The Conundrum of Data Governance

It might be the most frequently asked question of a data governance consultant: “Who should own data governance, the business or IT?” And man, that’s a loaded question! When you dig deeper into the root of the question, most people really want to know one of two things—“Who should ultimately own data decision making for our company?” or, “Where will data governance be most successful?” Let’s take a closer look at those two questions.

Authority for Decision Making

Who should own data decision making for our company? Businesses are wedded to hierarchical reporting structures that distinctly outline decision-making authority and borders of control. This means that when the question of where data governance should reside in a hierarchical organizational structure is asked, one is typically implying the question of where the authority for data decision making should reside. This question, of course, makes everyone squeamish because neither the business nor the IT team wants to give up the authority for data decision making or, perhaps more importantly, they don’t want the other side to have the control. Ironically, neither side wants the responsibility or accountability to go along with the perceived power. And, absent the responsibility and accountability, you end up with ample blame and criticism.

The funny thing is, when implemented correctly, data governance actually brings no authority, responsibility, or accountability for data decision making, at least not directly. Instead, data governance establishes a decision-making framework where authority rests at the appropriate location and level of the organization based on context. The context may be based on a multitude of things such as system or application expertise (accounting system, CRM, customer portal), subject area knowledge (customer, product, patient, student), business unit experience (sales, marketing, operations), or cross-functional process involvement (invoicing, inventory, credit approval). Data governance defines roles and responsibilities to identify who has the authority and accountability for which data. When there is conflict due to shared responsibility in a data decision such as defining key business terms or outlining a business process, data governance facilitates and provides the objective means for the involved individuals to come to a decision. And when decisions are made for data standards and business rules, data governance develops and implements policies and procedures to enforce them.

Once we establish that owning data governance does not mean exclusive authority, control, and power over all enterprise data decisions, the number of interested owners drops significantly. Weird, right? So now, no one wants to own it, but everyone agrees we need it. It’s the conundrum of data governance. Enter the second version of the question.

Business Versus IT

Where will data governance be most successful? The answer here is that, to be successful, it doesn’t matter which side of the house data governance is on. What does matter in determining where data governance should live in order to be successful is the corporate culture. In other words, where does it most comfortably fit based on how the company behaves and operates today? Where will the implementation of the data governance program be the easiest and smoothest? If the corporate culture is compliance-driven, then data governance may best live on the business side in operations or legal, where a top-down approach is expected. Conversely, if the business operates in silos, a single business department will likely not exist, and data governance may have a very happy home on the IT side.

Consider the design of a car as an analogy, and the question of which side is best for the steering wheel and driver. In order to physically drive the car, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which side the steering wheel and driver are on, the car still starts and stops the same way. The engine still runs the same. The steering wheel still moves right and left. But, once we know which side of the road the car is supposed to travel on, the position of the driver’s seat changes how easy it is to drive.

Functioning as a Bridge

Data governance has a bridge role, requiring involvement from both sides of the house—business and IT. Regardless of where data governance sits within the organization, both sides will have data decision-making authority, accountability, and responsibility. The question should not be: “Who should own data governance?” Rather, the question should be: “On which side should the data governance driver’s seat be for the most successful journey?”


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