Forging a Culture of Data Governance

with Bob Seiner, Principal at KIK Consulting

Bob Seiner
President & Principal, KIK Consulting

Bob is an industry thought leader in data governance, data management and data strategy. His book, Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success has helped leaders around the world align their data and business strategies to catalyze success. His The Data Administration Newsletter is among the industry’s most read since its launch in 1997.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Bob Seiner
President & Principal, KIK Consulting

Bob is an industry thought leader in data governance, data management and data strategy. His book, Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success has helped leaders around the world align their data and business strategies to catalyze success. His The Data Administration Newsletter is among the industry’s most read since its launch in 1997.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

 

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Bob Seiner
President & Principal, KIK Consulting

Bob is an industry thought leader in data governance, data management and data strategy. His book, Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success has helped leaders around the world align their data and business strategies to catalyze success. His The Data Administration Newsletter is among the industry’s most read since its launch in 1997.

Satyen Sangani
Co-founder & CEO of Alation

 

As the Co-founder and CEO of Alation, Satyen lives his passion of empowering a curious and rational world by fundamentally improving the way data consumers, creators, and stewards find, understand, and trust data. Industry insiders call him a visionary entrepreneur. Those who meet him call him warm and down-to-earth. His kids call him “Dad.”

Polish linguist and ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof was born in Poland in 1859. At the time, ethnic conflict was a part of his daily life. Zamenhof began to ask himself, “How could these prejudices become a thing of the past?”

Zamenhof was a humanist. He believed that humanity could overcome its differences and that a new universal language could bridge the divide. So he drew from both romance and dramatic languages to create Esperanto. The language’s alphabet and grammar were standardized and simple. It’s not like English where I comes before E… except when it doesn’t.

Esperanto struck a chord. One of its most famous speakers was, in fact, the great Leo Tolstoy. He claims to have become fluent after just a few hours of study. He also published articles promoting language. Unfortunately, having one of the world’s great writers learn your language isn’t enough to actually create a language that lasts. Esperanto never caught on. It’s actually ironic. The ultimate goal of Esperanto was to create a shared universal language, but the Esperanto movement failed to communicate its own value.

To me, these challenges sound very familiar to what we in data call data governance.

Data governance has the same principles of a shared system of policies, definitions, and processes to bring order to data and to reduce the conflicts and challenges in how we consume and manage data. But, like Zamenhof and Tolstoy, we don’t always do the best job in communicating its importance. People resist change. Habits are tough to break.

Now think about creating change across an enterprise with thousands of employees and stakeholders around the globe. That’s a serious challenge. And that’s what data governance often is trying to achieve. That’s why my conversation today with Bob Seiner is so useful. Bob is the principal and founder of KIK Consulting. He’s also the author of Non-invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success. Bob’s been a pioneer in the data management field for decades. He knows firsthand how important communication is for creating robust data cultures.


Producer Read: Welcome to Data Radicals, a show about the people who use data to seek things that nobody else can. This episode features an interview with Bob Seiner, president and principal at KIK Consulting and Educational Services.

On this episode, he and Satyen discuss the principles of noninvasive data governance, the relationship between communication and implementation, the common issues Bob sees when working with clients, and much more.

Data Radicals is brought to you by the generous support of Alation, the data catalog and data governance platform that combines data intelligence with human brilliance. Learn more at Alation.com.

 

Defining Data and Admitting We Need Governance

Satyen Sangani: Teaching data to our clients is a lot like teaching a language. Just like with Esperanto, we have to create a consistent framework and structure. That begins with aligning on common definitions for key terms. These frameworks are shared foundations for building meaning.

Throughout this episode, Bob will define a few of the biggest terms in data for us. And we’re going to start with the D word itself, data. Just as Esperanto had to define its laws of grammar, so too data governance must define its internal structure.

Bob Seiner: A lot of it starts with data definition. I typically, for simplicity’s sake, break the actions that people can and take with data down to three different actions: defining data, producing data, and using data. And people can’t really produce data if it’s not defined very well, or they can’t produce high quality data if there’s not solid definition to the data.

I find that we need to keep it simple. One of the biggest challenges that I see is that organizations, especially in the field of data governance, that’s a scary word to a lot of people. Governance is like government. It means there’s going to be rules. There’s going to be bureaucracy. I like to take the approach of your organization wouldn’t be in the situation that it’s in right now, from a positive perspective, if you had a complete lack of governance.

So if we start with a premise that there’s already governance taking place or management taking place, it’s just very informal, I found that that was an easy problem to solve. It was a challenge that people were scared of data governance, but if you temper that and make people understand or help people to understand that there’s already management taking place, you already have data, it’s not that difficult of a challenge to address.

Satyen Sangani: Defining data isn’t enough, though. It’s also important to communicate that definition effectively, consistently, and in a variety of different mediums.

Bob Seiner: Communication is critical. So we need to make certain that the messaging that we’re providing to the organization fits into the existing culture within an organization. A lot of organizations don’t have a data culture or a culture that really focuses on data or a data-driven culture. And so this is something that’s new to them. But, those people are actively defining, producing, and using data as part of their job. So they just need to realize that what they’re doing can be done better or can be done more efficiently and effectively with a better result to the organization.

