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Steering Your Data Ship with Data Governance

’Tis “The rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Coleridge, 1857) that captures the sentiment of today’s data song. While hopefully we will steer our ship differently and not end with a painful need to tell the story of our crazy adventures, there are striking parallels and valuable lessons to be learned from the ole mariner himself.

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink,” wrote Coleridge. We are swimming in a sea of data, and no matter how much we are surrounded by data, we find it overwhelmingly difficult to keep our data vessel in seaworthy shape to traverse the ever-growing digital sea. With the explosion of technological advances and greater access to information than ever before, it seems reasonable that the value we glean from our data should naturally be greater than ever before as well. But it doesn’t work that way. Data, data, everywhere, And all the value did shrink.

Let’s look at the mariner surrounded by water that should have perpetually kept the ship’s boards from drying out and shrinking. The external force of the unbearable, relentless sun was greater than any anything the sailors could do to keep the boards supple. They could not keep up with repairs, nor were they prepared for the damage the sun would cause. And to top it off, if they used the water that surrounded the ship to dampen the boards, it would only make matters worse as it was salt water! In fact, that salt water furthered the sailors’ woes by not being potable and they began to die of thirst. “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” Hmmm … surrounded by water and not able to drink a drop. It sounds all too familiar—surrounded by data and not able to consume a single bit. (Hah, see what I did there. Bit? Sneer if you want, but that’s funny. Back to our story … )

Over the last few years, we have been enamored with the deluge of data and our ability to create and collect new data types and sources. We have been enthralled by the art of the possible. We defined the journey; we established road maps. But as we set out to sail, we were not aware of the perils we would experience on our journey and we were certainly not prepared. When we hit our first set of challenges, such as the mariner’s foggy ice field, we introduced data governance—intended to provide direction and enablement much as the albatross was intended to help steer through the fog and provide good winds. But the mariner killed the albatross, and if we are not careful, the proverbial “they” will kill data governance too—if they haven’t already.

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The purpose of data governance has been misunderstood by many. And, when presented as a framework laden with bureaucracy, policies, and rules, it makes sense that the general business population would want nothing more than to shoot the albatross seeming to impede their progress.  As data governance professionals, it is important to communicate the value of data governance in terms of business outcomes rather than in terms of what is necessary to make a successful program work. Yes, policies, procedures, rules, and principles are all necessary for effective governance, but without being given a vision of where governance will take them, the steps to get there are irrelevant.

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