Selling Data Governance in your Organisation

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As a data management professional, you probably don’t consider yourself a salesperson. If you’re like many of us in the data management field, you pride yourself on your technical skills or your broad industry knowledge, not your sales technique.

But in an environment where organisations are faced with multiple priorities and need to make hard choices over funding, we all need to “put on our sales hat” in order to ensure visibility and buy-in for data-centric projects such as data governance.

By Donna Burbank,

This article is a follow-on to Donna’s recent presentation, Selling Data Governance or Data Governance by Stealth at the IRM UK’s Data Governance Europe Conference in May.

Donna is speaking at the Enterprise Data and BI Conference Europe 2015, 2-5 November, London on Success Stories in Building a Global Data Strategy.

Let’s face it—data governance typically isn’t seen as the most glamorous of tasks in an organisation. Compared to flashy new campaigns such as online marketing or cool new technologies like Big Data analytics, data governance is typically placed a step below other tedious tasks such as expense reporting and timesheets in terms of the “hipness” factor. As such, it’s often difficult to get funding and buy-in for new data governance initiatives.

So why, in an era where more and more organisations see data as a competitive differentiator and a critical part of their strategic plans, is data governance given short shrift? Why is it that, even when there is support from the highest levels in the organisation, often at the CEO and/or CIO level, data governance initiatives fail to gain traction?

As difficult as it may be for us to hear, we as data professionals are often responsible for the lack of enthusiasm for data governance. Too often, we are guilty of making data governance appear, complicated, boring, irrelevant, and at times an annoyance or distraction from stakeholders’ “real” jobs. To turn this negative perception around, we often have to do a bit of selling to promote data governance.

What Does it Mean to “Sell” Data Governance?

There are several key tenets that a good salesperson understands when trying to sell any product or service. The first is understanding your customers’ motivations and drivers. What it is that excites them? What are they afraid of? How can your product or service meet their needs and/or allay their fears?

A second key tenet is making sure that the customer understands the value of what you’re offering. How will this make their life easier? Will it make them safer and more secure? Will it save them or potentially even make them money? Based on what it is that drives their motivations, how does your offering show them value?

Ease of sale is another core tenet of sales and marketing. You may have the best product or service in the world, but if it is difficult to understand or purchase, you’re likely to lose customers. In an internet era of short attention spans, instant gratification, and single-click purchasing, customers expect technology to be fast, smooth and uncomplicated.

Key to gaining repeat business is through word of mouth. Create happy customers and they’ll do the selling for you by telling their friends and co-workers about their positive experience. On the flip side, customers are often even more eager to share their horror stories, so be careful not to create negative experiences that will hinder future sales.

What does this have to do with data governance, you may ask? The following sections outline some best-practices for gaining buy-in for data governance in your organisation.

Why Should We Care? Aligning with Business Motivation

Most organisations have corporate mission statement and principles and many of these are readily posted on the company’s website and/or in posters lining the walls in meeting rooms and corridors. Take the time to read and understand the organisation’s mission and principles and how data governance initiatives can support the key drivers of the organisation.

For example, core to any retail organisation are customers, so that it a logical place to start. Do some investigation into what customer-centric programs are underway where better data could help. For example, perhaps there is a customer segmentation project run by the Sales department, an online marketing campaign from the Marketing department, and a billing automation project sponsored by the Finance department. All of these initiatives require robust customer data at their core.

Showing Value for the Money

Even the most cash-rich organisations have limited resources, however, so it’s key to prioritise activities. Which initiative does it make the most sense to start with for a data governance project? Generally, it is best to “start small” with one identifiable, time-boxed initiative, show success, and then move on to another high-value initiative, gaining buy-in and goodwill as word of mouth spreads the success you’ve achieved. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t try to boil the ocean”, and that holds true with data governance as with any project.