The cultural issue is something that needs to be addressed. We need to make people more data literate, and that is presenting them with alternatives to how governance can take place within their organization. Because the initial thought is they hear the term governance and they think of government and they think it’s going to be difficult. They think it’s going to be changing what they do significantly. We need to focus on improving the culture. And a lot of that starts with effective communications across the organization.

Satyen Sangani: And does that imply that people under-communicate these efforts or under-communicate often the whys or the benefits in the work?

Bob Seiner: I think people recognize that communications is a big part of changing the culture, but they haven’t really done it. They haven’t had effective messaging to get people to buy into those changes that they’re asking for.

I’d say communications is not always front of mind when organizations are delivering effective governance programs, and it needs to be more of a part. In fact, every client that I work with that’s at least starting at a certain point, communications is a big part of delivering success in governance. So if you can’t get people to understand the role that they play and where they need to have a more data-oriented culture, you’re going to have a very difficult time achieving that level of culture.

Satyen Sangani: Esperanto was apparently easy to learn, but most languages don’t come so naturally. It’s not just that languages require different vocabulary, intonation, and grammar, they also require you to have a different mental model for how to think about the world around you. And languages evolve over time, reflecting changes in society. According to Bob, that same haphazard pattern of growth and evolution is true of larger companies. It explains why enterprises struggle with sharing data effectively.

Bob Seiner: A lot of organizations grow through mergers and acquisition, and one company can now be made up of several other organizations, and those organizations didn’t start by working together. Or even those departments within one organization did not start by working together. Because they were working independently of each other, they were defining the data and producing it and using it differently from each other. When you acquire other organizations, and you try to build them into your environment, I’d be very surprised if that data exactly matched up and connected up with the data that you already had.

The fact is that we haven’t really coordinated these activities. There hasn’t been any formal method or discipline that’s been associated with getting people to work together rather than doing everything independently. I think the idea of people working independently and not working together is what’s built the silos within organizations.

Satyen Sangani: You’ve mentioned a couple of times this idea of a business glossary and this notion—I think the word that you used was tribes—which I thought was really interesting because it almost frames data as a language of sorts. And that idea then becomes that people are now able to talk to each other. That process of learning each other’s languages and learning from each other, how do you see that reflected in your work?

Bob Seiner: I suggest that you don’t have several governance initiatives taking place at the same time. I suggest that there would be one that would oversee the breaking down of the silos, getting people to cooperate and to work together. A lot of organizations have shadow IT groups that are tired of waiting on IT to provide them the systems they need, so they go create their own systems or they go create their own spreadsheets. And it’s just gotten worse and worse over time.

At some point, somebody needs to inventory all of that information. It is like they’re speaking a separate language. And a good term that’s used these days is common business language. Organizations are really suffering because they call the same thing something different in different parts of the organization, or they call different things the same thing, and it just doesn’t sync up and organizations have problems with their data because all the data is being created independently. And governance over the entire organization, it’s something that we need to strive for. We typically can’t start by flipping a switch and having governance come on to the entire organization. It takes time. It has to be done incrementally.

 


 

Recognizing Data Governance, Not Assigning It

Satyen Sangani: We’ve got the definition of data down, and we understand why something that can seem so basic is so complicated. It’s time to define our next term: data governance.

Bob Seiner: I actually use very strong language when I define data governance. I say that data governance is the execution and enforcement of authority over the management of data. There need to be rules, and those rules need to be followed, and people need to be educated on why they’re following those rules.

The way I typically get started with an organization is to define best practices that have been successful for other organizations and compare where you are to those best practices, and then build a roadmap or an action plan that will help you to achieve best practice in standing up formal governance within an organization.

Satyen Sangani: How do people traditionally handle it? So if there’s a non-invasive data governance, what does invasive data governance look like? And what’s the failure pattern?

Bob Seiner: People are busy. People are very busy in organizations. And if you’re going to assign people to be data stewards or assign people things, it’s immediately going to feel like it’s over and above what they’re presently doing. I tend to shy away from the word assign. I use the word recognize. Let’s recognize who’s doing what with the data, and let’s help them to do it better. It’s a lot less threatening to an organization if you go around and assign things to people that they don’t already have. I know when I’m assigned something, I immediately feel like it’s over and above what I’m doing.

So there are ways to get to governance of data without making it feel like it’s additional work. And it doesn’t mean that it’s completely not going to be added on to what people are presently doing. But, if we communicate to them that data governance is very complex and it’s difficult and it’s going to require all this time and all this money, that’s what they’re going to believe. If we start with the premise that we’re already governing our data, but we’re going to do it more formally and that will lead to efficiency and effectiveness, that’s a much better way to get people over that hurdle of thinking that, “Oh, here comes governance. I’m going to close my door or pull down my blind. I don’t want to talk to these people.”

So the difference really is between assigning people things and recognizing that they’re already doing it, and we can help them to do it better.

Satyen Sangani: It sounds like you’ve got a set of rules, the authority that you’re referring to. Somebody’s got to determine what those rules are. Somebody’s got to come along and figure out how those rules are going to be enacted and enforced. Somebody’s got to go figure out that, in fact, that’s being done correctly. And then I guess ultimately, that’s got to have some benefit for the organization.

