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Expert Interview (Part 2): Nicola Askham on Getting Started with a Data Governance Plan

At the recent Collibra Data Citizens event in Jersey City, NJ, Paige Roberts of Syncsort had some time to sit and speak with Nicola Askham, The Data Governance Coach. The first part spoke about the advantage of doing data governance as an overall strategy, rather than tactically addressing each new government regulation requirement.

In this part Askham speaks about what goes into planning and starting a data governance initiative as well as what’s next for her in coaching.

Roberts: If someone was going to get started with a new data governance initiative in-house, what would you say would be the first few steps?

Askham: First, they have to get some engagement and support at the executive level. I’ve tried it so many times in so many different ways, and it’s really not sustainable unless you get that to begin with. I don’t mean a full business case, just get somebody to say, “Yes, we need to do a bit more about this.” Then, I think, the next key thing is to work out what the drivers are for your organization for data governance. In the early days, I just used to think you should do it because it was best practice, and we should do it and all live happily ever after. And I wondered why I got thrown out of meetings. [Laughs]


The Keys to Data Governance Success

You need to think about all of the executives tasked with achieving your corporate strategy and their objectives. You have to look at where the data is not good enough to meet those objectives and focus on that. There may be a problem with emails, but if emails aren’t really important for your company, then you’re worrying about something that’s not really of interest for everybody. Is it actually helping anything? If you find that there’s something they want to do, and some data problem is going to stop them from doing it or achieving that objective, then you can get their interest. I didn’t focus on the right things early on, when I first started doing data governance.

You talked about the fact when people are usually starting out, the most sophisticated tool they’re using is Excel. It seems like it’s a very manual process when it gets going.

I think it is in the early days. It’s hard enough to make the case for data governance, people just don’t see the value in it. So, why would they take you off of your current job to do something else they don’t think that they need? And then you say, “Oh, and I need budget for some fancy tools to help me do it?”  Unless you are lucky enough to have a large budget, you need to work with what you’ve got.” It might be Excel. [Laughter] As soon as you start delivering value it’s much easier to make the case to buy a tool, which then makes it so much easier to scale and manage.

What you really have to do is show them all of the things that have gone wrong already, because of bad data governance.

Yes, I call those my data quality horror stories. Delivering value is the easiest way to make the case to do data governance and, once you do, then people start to pick up on it and want more.

That’s true. What’s a really good horror story that you’ve heard?

In the insurance industry sometimes people are given guaranteed auto insurance quotes. In one case I was told about, the gentleman in question rung in and said, “I’d like to take you up on it.” Then they said, “No, we can’t give you a quote, the computer won’t let me.” Obviously call center agents are not the most senior of people and they just followed the script. He said, “No, no, you’ve written me a letter. You’ve guaranteed that you will give me coverage.” He then took it really seriously and lodged it as an official complaint, which could have gone to the regulator.

I was there at the time when we looked into it, and his date of birth made him something like 107. You could understand why the computer said no. This happened because at that time people didn’t really understand the importance of data quality. It would have been really easy if the agent had been aware at that time to say, “I’m sorry, sir. Can I just confirm your date of birth?” [Laughs]

Is there anything that you’re doing and you’d like to talk about before we finish?

I’ve tried a new idea of data governance clinics. I do data governance training courses, both public courses and in-house for clients. I get fantastic feedback for those but, as you and I know, data governance takes a long, long time. So I thought that what some people needed was a chance to solve the problems they have right now, as opposed to learning the theory for something they may not need for six months or so. So, I’ve done a face-to-face data governance clinic, in London.  And I’ve also done two Data Governance clinics online. The idea was that you bring your problems and discuss them with a group of people who are probably going through very similar things, as well as receiving advice from me.

I get told time and time again by my clients and people at conferences that when you’re just starting out in data governance, it’s really lonely because you think you’re the only person that must be doing it so badly that it’s going wrong. What you don’t realize is it’s an organizational change, and it is hard to do. I noticed that when people come on my public courses, they’re suddenly meeting people who are in the same positions as them, and they’re so relieved. It is so good for them to be able to talk to other people in the same positions, which is what inspired me to launch the concept of the clinics. To find out more about my training and clinics you can visit my website

Great, thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Thank you!

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