In many organizations there is a growing awareness of the need for data governance. This is often driven by a perception that something is lacking – perhaps related to data quality or accountability. So this leads to a solution based on data ownership, and the monitoring and control of data quality. But is that all there is to data governance?
Data management operates at many levels, and there may be governance issues at each of these levels.
In some organizations, we may be constrained to work bottom-up, starting from level 1 and 2, because this is where the perceived issues are focused, and where we can engage people to establish the correct activities and control mechanisms. Some level 3 issues may be perceived, but it may initially be difficult to find people willing to commit any effort to resolving them. Level 4 and 5 issues are “above the ceiling”, at least within these forums.
There may be some clashes between the five levels, especially the higher ones. For example, at Level 5 the organization may assert a vision of a data-driven strategy, delivering strategic advantage to the business, while at Level 4 the data-related policies of an organization might be predominantly defensive, for example concerned with privacy, security and other compliance issues. If these two levels are not properly aligned, this is a matter for data governance, but one which bottom-up data governance is unlikely to reach.
So what would top-down data governance look like?
Purpose (final cause) – for example, to drive the reach, richness, agility and assurance of enterprise data – see my posts on DataStrategy
Approach (efficient cause) – to establish policies and processes that align the enterprise to these purposes
Structure (formal cause) – an understanding of the contradictions and conflicts that might enable or inhibit change – what kinds of collaboration and coordination might be possible – and how might these structures themselves be altered
Problem space (material cause) – finding issues that people are willing to invest time and energy to address
Bottom-up data governance is driven by the everyday demands of case workers and decision-makers within the organization, the data fabric not being fit for purpose for fairly mundane tasks. Top-down data governance would be driven by senior management trying to push a transformation of data management and culture – always provided that they can give this topic much attention alongside all the other transformations they are trying to push. (I have some experiences from different organizations, which I plan to mash together into a generic example. Watch this space.)
But what if that’s not where the true demand lies?
Philip Boxer and I have been looking at alternatives to these top-down/bottom-up hierarchical forms, which we call edge-driven governance. If the traditional top-down / bottom-up can be thought of as North-South, then this is East-West. We recently got together at the Requisite Agility conference to discuss how far our thinking had developed (separately but largely in parallel) since we wrote our original papers for the Microsoft Architecture Journal. During this time, Phil spent a few years at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) while I was mostly working at the architectural coal-face. There’s a lot of really interesting work that has emerged recently, including further work by David Alberts, and a book on Bifurcation edited by Bernard Stiegler.
So how can we make practical interventions into these data governance issues from an East-West perspective? There are some critical concepts that are in play in this world, including agility, alignment, centricity, flexibility, simplicity, variety. Everyone pays lip service to these concepts in their own way, but they turn out to be highly unstable, capable of being interpreted in quite different ways from different stakeholder positions.
So to pin these concepts down requires what John Law and Annemarie Mol call Ontological Politics. This include asking the Who-For-Whom question – agility for whom, flexibility for whom, etc. Philip has developed an abstract framework he calls Ontic Scaffolding, to support practical efforts to move “Across and Up”.
Note – videos from the Requisite Agility conference are currently in post-production and should be available soon. I’ll post a link here when it is.
Philip Boxer, East-West Dominance (Asymmetric Leadership, April 2006)
Philip Boxer, Pathways across the 3rd epoch domain (Slideshare, November 2019)
Philip Boxer and Richard Veryard, Taking Governance to the Edge (Microsoft Architecture Journal 6, August 2006)
Annemarie Mol, Ontological Politics (Sociological Review 1999)
Bernard Stiegler and the Internation Collective (eds), Bifurcate: There Is No Alternative (trans Daniel Ross, Open Humanities Press, 2021)
Richard Veryard and Philip Boxer, Metropolis and SOA Governance: Towards the Agile Metropolis (Microsoft Architecture Journal 5, July 2005)
Related topics on Philip’s blog: Agility
NEW eBook How to do things with data (Leanpub 2022)