When you see that journey and that process, when is it easy and when is it hard? What are the hardest battles you fight in getting organizations to do it the right way, and why don’t people just do it the right way? Why don’t people make it as easy as possible?

Bob Seiner: Where I would focus is on where there are existing levels of governance within an organization. So for example, information security. It’s not an option for an organization to secure their data. Data privacy, GDPR, CCPA, all the regulations are forcing us to do those things. So if you work with the premise that that’s already happening and it’s necessary, protecting sensitive data isn’t always the reason why organizations implement governance. Sometimes they have a lack of quality of the data, or there’s a lack of understanding, or people don’t know what data even exists.

Somebody needs to take on that responsibility, to collect that information, to make it available. People are scared of governance, and we need to make them feel like it’s already part of what they do and enable them to do it better.

 


 

Common Sense Beats a Heavy Hand

Satyen Sangani: People are aware they have problems, right? They’re aware they have low quality data. They’re aware that they can’t find the data. They’re aware that they’re not complying with some regulation. But then it seems like often there’s this notion of command and control, it’s going to be big, it’s going to be expensive. It feels like you’re saying there may be a bias towards folks who want to go top down and make it something bigger. And I guess the question is why is that the case?

Bob Seiner: Because they don’t know necessarily that there are alternative approaches to reaching the same goal. The term governance is a heavy-handed word. In the U.S., we drive on the right side of the road. If we drive on the left side of the road, there’s going to be a penalty for that, if you don’t kill somebody by running into a car that is actually following the rules.

Most organizations think that governance has to be top down. And that’s why I’ve spent a lot of my career helping organizations to understand that there is an alternative approach, that you can look to leverage things that already exist within your environment first and then apply the heavy-handedness wherever you need to. But you can stay less demanding and you can build it into what people do. I always joke that if you consider data governance a game, you’ve won the game when you build it into what people do, rather than making it feel like it’s over and above what they’re presently doing. That’s the difference between assigning somebody into a role and recognizing somebody into a role.

Organizations take that top down approach because they think that’s the only way to be successful. I can tell you of many, many organizations that view it the other way now because they’ve had the opportunity to read what I’ve written or hear what I say. And if you think of it in terms of being radical, yeah, maybe this is a radical approach to governance. But it’s not really that radical. It’s really very common sense. And I’d rather see common sense than to take this heavy-handed approach.

Satyen Sangani: I love that. Being a data radical isn’t just about doing anything radical at all. It’s about having common sense and following best practices. So how does Bob go about creating more data radicals? His methods begin with a three O’s of data.

Bob Seiner: The way that I break down communications associated with governance, I categorize it into the three O’s.

  1. We need to orient people to the whole concept of governance and why it’s important and the value that’s going to come from it and the approaches that are available to be followed.
  2. The second O is onboarding. You can’t go out and tag a data steward and tell them, “Okay, go do steward stuff. They’re not going to understand what that means. We need to onboard them appropriately, depending on what role they’re going to play within your organization. That onboarding type of communications. Let’s orient them, let’s onboard them.
  3. Then let’s provide them ongoing communications that tells them how successful has the organization been. What problems have we solved? What opportunities have we addressed?

Having a formal approach to governance that carries out those three O’s of data governance is really effective because it covers those people that are very new to it, those people that are now being asked to do something, and those people that are already doing something

It’s very important that you build that into the program. That requires people and it requires effort to do it. I suggest to organizations, work with your communications folks who are really good and powerful in messaging across the organization. Don’t try to do it on your own. We data people, it used to be that we were in the shadows. Now we’re more out there in the open. Let’s make sure our messaging is good, let’s have a plan, let’s implement a plan, and we’ll be much more successful.

 


 

Building a Sustainable Data Culture

Satyen Sangani: We know that one of the biggest challenges to Esperanto’s growth was building a sustainable culture to create that shared set of rules and that shared mental model for how the world behaves. That’s why it’s so important for us to define our final and most important term: data culture.

Bob Seiner: I think of culture as being the essence of being. The essence of being focused on data and data management is where data starts to be entered into the culture.

People are very busy. They have day jobs. We can’t give people more things to do because they have day jobs. They’re not being evaluated on how well they define, produce, and use data. Perhaps we need to build that into where they’re being evaluated, to help them to understand the importance of this and to their job performance, but then also to the performance of the entire organization.

Satyen Sangani: I love this idea that data culture is where data’s a part of your day job and widely a part of the day jobs of everybody within the organization. That’s super instructive because it makes it very tangible for people as opposed to being this abstract concept.

Bob Seiner: These things aren’t going to happen on their own. The data is not going to govern itself. The data is going to do what we tell it to do.

I had a good friend of mine many years ago, he said, “We shouldn’t even call it data governance. We should call it people governance because we’re governing people’s behavior associated with the data.”

If you go to the KIK Consulting website, right across the top of the screen, it says, “The data will not govern itself.” And so we need to make an effective effort to govern the data. I’ve even added to that to say the metadata will not govern itself. There is such a thing as metadata governance. Somebody needs to define and produce and use and collect and catalog that information to make it available to people across the organization.

I also take the approach that everybody in the organization that has a relationship to the data is a steward of the data. If they define and/or produce and/or use data as part of their job, and that’s pretty much everybody in the organization, and they’re being held accountable for how they define, produce, and use data, they’re stewards. You can’t opt out.

