtue of their job responsibilities but weren't formally part of the structure had a pretty fatalistic attitude about the whole thing.

The overall impression I took away was in the nature of the Emperor's New Clothes. The comment I heard most frequently (from every one of those interviewed) was, "We're making progress." These people all have a history with this company that goes back to 1992 and earlier so I imagine that when they stop to consider the difference between then and now, progress of many kinds is apparent.

I'm all for making progress, but I have to wonder if we aren't too easily satisfied. If those who set out on the Oregon trail had been satisfied with progress at this rate, their great-grandchildren would have been overtaken in their Connestoga wagons by the construction of Interstate 80. It would seem that one of the worst things that can happen to an organization (company, corporation, institution) is to create a bubble within which to operate.

Many organizations today seem to have done this and those with the most identifiable corporate culture and the strongest brand have done the most to create their own distinct and separate reality in which "making progress" is not only good enough, it is the pinnacle of achievement.

In the USA, we have a model of governance that was the first of its kind and, because of the model's structure, is viewed as something that can be duplicated elsewhere. We are accustomed to thinking of this model as democracy but that is a mistake. John Adams (successor to George Washington) got it right when he analyzed it this way, "We are a government of laws and not of men."

The corporate equivalent of laws is standards. Governance based on men (and women) runs on approval while governance based on standards) laws runs on compliance. Clearly compliance based governance where compliance can be verified by audit is vastly preferable to approval based governance in which approvals are both slow and subject to reversal for any of a myriad of reasons.

No system of governance is perfect, but a living system in which standards are subject to periodic review and can be modified to accommodate external changes, must be preferred over the alternative. Where will the leaders come from who will do for corporate governance what Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin and others did for national governance?

Friday, May 22, 2009

BI and Re-Branding

And by the way, there seems to have been a re-branding of "BI" for the mass market.

As recently as a year ago, BI (Business Intelligence) meant something special. Different kinds of information displayed for very specific purposes. Now it seems to mean "reporting" (although "BI" is a lot more edgy than "reporting" so probably worth more money.)

If you are buying "BI" and paying BI prices but getting basic reporting then you are a victim of mass marketing and re-branding (see previous post).


Mass marketing seems to be an American (United States) invention and may be the single most impactful innovation of the last century. Please note that I made no value judgment. We each have to make up our own mind whether the impact was positive or negative.

Certainly, it has served to increase wealth so if your standard is ROI then you would have to view mass marketing as a positive development.

The downside effects are much more difficult to measure--plus virtually nobody wants to talk about the downside. Just as clearly, people have been convinced that they "need" something that they didn't even know existed. To that extent, a lot of raw materials were consumed and a lot of byproducts were produced because of the success of marketing.

Perhaps the biggest downside from my own perspective is the continual re-branding of technology practices. The effect of this is that everyone is on their heels all the time. We are bombarded with new acronyms and substantial effort must be expended to learn about them. Unfortunately, the common result of this effort is the realization that this "new" thing is really a 20 year-old concept with a new name.

Those not equipped to realize this invest even more time and energy in trying to make this new thing be their magic carpet without ever discovering what it was that kept the rug from flying the first time around. Technology folks are easy marks since they often are completely unconcerned with history--newer is obviously better after all.

Lots of money is being made but society is paying the price. Healthcare is the perfect example. Technology churn is costing billions at a time when everyone recognizes that costs are out of control. No worries though, we'll just focus all the lights on insurance premiums, thereby diverting attention away from the decision makers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Governance in Context

Every time I talk with a group of people I come away more convinced that the lack of governance is the underlying reason for the "failure" of so many technology initiatives.

I have addressed two DAMA chapters this week and those in attendance included a CIO, managers, data and business architects, data modelers, warehouse analysts... I would guess the average age of the groups to be about 40 and they came to their current job roles for the most part via a technology path. They shared stories of corporate in-fighting, closed-mindedness and self-centeredness that have produced some incredibly poor decisions (or non-decisions). The general mood seemed to be resignation if not acceptance. They asked repeatedly what could have been done differently.

Data governance is on many minds today because of some horror stories involving costly mistakes that were avoidable (see Confessions of a Data Governance Sponsor). Anyone can find success if they find the right expert partner and if you are really committed to governance, that's what you'll do. The devil is, as always, in the details.

First of all, how is commitment generated? How does the commitment become focused on [data] governance? Finally, how can we envision and create something that is independent of individual champions (not built on a cult of personality)?

