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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

“I’m Spartacus!”

Who thinks they own the data?

In my last blog, I aimed to clarify the roles of “data owners” and “data stewards”. And on the face of it, establishing more explicit accountability for data seems like a good idea! What could possibly go wrong?

The reality may be somewhat different.

I was re-watching the classic Kirk Douglas film “Spartacus” the other week, and it put me in mind of the type of scenario that can occur in the Data Governance space. (If you’re not familiar with the story - which has also been the subject of a recent TV series - it tells of an ultimately unsuccessful slave uprising led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus, which took place during the Roman Republic in the time of Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar.)

In the 1960 film version, at the end of a bloody pitched battle between the slaves and the Roman guard, the Romans are searching amongst the remaining survivors for our eponymous hero. All members of the revolt are offered clemency from crucifixion (the normal penalty for a rebellious slave), if only they give up their leader.

Roman Centurion: “…Identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.”

The first question in relation to data is “is there anyone who might claim to own the data?” Can someone be identified who is fits the mould of a “data owner”?

Slave #1: “I’m Spartacus!”
Slave #2: “I’m Spartacus!”
Slave #3: “I’m Spartacus!” etc.

Before the real Spartacus can make himself known, one by one each of the slaves stands and puts himself forward as being the leader of the uprising in show of defiance, and of solidarity with their leader (and effectively volunteering to be crucified). Brave? Courageous? Noble? Certainly. Effective? Clearly not.

In a Data Governance context, are there multiple owners of the data, or several candidates who would lay claim to being accountable? Which of these is most suitable, both in terms of organisational position and in terms of their ability to engage? Can you find ways of getting all of the protagonists to work together and operate in a collaborative manner, acting for the overall good of the organisation? Too many cooks spoil the broth, so the proverb goes. So too with too many Spartacuses (Spartaci?).

But what if the opposite were true? What if there’s no-one coming forward to take responsibility? Well, the Romans already had a robust plan in place to cater for such a scenario and an agonising death on the cross for all and sundry was the answer if Spartacus was not identified. But I’m not sure such drastic an approach would go down to well in these more liberal times (though you’d certainly get some attention!).

Clearly then, the “no Spartacus” solution isn’t workable.

Could we have a situation with a “conscripted Spartacus”? Someone who is pushed forward to make their sacrifice for the greater good of the group as a whole? Everyone else is saved in this scenario (at least in the short term), but I’m not sure that a co-opted approach where someone is unwillingly nominated can work very well either. The conscripted “volunteer” Spartacus gets crucified by the Romans, and the slaves are left with no leader, the rebellion I crushed, and everything goes back to the original status quo without any improvement in anyone’s lot. In our Data Governance context, a press-ganged Data Owner will usually mean no contribution, no commitment, and no success.

So, we’re left with trying to find the real Spartacus. Someone who will volunteer for the role of Data Owner, someone who is a willing and able leader who understands their responsibilities, someone who can execute against them, and someone who will be held to account for meeting their commitments. Even if we need to bide our time, we’ll have more success in the long run if that type of individual can eventually be found.

“Spartacus sum!”


  1. What would you say would be the characteristics of a data owner? How might someone identify the real "Spartacus?"

    1. Good question, and I think in terms of identifying candidates with the right stuff, you're right to focus on characteristics, rather than skills or activities. If you're familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator profiling model, I'd say your ideal candidate would fit the "ENTJ" grouping. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator for a general overview).

      This article from Forbes.com proposes a pretty good set of characteristics of successful leaders, which I think also reflect the types of qualities that candidate Data Owners should have: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyaprive/2012/12/19/top-10-qualities-that-make-a-great-leader/

      Also very apt is one of my favourite quotes, from Mark Twain: "To succeed in life, you need two things; ignorance and confidence."

      Cheers ADD

  2. Hi Alan

    I have witnessed this first hand in a number of places.

    Is the reluctance to get involved because the data has no real value to the organisation and should possibly just be deleted/archived? Or is it a reluctance to take responsibility for ensuring the the data is managed in accordance with the value it creates for the organisation?

    Food for thought.


    1. I think the reluctance is largely passive and based on lack of awareness for the most part, rather than wilful ignorance, lack of care or of absence of value. (There will always be a few recalcitrants who are deliberately obstructive or actively incompetent, but with careful management of the change process over time you can effectively marginalise their influence...)

      The "People/Process/Technology" mantra that Management Consultants have drummed into us for twenty-odd years doesn't serve and misses the fourth unifying dimension of "Data". Once there's a conscious focus on data/information as a crucial aspect of business performance, the uplift starts to happen naturally and people start to take responsibility. (See also my comment in response to John Becker on 10/09 http://www.informationaction.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/ah-so-thats-what-you-want-be-to-do.html#comment-form )

      This opinion is of course totally anecdotal; not researched, quantified or peer reviewed! Probably also subject to confirmation bias... ;)