The example I use is, if you’ve got data that is sensitive, you’re not going to point to half of the room and say, “Okay, you folks use sensitive data. You need to protect it. While you folks over here that use that same sensitive data, you don’t have to protect it.” If we can get our organizations to really recognize that everyone potentially is a data steward, that’s going to take a great step towards improving the data culture of the organization.

 


 

What the Future Holds for Data Governance and Data Radicals

Satyen Sangani: If you think about it, data’s just another language. And if we make it easy to grasp, then we can create more data radicals. So let’s shift gears a bit. Bob has seen our field grow in some incredible ways. What does he see for us in the years ahead?

Bob Seiner: In the past, and I’m talking about the fairly recent past, the technologies haven’t been there to really enable companies to bring data together. And now those technologies are being developed, and they’re being brought to market, and organizations are being very successful with it. So again, organizations need to have a focused effort on collecting that information about the data and making it available to people.

I think some of the same problems that will exist is, number one, if senior leaders don’t get to the point where they thoroughly understand what governance is and what it takes to be successful, that’s a problem that we’ll continue to have until we can effectively communicate with people.

We need to leverage technology. You’re not going to go out and acquire a technology and install it, and all of a sudden you’re going to solve all your problems. Because it truly is people governance, and organizations need to recognize that it’s not that the technology is the enabler to success, but the people are the real path to success. And if you start with the premise that you’re already doing this, and we can help you to do it better, they’re going to be much more willing to sit forward in their chair and listen to what you have to say, and more likely to follow an approach that’s not going to feel threatening to them and what they do.

Satyen Sangani: And what about the data radicals of the future? How can they get their careers on the right path?

Bob Seiner: Well, the way that I got started was to do your research. There’s a lot of fantastic information out there. In the governance world, it’s different approaches to governance, different tools to be able to use, or even templates or things that are not the software, like the catalog that Alation puts out there. I would say do your due diligence, do your research, ask questions, get the information that you need.

I suggest to people that they put their thoughts in what they’re doing and what they’re finding successful down on paper. If they’re not just writing for themselves or writing for their organization, write for other publications. Because people are very interested in what different people are doing in different organizations.

If you’re really interested in pursuing data as a career, there are a lot of certifications and there’s a lot of learning plans and things that you can do. But I think the more that you practice articulating your success and the value of what you’re doing, the better you’re going to be in your career.

I got started by writing articles. I have an online publication called the Data Administration Newsletter at tdan.com. I found it much easier to get published if you’re the publisher. I didn’t have to go through anybody so I could publish my own materials, and I’ve been publishing materials of other people.

Get up and give a presentation. Submit an abstract to a conference. Get up in front of like-minded people and talk about what you’re doing and get questions and answer those questions. It will only improve your career. It’ll improve your ability to be able to communicate with people at all levels of the organization. That’s what I suggest to people who want to pursue this as being an important career, a career move for them, in fact.

Satyen Sangani: It sounds like the three Os are not just a rule for an organization, but a rule for an individual as well?

Bob Seiner: I never thought of it that way, but I think that’s true. But don’t be shy. I used to fear public speaking. I got over that after doing it quite a bit. And it continues to be a big part of my career. Anybody that can even speak publicly within their own company or within their own organization, they’re going to be much more effective communicators in the long run. So you’ll learn by doing. Don’t be afraid to get started. I was afraid to get started. And once I got past that, I found it to be much easier and much better for my career, as well.

 


 

A Data Culture isn’t Optional

Satyen Sangani: To conclude our conversation, Bob left us with a reminder. Creating a data culture isn’t an option for most businesses. It’s a necessity.

Bob Seiner: On the whole idea of convincing people that this is necessary, I suggest that we ask two questions, maybe three questions, of the stakeholders of the data.

  • First, what can’t you do that you’d like to be able to do because you don’t have the data or the knowledge of the data or the access to the data that you need? That opens a can of worms with a lot of people when they start telling you things that they’d like to do that they can’t do because they don’t have the data to do it.
  • The second question is a flip of the first question: what would you do if you had full access to data, full understanding of the data? If you take what they can’t do and what they could do, thinking outside the box, those are the first two questions.
  • The third question is, what the heck does that have to do with data governance? How are we going to get them to do things that they can’t do now? And how are we going to help them to think outside the box and be creative with how they use data?

Ask your folks in your organization those questions, and you may be surprised at the answers you get. But they will be great artillery to take into your senior leadership, by saying, “Folks want to be able to do this. And they can’t because the data’s not where it needs to be.”

Satyen Sangani: Those questions are really common with some of the same questions that great sales people ask, like, what’s your current state and what do you envision in the future state? And now here’s how my solution is relevant. As opposed to starting with here’s how my solution is relevant when I don’t have any understanding of your problems or what you do every single day. It makes complete sense.

Bob Seiner: We data people are sales people. It’s part of our job. We have to constantly be, especially in many organizations, at least, we need to justify our existence. So we’re constantly selling what we do.

Get people in the organization to give you that artillery to use instead of trying to make it up yourself. Talk to people about what they can and can’t do or what they’d like to be able to do with the data. And the only way that you’re going to get there is by having a resolute effort. Like I said, if there’s one word I’d like to leave with people is that the data’s not going to govern itself. It requires effort. And it starts with data governance.

