On Data Governance, Stewards and Dragons


When you integrate systems and automate processes without controlling for data quality and consistency, you end up with data chaos. To defeat the data chaos beast, you’ll need a unified data governance strategy.

Data governance can feel a lot like fighting a three-headed dragon: every time you lop off one of its heads, two more spring up in its place. If you’ve felt this, you’re not alone. Operations professionals everywhere are battling this beast—a full 94 per cent of businesses suspect that their customer and prospect data is inaccurate. Unfortunately, despite their valiant efforts, it gets more ferocious and unwieldy every time they attempt to best it. 

To get to the treasure (your data), you need to defeat it. But this can seem like a Herculean task. Every time you think you’ve vanquished the beast (“we bought a data enrichment solution!”), more heads materialize in its place (“oh no, the integration broke” and “oh no, the platform is overwriting real phone numbers in Salesforce with 1-800 numbers!”).

So, what’s a brave data steward to do? First, understand what feeds the chaos beast, and then seek out what mythology expert Joseph Campbell says every hero requires: a magical token to aid you in your quest. Once you have that token, the data chaos beast may even begin working for you.

Why the data governance beast grows more complex the more you try to slay it.

Data stewards battle the forces of chaos, and those forces are powerful.

Chaos is data’s natural state

The universe tends toward entropy. Renowned data expert Tom Redman puts it this way: “Complexity and chaos are just the natural state of things absent some really aggressive management. Unless you manage it deliberately, things will spin out of control.” 

As hard as you work to tame your data chaos, the beast will fight back. So it’s not enough to stay on top of keeping your data clean and organized—you always have to be thinking a few steps ahead. 

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The roots go deeper than you think

If you find yourself correcting the same kinds of errors repeatedly, you may not actually be solving the problem, just creating temporary fixes. It’s not enough to fix bad data where it pops up—good stewards go back to the original source and understand how bad data is generated in the first place, and then adjust their governance program to account for it. Things only get better when you address the root of the problem. 

Your best intentions might be making things worse

Many departments recognize their data problem and try to take it into their own hands. But, without alignment across the whole organization, these kinds of solutions can actually exacerbate the problem.

Just consider—when one department decides they need to modernize, they set objectives, define their data, and start automating their processes. So does another. Pretty soon, you’ve got a patchwork of competing data governance policies. Even if these systems aren’t in direct conflict with one another, they don’t “talk,” making interdepartmental collaboration difficult. 

Good data stewards are obsessed not with patches but with durable, robust, adaptive fixes. And those fixes start with getting some people to stop applying fixes.

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How to defeat the beast once and for all: data governance best practices

Slaying the data chaos beast is too enormous a task for anyone data steward. You need the right technology, and a team rallied around you to win the battle.

Your magical token: data automation

Hercules had his magic sword; you have data automation. If you can find a way to automate data management, you’re not just stopping the bleeding with a one-and-done cleanup project. You’re putting structures in place to actually meaningfully fix the root of the problem—and keep it that way. This treats issues at the source and guards against entropy. 

Help from without — rallying your team

No one tames their data alone. You need the help of your organization to create a unified data governance strategy and put processes in place to support it. Department-based data initiatives may work, but a top-down approach allows your entire company to work towards the same data goals. This prevents a patchwork approach to your data and allows you to work together to quash issues before they spiral out of control.

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Knighting other data heroes

What really unlocks things for your business is inducting other people into the Order of the Data Stewards. When you help others in the business to understand how fixing data problems solves real business issues that directly impact revenue, you multiply your effort. Consider how helpful a head of sales development can be when they realise that better data and less time spent verifying contact data could mean 20 per cent more quota attainment for their team. Or a marketer who realizes that the answer to their bitter feud with sales could be resolved by more insight into attribution.

Become a super data steward

Data governance is about working smarter, not harder. To defeat the data chaos beast once and for all, you need a unified data governance strategy, a repeatable process, and people who understand the fix. You eliminate problems with data automation and defeat new heads as quickly as they arise with the help of your team. With these strategies in place, you can hold your head high, knowing that you’ve defeated the data chaos beast.