Michelle Hall, Principal Consultant at Aiimi, suggests eight practical tips to help Data Leaders keep on managing Data Governance for their organisation, despite the business challenges thrown up by the Coronavirus crisis.

"It's all well and good not to worry about data governance now, but what happens if suddenly we can't all come to work each day? How are people going to know who they need to talk to about accessing and using data to continue with critical analysis, or about sharing data with others in the organisation?".

This was something I said in passing, around three months ago, during a conversation with an employee of a client. Apart from the organisation’s main building burning down overnight, I couldn't think of a scenario where we wouldn't be able to come to work. I suppose this person thought I was slightly crazy for suggesting such an unlikely event.

And yet here we are.

In the space of a week, unless we have a job critical to the national effort against Coronavirus, we’ve gone from daily commutes to offices to daily commutes from the bed to the kitchen table or home office. For many people, up until now, working from home was a completely foreign concept and, for almost all of us, the world of work is very different as we get used to multiple online communication channels to speak to clients and keep in touch with our colleagues.

When I started writing this blog, I was planning to talk about the pitfalls of not having a data governance framework, but there is enough negativity online without me adding to it. So, instead, I’ve thought about some practical suggestions of what data leaders can do to start firming up their organisation’s data governance capabilities, now.

1. Communicate more

Get in touch with your data teams. Emails are great, but nothing beats face-to-face. A daily Zoom meeting (or any other video conferencing call) to run ‘data clinics’ is a great place to start.

This clinic doesn't need to have a formal agenda; it should focus on being a place for data specialists to ‘drop-in’ and ask questions in safe environment. Think of it as the GP surgery of the data world. This will form the backbone of your data management community when things get back to normal at work. This will also help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly for those employees who live alone.

2. Publish your existing policies

Now isn't the time to be holding back or endlessly refining data policies to make them perfect. Publish them – and communicate where they are located and who should be the first point of contact if your teams have any questions.

My only caveat is that you make sure they are realistic and reflective of your current processes; the last thing you want to do is publish a policy that will be breached by everyone on day one because it just doesn’t reflect the organisation’s data maturity.

3. Write up new policies

If there are any immediate gaps in your data management policies, now’s the time to get them plugged. A policy does not need to be a long document, in fact, I often argue the shorter the better. Here's an example Data Access policy statement:

The purpose of our data access policy is to ensure that employees have access to the data they need to carry out their roles in supporting our data strategy and business objectives. This includes any data activities such as collecting, cleansing, monitoring data quality, reporting, analysing and archiving.

This policy applies to all users of our data, regardless of business unit or data type and source. Data access can be provided on a permanent or temporary basis depending on business rationale and / or job role. All requests for access need to be sent to the Data Steward for that specific data set.

If your request for access is denied, you can escalate your request to the Data Owner and then to the Enterprise Data Forum, where any decision is final.

Feel free to use this as a template!

4. Revisit security protocols

Data is moving around now more than ever. It may even be being copied and stored on the hard drives of employees’ laptops, particularly if they need to access large volumes of data and have found it easier to bypass the organisation’s data infrastructure.

It may be time to review your security protocols to make sure you’re dealing with this in the best way for your business. You could surface this challenge during your daily ‘data clinic’ calls, then get your IT department involved to provide immediate, temporary solutions and start discussions about developing longer-term solutions to improve the data infrastructure.

5. Encourage analysts to tell their data stories

In any time of change, data analytics can prove crucial to business success. And whilst analysts generally work on projects for one part of the business or one process owner, the insights they generate might be useful for other parts of the business too.

For example, the Marketing team might want insight on the customers who are currently purchasing your product. If this group of customers is very different to the customer personas who normally purchase your product, these insights will be useful for your Customer Services teams, helping them to handle customer calls and emails differently. The Finance team will probably appreciate having these insights as well.

Ultimately, sharing data analytics stories can help identify other opportunities for analysts to add value to the business.

6. Pause any programmes that involve data change

For many, this may already be a given, but it’s an important point worth mentioning. Now is not the time to start business and data change programmes (unless you’re responding to an urgent need, such as implementing technology that will make finding information easier or automating responses to customers).

This may mean that you need to stand down teams of consultants or contractors, which is a hard (and often expensive) decision. But this could also be the time that you re-allocate some funding and work effort to support the development of your data governance framework. Start writing the policies, processes and guidelines that you need to put in place to support your ‘Business as Usual’ teams.

For Data Leaders, now is the time to identify the weaknesses in how your organisation governs data.

7. Continue (or start) data quality activities

There will always be a need to carry out data quality management tasks. This an ideal time to continue or start these activities, including identifying the root causes of poor data quality.

If you’re just starting out, ensure that the project is going to deliver data that is adequate for the business requirements, and keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean perfect data.

If you’ve paused your data or systems programme, this might be a good time to develop the strategy and plan for the data migration. Both your strategy and plan will need buy-in from the Data Owners and Stewards so the earlier that they are engaged, the better. They’ll also be involved in any data cleansing activities, so it’s crucial for them to know the project plans, and for the project team to have visibility of any existing data quality or data cleansing activities that the Data Stewards are working on.

8. Capture the pain points you are currently experiencing

This is really a basic idea, and one that’s easy to overlook. I can almost guarantee that, in several months from now, when we’re (hopefully) back in the office, it’s going to be hard to remember what the pain points were at this challenging time. What data wasn’t trusted by the business? What are the gaps in the data? What questions couldn’t be answered?

Capturing these pain points now will help you identify the first data governance initiatives you need to undertake and build your data governance business case.

We’re in a new form of everyday working environment now, and there isn’t a playbook or even really a time in history that we can look back on to help us make sense of what’s happening. Whilst I’m hoping that we never live through a time like this again, I’m also hoping that we’ll learn some important lessons which we can take forward to make our working (and personal) lives better.

For Data Leaders, now is the time to identify the weaknesses in how your organisation governs data so that, when this situation comes to an end, you’re ready to implement all the changes your business needs to put data to best use.