Satyen Sangani: We know that creating the best outcomes for businesses starts with data. But so many people inside those businesses are intimidated just by the word data itself. How can we teach them a new language if they’re afraid? That’s why I think Bob’s thoughts on communication are so powerful, because they’re so simple. Bob’s principles demystify data governance and make it easier to grasp.

And that’s what you need to do inside of your organizations and communities. Demystify data. Make it easier to understand.
This is Satyen Sangani, co-founder and CEO of Alation. Thank you for listening.

Polish linguist and ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof was born in Poland in 1859. At the time, ethnic conflict was a part of his daily life. Zamenhof began to ask himself, “How could these prejudices become a thing of the past?”

Zamenhof was a humanist. He believed that humanity could overcome its differences and that a new universal language could bridge the divide. So he drew from both romance and dramatic languages to create Esperanto. The language’s alphabet and grammar were standardized and simple. It’s not like English where I comes before E… except when it doesn’t.

Esperanto struck a chord. One of its most famous speakers was, in fact, the great Leo Tolstoy. He claims to have become fluent after just a few hours of study. He also published articles promoting language. Unfortunately, having one of the world’s great writers learn your language isn’t enough to actually create a language that lasts. Esperanto never caught on. It’s actually ironic. The ultimate goal of Esperanto was to create a shared universal language, but the Esperanto movement failed to communicate its own value.

To me, these challenges sound very familiar to what we in data call data governance.

Data governance has the same principles of a shared system of policies, definitions, and processes to bring order to data and to reduce the conflicts and challenges in how we consume and manage data. But, like Zamenhof and Tolstoy, we don’t always do the best job in communicating its importance. People resist change. Habits are tough to break.

Now think about creating change across an enterprise with thousands of employees and stakeholders around the globe. That’s a serious challenge. And that’s what data governance often is trying to achieve. That’s why my conversation today with Bob Seiner is so useful. Bob is the principal and founder of KIK Consulting. He’s also the author of Non-invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success. Bob’s been a pioneer in the data management field for decades. He knows firsthand how important communication is for creating robust data cultures.


Producer Read: Welcome to Data Radicals, a show about the people who use data to seek things that nobody else can. This episode features an interview with Bob Seiner, president and principal at KIK Consulting and Educational Services.

On this episode, he and Satyen discuss the principles of noninvasive data governance, the relationship between communication and implementation, the common issues Bob sees when working with clients, and much more.

Data Radicals is brought to you by the generous support of Alation, the data catalog and data governance platform that combines data intelligence with human brilliance. Learn more at Alation.com.

 

Defining Data and Admitting We Need Governance

Satyen Sangani: Teaching data to our clients is a lot like teaching a language. Just like with Esperanto, we have to create a consistent framework and structure. That begins with aligning on common definitions for key terms. These frameworks are shared foundations for building meaning.

Throughout this episode, Bob will define a few of the biggest terms in data for us. And we’re going to start with the D word itself, data. Just as Esperanto had to define its laws of grammar, so too data governance must define its internal structure.

Bob Seiner: A lot of it starts with data definition. I typically, for simplicity’s sake, break the actions that people can and take with data down to three different actions: defining data, producing data, and using data. And people can’t really produce data if it’s not defined very well, or they can’t produce high quality data if there’s not solid definition to the data.

I find that we need to keep it simple. One of the biggest challenges that I see is that organizations, especially in the field of data governance, that’s a scary word to a lot of people. Governance is like government. It means there’s going to be rules. There’s going to be bureaucracy. I like to take the approach of your organization wouldn’t be in the situation that it’s in right now, from a positive perspective, if you had a complete lack of governance.

So if we start with a premise that there’s already governance taking place or management taking place, it’s just very informal, I found that that was an easy problem to solve. It was a challenge that people were scared of data governance, but if you temper that and make people understand or help people to understand that there’s already management taking place, you already have data, it’s not that difficult of a challenge to address.

Satyen Sangani: Defining data isn’t enough, though. It’s also important to communicate that definition effectively, consistently, and in a variety of different mediums.

Bob Seiner: Communication is critical. So we need to make certain that the messaging that we’re providing to the organization fits into the existing culture within an organization. A lot of organizations don’t have a data culture or a culture that really focuses on data or a data-driven culture. And so this is something that’s new to them. But, those people are actively defining, producing, and using data as part of their job. So they just need to realize that what they’re doing can be done better or can be done more efficiently and effectively with a better result to the organization.

The cultural issue is something that needs to be addressed. We need to make people more data literate, and that is presenting them with alternatives to how governance can take place within their organization. Because the initial thought is they hear the term governance and they think of government and they think it’s going to be difficult. They think it’s going to be changing what they do significantly. We need to focus on improving the culture. And a lot of that starts with effective communications across the organization.

Satyen Sangani: And does that imply that people under-communicate these efforts or under-communicate often the whys or the benefits in the work?

Bob Seiner: I think people recognize that communications is a big part of changing the culture, but they haven’t really done it. They haven’t had effective messaging to get people to buy into those changes that they’re asking for.