How do you choose that key project to start with? There are many factors in the decision, but here are three to begin:

  • How open are the staff to working with you? Some teams are more open to working with you than others—that’s the nature of any organisation. So give thought to the people and perception aspect, which we’ll address in more detail in the next section.
  • How visible is the project within the company? With this one, use the “Goldilocks Principle” – you want a project that is not mission critical, but not unheard of either. For example, picking the mission-critical launch of a new website, while highly visible, may not be the best place to start. The chances of failure are high given the high-pressure environment and competing objectives, and the visibility of a failure would be high as well. Similarly, choosing a legacy system that is about to be sunset would be a bad choice for obvious reasons. Pick a project where success will be highly visible but not necessarily mission-critical.
  • How complex is the data challenge? Give consideration to the complexity of the problem. A new program to integrate a ‘single view of customer’ integrating Customer MDM with Big Data Analytics may be highly visible with staff who are motivated to work with you, but that might be too big of a task to undertake initially. Is there a subset of that initiative that you can start with? For example, governance and quality around customer contact information?

Perhaps for example, using the criteria above, you use the marketing department as your first target. They have a new targeted campaign aimed at new customers over the age of 50 in a high income bracket, which is in clear need of better customer data for segmentation. They have a defined budget and visibility with upper management. Once you explained how you could help them get better data that would improve their campaign, they were eager to work with you. Key to getting their buy-in so quickly was to explain how data governance can help them do their jobs better. This generally works better than making this something they have to do—make it something they want to do.

Perception is Important

Now that you’ve gotten the attention of the marketing department, don’t “kill it”. What do I mean by killing it? Many of us in data management have seen this happen or been guilty of this ourselves. After spending the time to align data governance with their business drivers and motivations and “selling” them on the idea, we then make their eyes glaze over with talk of metadata, data lineage, stewardship, etc. Remember, use their language as much as possible, not technical jargon.

Instead of starting a conversation with businesspeople with something like “The first step we need to do is to identify core entities and their attributes, followed by primary keys, and then integrate with a metadata management repository in order to define accurate data lineage.”, how about saying “Let’s first identify the most important information about customers, so that we can help prioritise the pieces of information to work with first. We’ll want to get as much context about that information as possible, and store it in a central place so that everyone can see it.” The second explanation means more or less the same thing as the first, but the second stands a chance of being understood and accepted while the first runs the risk of scaring them away.

Make it Easy – Demystifying Data Governance

Along a similar vein, I’ve had a number of business stakeholders tell me “I know that data governance is important, I just don’t know what I need to do to make it happen”. Somewhere between the top-down directive from upper management and the bottom-up efforts from IT exist the business stakeholders whose daily jobs are critical to the success of governance. It might be the support representative entering data, the finance clerk managing customer accounts, or the salesperson entering information into the CRM system—all have a stake in better data governance.

Too often data governance sounds like a large, complicated effort that is outside of stakeholders “day job”, rather than an integral part of their business-as-usual activities. In communicating governance tasks to business stakeholders, remember to:

  • align governance with stakeholder motivations and goals (i.e. what’s in it for me)
  • keep tasks as granular and clear as possible to avoid making them sound too complicated and time-consuming
  • avoid technical jargon

Here’s a sampling of some ways to present common governance tasks in a way that uses the businessperson’s language and provides some rationale and motivation for the task.

  • List the most important pieces of information we need to know about customers, so that we focus on what’s critical to your business.
  • Define key business terms so that we can make sure information is used correctly.
  • Let us know when there is an issue with the data, so that we can get it resolved.

While all of the above are key aspects of data governance and stewardship, none of them should seem overly complex to the average business stakeholder.


“Selling” a data governance initiative is often more crucial to the success of the project than the technical implementation, as it is the user perception and experience of data governance that drives the perceived value. By focusing on the success of the business, and not on the success of your governance project, you’ll have a better chance of getting buy-in from stakeholders. The goal is not to have people talking in the hallways about the great new governance project, but to have them talking about the team who helped them get better data for that successful marketing campaign—and then asking for help with another initiative.


burbank_donnaDonna Burbank is a recognised industry expert and author, with more than 20 years of experience in data management, metadata management, and enterprise architecture. Donna currently is the Global Practice Director for Information Management at FHO. She has served in key brand strategy and product management roles at CA Technologies and Embarcadero Technologies and as a senior information management consultant for PLATINUM technology in both the U.S. and EMEA. She has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa and speaks regularly at industry conferences. She has co-authored two books: Data Modeling for the Business and Data Modeling Made Simple with CA ERwin Data Modeler r8. She can be reached at

Donna is speaking at the Enterprise Data and BI Conference Europe 2015, 2-5 November, London on Success Stories in Building a Global Data Strategy.

All articles are © 2015 by the authors.

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