Imagine that we live in a nation without governance--the strongest or the most charismatic become "warlords", accumulating bands of adherents who follow orders and share in the spoils. Now imagine that we are somehow able, through commitment to a vision, sacrifice and patience, to create a system of governance in one city. Present day Afghanistan springs to mind as a real-life example. What will happen to the governance in the city if it can't be extended into the rest of the country?

Now imagine an example of a country with good governance in which a single city has resisted or expelled governance. Hollywood has produced many examples of this story.

Which scenario has the best chance of producing uniformly good governance?

One of the companies represented at one my presentations is a very modern one in which all employees are "team members" and much effort has clearly been spent to create a uniform image. The team members are proud of the identity that they share. At the same time, this companies refers to its business units as "pyramids." What message does this convey? I can think of few metaphors that indicate monolithic autonomy better than pyramid (unless perhaps "silo"). If I work in a terrain of pyramids and want to institute governance, I really have only one choice--to create governance within a single pyramid. This is analogous to creating governance in a single city of a lawless land.

Only the person responsible for all the pyramids could turn a commitment to governance into a common system of governance in all the pyramids. Of course, if we had an organization that had a presence in all of the pyramids, we could delegate the task of creating governance to them. They might even have a chance to succeed if everyone understood that their efforts had the blessing of the supreme leader.

I believe that data governance is somewhat analogous to streets governance or sewers governance. It is absolutely necessary for the community but doomed to fail unless the vision and commitment become widespread. Neighborhood Watch can go a long way toward eliminating unpleasant surprises within a community and one successful neighborhood watch will stimulate surrounding communities to emulate this "best practice." There is a real limit, though, on what a neighborhood watch can accomplish and many, independent and uncoordinated such efforts will provide many gaps through which unpleasantness will find its way.

A company that is unable or unwilling to do process management does not have a sufficient level of governance to support a data governance initiative. If standard processes are anathema, forget about data governance. There must be a level of maturity to set the stage for successful governance or there must be a universal system that indoctrinates new community members with governance principles and assigns and explains their role(s). Military organizations understand this. Our school systems understand this. Every corporation has new employee orientation programs, most of which contain no reference to standard process and the employee's responsibility to adhere to standards.

"We are a government of laws and not of men." except when we step into the corporate bubble. At that point, it is understood that we are to work for the approval of the boss.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Problem With Telepathy

The problem with telepathy is that we rely on it but it isn't real, or it's sort of real--well, you know what I mean.

I have noticed that over the past decade or two we (humans in the United States) have virtually abandoned communication as an active effort. The expectation today seems to be that whatever I received must be what what was transmitted. We commonly leave an interaction in one of two states:
  1. we have more questions than we had prior to the interaction and we take the questions to others (who typically were not present and never even had the benefit of the transmission)
  2. because we didn't understand what we received, we label the transmitter as a poor communicator (or an idiot) and assume that we don't really need to know what they were trying to say

It's the rare individual who actually takes an active role during the interaction to ask for clarification or context.

When someone says "like, you know" and we smile and nod, we are either relying on telepathy or intuition or body language or prior knowledge or we simply don't care and we just want to get away.

Obviously this isn't really a recent development--not even if you consider two decades "recent"--but it does seem to me that the problem is worsening. I sit in meetings and watch people. They get wrinkled brows briefly and then they disengage. I know that they should be engaged as stakeholders, but they aren't. What's the problem?

One thing that we could all work on is finding ways to ask questions that--but wait, that would be active communication.

One of Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." [italics are mine] The other six are personal and could be honed by a hermit. This one actually assumes relationship. Relationship is a real thing, unlike telepathy. I'm going to be a lightening rod here but anyone whose idea of "working on a relationship" is based on the central idea, "You don't understand me." is going to be disappointed repeatedly. This applies to every kind of human to human relationship and is the essence of Covey's effectiveness habit.

Before I lose myself in this, I'd better stop. My advice to anyone is

  • learn what active communication is (if you aren't participating, you aren't communicating)
  • listening (actively) is probably 90% of communication
  • ask questions when they arise and ask them of the right person
  • be present in the communication

We're in this together and we are going to sink or swim together. Let's start acting like we know this.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pardon My Absence

I have just returned from a 3,300+ mile odyssey whose central purpose was to be present at the birth of our first grandchild. Despite feeling pretty worn down from the drive to Vermont, I am excited to report that the world has been brightened with the addition of Stella Michael (both grandfathers are Michaels).

I'll return to my more normal topics very soon.