I’d say communications is not always front of mind when organizations are delivering effective governance programs, and it needs to be more of a part. In fact, every client that I work with that’s at least starting at a certain point, communications is a big part of delivering success in governance. So if you can’t get people to understand the role that they play and where they need to have a more data-oriented culture, you’re going to have a very difficult time achieving that level of culture.

Satyen Sangani: Esperanto was apparently easy to learn, but most languages don’t come so naturally. It’s not just that languages require different vocabulary, intonation, and grammar, they also require you to have a different mental model for how to think about the world around you. And languages evolve over time, reflecting changes in society. According to Bob, that same haphazard pattern of growth and evolution is true of larger companies. It explains why enterprises struggle with sharing data effectively.

Bob Seiner: A lot of organizations grow through mergers and acquisition, and one company can now be made up of several other organizations, and those organizations didn’t start by working together. Or even those departments within one organization did not start by working together. Because they were working independently of each other, they were defining the data and producing it and using it differently from each other. When you acquire other organizations, and you try to build them into your environment, I’d be very surprised if that data exactly matched up and connected up with the data that you already had.

The fact is that we haven’t really coordinated these activities. There hasn’t been any formal method or discipline that’s been associated with getting people to work together rather than doing everything independently. I think the idea of people working independently and not working together is what’s built the silos within organizations.

Satyen Sangani: You’ve mentioned a couple of times this idea of a business glossary and this notion—I think the word that you used was tribes—which I thought was really interesting because it almost frames data as a language of sorts. And that idea then becomes that people are now able to talk to each other. That process of learning each other’s languages and learning from each other, how do you see that reflected in your work?

Bob Seiner: I suggest that you don’t have several governance initiatives taking place at the same time. I suggest that there would be one that would oversee the breaking down of the silos, getting people to cooperate and to work together. A lot of organizations have shadow IT groups that are tired of waiting on IT to provide them the systems they need, so they go create their own systems or they go create their own spreadsheets. And it’s just gotten worse and worse over time.

At some point, somebody needs to inventory all of that information. It is like they’re speaking a separate language. And a good term that’s used these days is common business language. Organizations are really suffering because they call the same thing something different in different parts of the organization, or they call different things the same thing, and it just doesn’t sync up and organizations have problems with their data because all the data is being created independently. And governance over the entire organization, it’s something that we need to strive for. We typically can’t start by flipping a switch and having governance come on to the entire organization. It takes time. It has to be done incrementally.

 


 

Recognizing Data Governance, Not Assigning It

Satyen Sangani: We’ve got the definition of data down, and we understand why something that can seem so basic is so complicated. It’s time to define our next term: data governance.

Bob Seiner: I actually use very strong language when I define data governance. I say that data governance is the execution and enforcement of authority over the management of data. There need to be rules, and those rules need to be followed, and people need to be educated on why they’re following those rules.

The way I typically get started with an organization is to define best practices that have been successful for other organizations and compare where you are to those best practices, and then build a roadmap or an action plan that will help you to achieve best practice in standing up formal governance within an organization.

Satyen Sangani: How do people traditionally handle it? So if there’s a non-invasive data governance, what does invasive data governance look like? And what’s the failure pattern?

Bob Seiner: People are busy. People are very busy in organizations. And if you’re going to assign people to be data stewards or assign people things, it’s immediately going to feel like it’s over and above what they’re presently doing. I tend to shy away from the word assign. I use the word recognize. Let’s recognize who’s doing what with the data, and let’s help them to do it better. It’s a lot less threatening to an organization if you go around and assign things to people that they don’t already have. I know when I’m assigned something, I immediately feel like it’s over and above what I’m doing.

So there are ways to get to governance of data without making it feel like it’s additional work. And it doesn’t mean that it’s completely not going to be added on to what people are presently doing. But, if we communicate to them that data governance is very complex and it’s difficult and it’s going to require all this time and all this money, that’s what they’re going to believe. If we start with the premise that we’re already governing our data, but we’re going to do it more formally and that will lead to efficiency and effectiveness, that’s a much better way to get people over that hurdle of thinking that, “Oh, here comes governance. I’m going to close my door or pull down my blind. I don’t want to talk to these people.”

So the difference really is between assigning people things and recognizing that they’re already doing it, and we can help them to do it better.

Satyen Sangani: It sounds like you’ve got a set of rules, the authority that you’re referring to. Somebody’s got to determine what those rules are. Somebody’s got to come along and figure out how those rules are going to be enacted and enforced. Somebody’s got to go figure out that, in fact, that’s being done correctly. And then I guess ultimately, that’s got to have some benefit for the organization.

When you see that journey and that process, when is it easy and when is it hard? What are the hardest battles you fight in getting organizations to do it the right way, and why don’t people just do it the right way? Why don’t people make it as easy as possible?

Bob Seiner: Where I would focus is on where there are existing levels of governance within an organization. So for example, information security. It’s not an option for an organization to secure their data. Data privacy, GDPR, CCPA, all the regulations are forcing us to do those things. So if you work with the premise that that’s already happening and it’s necessary, protecting sensitive data isn’t always the reason why organizations implement governance. Sometimes they have a lack of quality of the data, or there’s a lack of understanding, or people don’t know what data even exists.

