Stemming Your Data Contagion

As I work from home pondering data practices amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, it is not surprising that an unfortunate analogy comes to mind. Data is an intrinsic part of business today. New sources are constantly being created and new ideas to explore are being conceived.

It is a matter of when, not if, your organization will confront a never-before-seen data source—a source that, if managed improperly, could result in catastrophic consequences to your brand and bottom line. In some cases, that data will be imported from outside your four walls. In others, the data will spring from new business processes or the fertile minds of your employees manipulating existing assets to create altogether new analytic insights.

Regardless of the source, far too many governance programs focus on reflexively and reactively imposing rigid controls on what is already known. As a result, while organizations relentlessly herald the need for everyone to become data-driven, existing governance practices encourage those venturing into the fray to do so covertly to avoid potential judgment or punitive action.

You cannot stop the flow of data into and within your enterprise. You can, however, direct that flow to ensure appropriate containment. To do so, your organization must, at a minimum, invest in the following:

  • Data workspaces supporting different levels of containment, from sandboxes to warehouses
  • Methods to easily check new content into a managed catalog
  • “How-to” guidance and tools to categorize new content with minimal bureaucratic overhead
  • The ability to ramp resources up and down quickly based on evolving demand

Note that the goal here is not to encourage people to only come forward with pristine, fully vetted, high-quality information sources, or to do so after they’ve gotten themselves in a quagmire that they can’t get out of alone. The goal is to encourage people to “fess up” to everything and provide an honest assessment of what is known—and not known—about the data as soon as possible. In this way, sources that may be incomplete, whose value and quality is unclear, or that might present a heightened risk can be quickly and effectively quarantined. In most cases, information can likely be made widely available in short order with few, if any, restrictions. Others may require a negative-pressure data containment area accessible only to specially certified resources until the data has been comprehensively assessed. But again, the key is not to make people afraid to come forward but to make it a no-brainer to do so.

Once a data asset goes public (so to speak), ensuring it continues to be used and shared appropriately is the name of the game. Mitigation is often seen as a reactive, catch-up strategy. And too often it is applied as such. However, organizations that are proactive in educating and engaging their workforce can increase their overall resiliency and decrease risk. Social distancing only works when a critical mass of the population engages—so too with data governance. To that end, organizations must provide the following:

  • Easy-to-understand usage policies regarding how, when, and for what purposes data can be used
  • Highly visible content labels and warnings at the point of consumption (if they must dig for information, it won’t happen)
  • Low-friction mechanisms to gain access to content in accordance with defined policies
  • Efficient workflows and resources for answering questions and initiating requests
  • Readily available training and guidance on data tools and environments

Nonetheless, the best policies and procedures are useless if not clearly communicated and understood. Your employees, by and large, want to do the right thing. Ensure that your data policies are simple and clear. Make sure guidelines and policies are consistent—and that the same message is given in print, in video, or in person. Resist the urge to try cover every eventuality or obfuscate hard realities; you can’t do it and a 100-point rule list complete with too many “if-but-except” clauses will discourage people from attempting to engage at all. Rather, create an environment in which people are motivated to engage, are informed and enabled to make the right decisions, and secure enough to ask when they aren’t sure. Is your governance program up to the challenge?


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