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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Do You Need a Chief Data Governance Officer?

Do you need a chief data governance officer or a chief data officer? Here are three questions that will help you decide.

It was before blockchain, serverless computing, and augmented everything -- about a decade ago if I had to guess. Data governance was a hot topic to the point where it had become a drinking game. At a Data Crunch conference a few years ago, my friends and I counted 150 mentions of data governance.

For Further Reading:

Three Governance Trends to Watch in 2019

The Imperative for Reimagining Data Governance

Compliance Impediments for Government Data Centers

Then again, we'd been drinking.

As with all tech trends, data governance was hardly impervious to the bloviations of tech analysts, but at the same time it fell victim to their short attention spans. Thus, data governance has waned as the topic of day-long workshops and best-practices debates. Part of the hype decline is that companies that really needed formalized policy-making and oversight of heterogeneous data are now practicing just that. For them, data governance has evolved from drinking game to a set of entrenched business processes.

I was intrigued by Ted's letter asking if data governance should be an official C-level role.

Hey, Jill.

We met four years ago at technology event where you said that companies that needed data governance were already doing it. I disagreed with you. That's because my company desperately needed data governance, and we weren't doing it yet.

I'm not proud of it, but we're not even doing it now. There are what you called "random acts of data governance" around our company. I laugh out loud when I think about that. Our company's data is only as good as the person who's making the definitions and rules on that data. It's pretty random.

In our company, it seems that designating a chief of something validates it. In addition to the staple CEO, CFO, and COO roles, we have a chief risk officer, a chief privacy officer, a chief talent officer, and a chief digital officer. We also have a CAO (chief analytics officer) who, in my opinion, is failing at her job. She is not the leader the title implies. She essentially runs a reporting factory and loves to count how many reports her team delivers monthly to various business units. To those of us in IT, she and her team are kind of a joke.

Recently I suggested to the CAO that she take on more data responsibility. I figured she'd see it as an opportunity for visibility and relationship building. Instead, she claimed not to have any time. In my opinion, she likes having her team hunt and peck for data to show how hard they're working. If we were governing our data, their reports would take hours to build, not weeks.

I don't want to go into battle with our CAO. I don't want the job (though I'd do it better). However, I would like my company to have better-managed and more available data. It would make all our lives easier.

I'm afraid that if I just pitch the chief data officer idea, it will be seen as a parallel function to the CAO and become just a data factory. I think "chief data governance officer" has a nice ring to it, and suggests a level of authority that chief data officer does not.

What do you think? 

-- Thanks, Ted

What an interesting conundrum, Ted! Your letter makes it clear you've been frustrated by the lack of data management at your company. Here, let me pour you a drink.

I'll refrain from exploring whether you want to be the next data (governance) officer and focus on the problem at hand, which is this: your company focuses more on titles than it does on delivery. No wonder Ms. CAO relishes the number of reports her team is spewing out! She's coupling her important title with delivery volumes, hiding behind those numbers (and not the value she's creating for the business)! If I had to guess, she doesn't have a job description.

If I were you, I'd focus on the data leadership role, how it will drive value, and what its boundaries are before focusing on the title. That will not only help you pitch the role, whoever fills it. It will make clear what a chief data officer will solve and whether it's worth the organizational changes necessary to accommodate it.

If I were you I'd be sure to have answers to 3 questions.

1. What problems will a data governance leader and the accompanying team actually solve?

You need to pinpoint the pain that data governance leadership will alleviate. Perhaps there are varying and contradictory definitions of key business terms that are compromising operations (booked revenue versus billed revenue, anyone?). Perhaps your business people are guilty of spending more time finding and combining data than making decisions based on it. Maybe there's the often-hidden cost of duplication of effort across departments as people use the same data for varied (and often cross-) purposes?

List these problems and get feedback about people's perceptions of how great the pain and costs are. It'll be great ammunition.

2. What new capabilities will the data governance office introduce?

It's not enough to introduce a new business function based on a laundry list of problems. It's unlikely your company has the tools and skills it needs to address data governance with the rigor it deserves, never mind the ability to monetize that data. The hardest part of introducing data governance is justifying the acquisition costs of data wrangling, cleansing, integration, provisioning, and maintenance to decision makers unfamiliar with this lingo. The point is that once these and other data management capabilities are automated and repeatable, they'll save the company money (and yes, they'll have to trust you until they see that's true).

3. Why aren't the proposed capabilities in the bailiwick of the chief digital, chief analytics, or other officers? Why introduce yet another chief?

This is a question the business leaders you enlist for support will inevitably ask, so dismiss it at your peril. Executives who pay short shrift to organizational design -- or don't understand basic data management fundamentals -- will try flinging data responsibilities into someone else's sandbox.

Because your company doesn't seem to craft clear job descriptions, it's a much less risky decision to simply "assign" data to the person who uses it most -- which might lead to you and your team being reassigned to the CAO. After all, how hard is data, really?

It's really hard. That's why so few companies have mastered data governance. Sure, there's lightweight data governance, where the lines of business govern their own specific data and mastered data bubbles up to a horizontal governance board, but that in itself is governance, requiring deliberate decision making, new role assignments, and enterprise-level workflow.

If I were you, I'd abandon the chief data governance idea and go straight for chief data officer. There are far more examples of successful chief data officers than ever, and there are lots of resources for what success looks like. Pointing to these examples will give you more leverage, and you're going to need it!

Let me know when you get the role and we'll toast your success! Salut!

About the Author

Jill Dyché has advised clients and executive teams on their analytics and data programs for as long as she can remember. Longer, in fact. She’s the author of four books on the business value of technology and regularly talks to teams about what keeps them up at night. Ambivalent about analytics? Maddened by management? Constricted by your culture? Check out Jill’s Q&A column, Q&A with Jill Dyché, here.

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