Somebody needs to take on that responsibility, to collect that information, to make it available. People are scared of governance, and we need to make them feel like it’s already part of what they do and enable them to do it better.

 


 

Common Sense Beats a Heavy Hand

Satyen Sangani: People are aware they have problems, right? They’re aware they have low quality data. They’re aware that they can’t find the data. They’re aware that they’re not complying with some regulation. But then it seems like often there’s this notion of command and control, it’s going to be big, it’s going to be expensive. It feels like you’re saying there may be a bias towards folks who want to go top down and make it something bigger. And I guess the question is why is that the case?

Bob Seiner: Because they don’t know necessarily that there are alternative approaches to reaching the same goal. The term governance is a heavy-handed word. In the U.S., we drive on the right side of the road. If we drive on the left side of the road, there’s going to be a penalty for that, if you don’t kill somebody by running into a car that is actually following the rules.

Most organizations think that governance has to be top down. And that’s why I’ve spent a lot of my career helping organizations to understand that there is an alternative approach, that you can look to leverage things that already exist within your environment first and then apply the heavy-handedness wherever you need to. But you can stay less demanding and you can build it into what people do. I always joke that if you consider data governance a game, you’ve won the game when you build it into what people do, rather than making it feel like it’s over and above what they’re presently doing. That’s the difference between assigning somebody into a role and recognizing somebody into a role.

Organizations take that top down approach because they think that’s the only way to be successful. I can tell you of many, many organizations that view it the other way now because they’ve had the opportunity to read what I’ve written or hear what I say. And if you think of it in terms of being radical, yeah, maybe this is a radical approach to governance. But it’s not really that radical. It’s really very common sense. And I’d rather see common sense than to take this heavy-handed approach.

Satyen Sangani: I love that. Being a data radical isn’t just about doing anything radical at all. It’s about having common sense and following best practices. So how does Bob go about creating more data radicals? His methods begin with a three O’s of data.

Bob Seiner: The way that I break down communications associated with governance, I categorize it into the three O’s.

  1. We need to orient people to the whole concept of governance and why it’s important and the value that’s going to come from it and the approaches that are available to be followed.
  2. The second O is onboarding. You can’t go out and tag a data steward and tell them, “Okay, go do steward stuff. They’re not going to understand what that means. We need to onboard them appropriately, depending on what role they’re going to play within your organization. That onboarding type of communications. Let’s orient them, let’s onboard them.
  3. Then let’s provide them ongoing communications that tells them how successful has the organization been. What problems have we solved? What opportunities have we addressed?

Having a formal approach to governance that carries out those three O’s of data governance is really effective because it covers those people that are very new to it, those people that are now being asked to do something, and those people that are already doing something

It’s very important that you build that into the program. That requires people and it requires effort to do it. I suggest to organizations, work with your communications folks who are really good and powerful in messaging across the organization. Don’t try to do it on your own. We data people, it used to be that we were in the shadows. Now we’re more out there in the open. Let’s make sure our messaging is good, let’s have a plan, let’s implement a plan, and we’ll be much more successful.

 


 

Building a Sustainable Data Culture

Satyen Sangani: We know that one of the biggest challenges to Esperanto’s growth was building a sustainable culture to create that shared set of rules and that shared mental model for how the world behaves. That’s why it’s so important for us to define our final and most important term: data culture.

Bob Seiner: I think of culture as being the essence of being. The essence of being focused on data and data management is where data starts to be entered into the culture.

People are very busy. They have day jobs. We can’t give people more things to do because they have day jobs. They’re not being evaluated on how well they define, produce, and use data. Perhaps we need to build that into where they’re being evaluated, to help them to understand the importance of this and to their job performance, but then also to the performance of the entire organization.

Satyen Sangani: I love this idea that data culture is where data’s a part of your day job and widely a part of the day jobs of everybody within the organization. That’s super instructive because it makes it very tangible for people as opposed to being this abstract concept.

Bob Seiner: These things aren’t going to happen on their own. The data is not going to govern itself. The data is going to do what we tell it to do.

I had a good friend of mine many years ago, he said, “We shouldn’t even call it data governance. We should call it people governance because we’re governing people’s behavior associated with the data.”

If you go to the KIK Consulting website, right across the top of the screen, it says, “The data will not govern itself.” And so we need to make an effective effort to govern the data. I’ve even added to that to say the metadata will not govern itself. There is such a thing as metadata governance. Somebody needs to define and produce and use and collect and catalog that information to make it available to people across the organization.

I also take the approach that everybody in the organization that has a relationship to the data is a steward of the data. If they define and/or produce and/or use data as part of their job, and that’s pretty much everybody in the organization, and they’re being held accountable for how they define, produce, and use data, they’re stewards. You can’t opt out.

The example I use is, if you’ve got data that is sensitive, you’re not going to point to half of the room and say, “Okay, you folks use sensitive data. You need to protect it. While you folks over here that use that same sensitive data, you don’t have to protect it.” If we can get our organizations to really recognize that everyone potentially is a data steward, that’s going to take a great step towards improving the data culture of the organization.

 


 

What the Future Holds for Data Governance and Data Radicals

Satyen Sangani: If you think about it, data’s just another language. And if we make it easy to grasp, then we can create more data radicals. So let’s shift gears a bit. Bob has seen our field grow in some incredible ways. What does he see for us in the years ahead?

