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Thursday, 3 January 2013

Who is the Highlander?

Whenever we discuss the need for Data Governance, one area that rightly receives significant attention is to start explicitly identifying those stakeholders who need to be more formally accountable for the organisation’s data. The roles and responsibilities of “Data Owner” and “Data Steward” are debated, and Steering Committees, Information Boards and other collective groups are eventually formed which bring the participants together on an ongoing basis.

With a fair following wind, people will start talking to each other for a change and data will be the topic of conversation. If you’re really lucky, everyone might start playing nicely in the sandpit and you might actually get some positive action.

So far, so egalitarian. However, this collective, co-operative approach is not without its challenges. I’ve worked with several organisations that have started out on a path towards more formal Data Governance but have failed to get beyond the “talking shop” stage. They’ve established working parties to focus on data quality issues, they’ve agreed formal Data Principles that define the expectations, and some groups have even put in place monitoring, measurement and cleansing services to correct “bad” data. Yet somehow the overall result is that nothing much actually changes and that “Data Governance” is ultimately seen as delivering little real value. (If things go really badly, then behaviours of distrust, protectionism, and entrenchment across territorial boundaries can even become reinforced).

Not so when I was working on a major data and analytics project with my colleagues in Germany a while back.

The project had solid foundations. The overall benefits case was strong, the investment had been approved, there was clear focus on the data rather than the technology, we had trialed the solution within our UK business operations and there was already active and willing participation from the leaders of each business line. To this point, the initiative had progressed to investment approval stage through collaboration and consensus and I was expecting this to continue as the decision-making approach for the project proper. However, when I brought everyone together to confirm their roles within the collective Governance model, the project sponsor (Projektsführer) asked the room “Who is the Highlander?” (Imagine this spoken with a thick German accent for best effect…)

At first, I thought this was a Teutonic joke at my expense – as the token “Ausländer” on the project and a proud Scotsman, we’d already exchanged plenty of jokes about kilts, bagpipes, haggis and whisky. But my amusement (and slight bemusement) wasn’t shared by the rest of the group, who were clearly treating this as a serious question. What the heck was going on?!

The next part of the conversation went something like this:

Projektsführer: “Ach so. You have seen ze film, ‘Ze Highlander’ ja? Mit Christopher Lambert und Sean Connery?”
Me: “Ummm, yes….”
PF: “Zere can be only vun.”
Me: “Errrr. Pardon?”
PF: “There can be only one. In ze film, ze immortals all die until zere is only one left, und ze Highlander is ze one who gets all their power. So for our data project, who is the Highlander? Who is ze person that we all trust to make it work?”

And then the penny dropped. Somewhat bizarrely, my German colleagues had established a common metaphor for their Governance model, based on a poor-quality but highly entertaining science fiction from the 1980’s in which a French actor plays the Scottish hero and a world-famous Scottish actor plays a Egyptian swordsman working for the King of Spain. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highlander_(film) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091203/ )

By asking “Who is the Highlander”, everyone in the room (except me) knew implicitly what was expected – that whoever was assigned the role of leading the whole initiative would be granted the authority to act on everyone’s behalf, but would be ultimately answerable to the whole group. They would be need drive the whole process, facilitate and arbitrate, and have to ensure that everything came together and be held totally accountable for achieving a successful outcome. The German approach to Governance requires strong leadership from a committed individual, as well as active and willing participation from the wider stakeholder community.

And then they all turned to me and started laughing. Because for this project, the Highlander was, quite literally, going to be a Highlander…

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