Bob Seiner: In the past, and I’m talking about the fairly recent past, the technologies haven’t been there to really enable companies to bring data together. And now those technologies are being developed, and they’re being brought to market, and organizations are being very successful with it. So again, organizations need to have a focused effort on collecting that information about the data and making it available to people.

I think some of the same problems that will exist is, number one, if senior leaders don’t get to the point where they thoroughly understand what governance is and what it takes to be successful, that’s a problem that we’ll continue to have until we can effectively communicate with people.

We need to leverage technology. You’re not going to go out and acquire a technology and install it, and all of a sudden you’re going to solve all your problems. Because it truly is people governance, and organizations need to recognize that it’s not that the technology is the enabler to success, but the people are the real path to success. And if you start with the premise that you’re already doing this, and we can help you to do it better, they’re going to be much more willing to sit forward in their chair and listen to what you have to say, and more likely to follow an approach that’s not going to feel threatening to them and what they do.

Satyen Sangani: And what about the data radicals of the future? How can they get their careers on the right path?

Bob Seiner: Well, the way that I got started was to do your research. There’s a lot of fantastic information out there. In the governance world, it’s different approaches to governance, different tools to be able to use, or even templates or things that are not the software, like the catalog that Alation puts out there. I would say do your due diligence, do your research, ask questions, get the information that you need.

I suggest to people that they put their thoughts in what they’re doing and what they’re finding successful down on paper. If they’re not just writing for themselves or writing for their organization, write for other publications. Because people are very interested in what different people are doing in different organizations.

If you’re really interested in pursuing data as a career, there are a lot of certifications and there’s a lot of learning plans and things that you can do. But I think the more that you practice articulating your success and the value of what you’re doing, the better you’re going to be in your career.

I got started by writing articles. I have an online publication called the Data Administration Newsletter at tdan.com. I found it much easier to get published if you’re the publisher. I didn’t have to go through anybody so I could publish my own materials, and I’ve been publishing materials of other people.

Get up and give a presentation. Submit an abstract to a conference. Get up in front of like-minded people and talk about what you’re doing and get questions and answer those questions. It will only improve your career. It’ll improve your ability to be able to communicate with people at all levels of the organization. That’s what I suggest to people who want to pursue this as being an important career, a career move for them, in fact.

Satyen Sangani: It sounds like the three Os are not just a rule for an organization, but a rule for an individual as well?

Bob Seiner: I never thought of it that way, but I think that’s true. But don’t be shy. I used to fear public speaking. I got over that after doing it quite a bit. And it continues to be a big part of my career. Anybody that can even speak publicly within their own company or within their own organization, they’re going to be much more effective communicators in the long run. So you’ll learn by doing. Don’t be afraid to get started. I was afraid to get started. And once I got past that, I found it to be much easier and much better for my career, as well.

 


 

A Data Culture isn’t Optional

Satyen Sangani: To conclude our conversation, Bob left us with a reminder. Creating a data culture isn’t an option for most businesses. It’s a necessity.

Bob Seiner: On the whole idea of convincing people that this is necessary, I suggest that we ask two questions, maybe three questions, of the stakeholders of the data.

  • First, what can’t you do that you’d like to be able to do because you don’t have the data or the knowledge of the data or the access to the data that you need? That opens a can of worms with a lot of people when they start telling you things that they’d like to do that they can’t do because they don’t have the data to do it.
  • The second question is a flip of the first question: what would you do if you had full access to data, full understanding of the data? If you take what they can’t do and what they could do, thinking outside the box, those are the first two questions.
  • The third question is, what the heck does that have to do with data governance? How are we going to get them to do things that they can’t do now? And how are we going to help them to think outside the box and be creative with how they use data?

Ask your folks in your organization those questions, and you may be surprised at the answers you get. But they will be great artillery to take into your senior leadership, by saying, “Folks want to be able to do this. And they can’t because the data’s not where it needs to be.”

Satyen Sangani: Those questions are really common with some of the same questions that great sales people ask, like, what’s your current state and what do you envision in the future state? And now here’s how my solution is relevant. As opposed to starting with here’s how my solution is relevant when I don’t have any understanding of your problems or what you do every single day. It makes complete sense.

Bob Seiner: We data people are sales people. It’s part of our job. We have to constantly be, especially in many organizations, at least, we need to justify our existence. So we’re constantly selling what we do.

Get people in the organization to give you that artillery to use instead of trying to make it up yourself. Talk to people about what they can and can’t do or what they’d like to be able to do with the data. And the only way that you’re going to get there is by having a resolute effort. Like I said, if there’s one word I’d like to leave with people is that the data’s not going to govern itself. It requires effort. And it starts with data governance.

Satyen Sangani: We know that creating the best outcomes for businesses starts with data. But so many people inside those businesses are intimidated just by the word data itself. How can we teach them a new language if they’re afraid? That’s why I think Bob’s thoughts on communication are so powerful, because they’re so simple. Bob’s principles demystify data governance and make it easier to grasp.

And that’s what you need to do inside of your organizations and communities. Demystify data. Make it easier to understand.
This is Satyen Sangani, co-founder and CEO of Alation. Thank you for listening.

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