Blog post

How Can Governance Succeed?

By Debra Logan | January 25, 2010 | 4 Comments

So, I managed to log on after only four attempts today.  My method of stubornly typing in all four of the password variations I use, instead of actually looking at where I have written it down is a habit that persists from the good old days of programming.  Those were the days that even if there WAS documentation, reading it was an admission of weakness.  This is a good sign:  it means I’ve used this tool often enough to be almost able to use it easily, kinda.  Anyway, you know how when you’re doing one of those ‘If your house was on fire and all the people and pets and other living stuff, including your plants if are that way inclined, were safe, what would you grab as you left?  My new answer is:  the notebook with all my passwords in it.   Without it,  I would be completely unable to administer my life.

The last post on ‘Reasons that information governance fails’ relied heavily on Jared Diamond’s reasons for the collapse of societies and even civilizations.  As it happens, these are not the only reasons, but he does capture succinctly the all-too-human tendency to focus on the short term and the personal, versus the longer term and the societal.  In simple terms, Diamond used evidence of societal collapse to demonstrate how difficult it is to put the long term interests of a bunch of people we haven’t met before our own short term self interests. Even if people see something coming – which they often don’t, despite the fact that everything looks obvious in retrospect – they tend to push it off and go with the old adage that ‘the future will take care of itself.’  Diamond was not judging anyone,  and neither am I, simply talking about the way things are.  Simply put, its hard for us to put the concerns of ‘the future’ over the concerns of the day.  It takes an effort of will and it takes incentives.  It also takes an understanding of or at least a stab at guessing what will be important ‘in the future’.  This applies equally to important environmental concerns on a global scale and to doing tasks during our daily work lives that may or may not be important in the future.  Information about the future is in notoriously short supply.

 Another source that I talk about in regard to the failure of organizations to account for common resources is ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’  in respect to common IT resources.  The essay is in fact about how common resources, usable by all, but belonging to no one, are abused to the point of exhaustion.  I use the example of file shares and storage arrays.  The essay was written by Garrett Hardin and talks about ‘the commons’ as all the earth’s resources that are not specifically within national territories, but even those within country borders.  A perfect example would be international waters.  But that’s not the point of the post. The point of the post is that how applying methods and insights from outside one’s profession and usual ways of thinking are often the most useful of all.

 I have been at Gartner for 10 years.  Its decade that has corresponded to a huge growth in the pervasiveness of technology in the daily lives of most citizens (or consumers, if you prefer) in the developed world and beyond.  The books that I have read in that time that have had the most useful influence on my thinking have all been outside the usual run of ‘IT’ ‘Business’ or ‘IT and business’. 

 Once a business book as become popular, its too late for me to read it.  Analysts are expected to be coming up with these ideas, not reading them in other people’s work.  By the time something like ‘The World is Flat’ is written, it should be blindingly obvious to the early adopters of new concepts, which is what we are supposed to be.  Ditto Wikinomics and Blink. And let’s not even discuss ‘Who Moved My Cheese’? They used to assign The One Minute Manager at my old company, when one was promoted to management.  I remember ‘Move the monkey’, meaning that if there was a monkey on your back, you were suppose to Move The Monkey onto someone else’s back.  That probably put me off forever.   I think I stopped even looking in the business book section of the airport after I left my last job, over fifteen years ago now.   In fact, I make it a point not to read them, mostly out of sheer stubbornness, but also because since everyone is talking about them, I can learn all that I need from the snippets I get at work, or from websites.

 Nicolas Carr, Kaplan and Norton:  again, close enough to be kinda like home boys widely read and quoted enough so that you don’t need to hear it again from me.  The books that have influenced me most in the last ten years have been from far outside the disciplines that I know and love.  Authors like Diamond who is a truly a multi-disciplinary thinker, with field experience in some of the remotest places on earth and many many years of teaching experience and creative thinking, are more likely to yield insights.   In Diamonds case,  his insights cross all disciplines:  they are about what people are really like and how they think and act in situations when they are confronted with profound problems, that they may or may not have recognized.   New insights come from the methods, the observations or simply the existence of writers and scientists, those that in the course of their work uncover not only specific truths about their own fields but also underlying truths about human nature and the world.

 When I looked at governance in light of Diamond’s work, I saw what I had been trying to condense and put into words for several years.  We fail at information governance the way we fail at many problems that come upon us slowly and whose ultimate consequences are in the future.  In business unfortunately for many the most important  consequences are only a quarter away.  Even with companies that have long term retention obligations, ‘the company’ may exist in 20, 30 or 90 years, but the individuals who are pondering the problem simply will not be there.  Of course there are shorter term problems and obligations when it comes to information, but even then, many of us do not do a great job in meeting them. We prefer – or are compelled – to look at what is important now, that will feed the next quarter or the next year.  This makes the problem of governance particularly difficult to solve, when so many other things demand our time, attention and money.

 One of the answers then, to the problem of governance, has got to be that it has to be someone’s job.  It may be with a view to keeping things for 90 years (or more, for example if you are talking about government records or nuclear power plants).  The person doing the job may not be around in that period of time, but their performance, pay, promotions and other incentives depend on getting it right today.  And its not only about information retention:  governance should  (doesn’t but should) play a role in how information is created.  Again, this is a matter of making it someone’s job, putting someone in charge.  We cannot usually see the point of governance.  It always, always involves changing the way we work, interfering and intervening in ingrained habits of mind and mouse.  It never, or rarely, anyway, has any immediate payback.  The benefits must be demonstrated before users will buy in.  The only way to do that is to make sure that it happens, without a whole lot of effort on ‘everyone’s’ part, but a lot on the part of someone whose job it is.  Not hard to do in principle, much more difficult in practice.

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  • Graham Johnson says:


    These posts are wonderful, thought provoking pieces. As someone who tried (and failed) “changing the way we work, interfering and intervening in ingrained habits of mind and mouse.”

    I too found that “It never, or rarely, anyway, has any immediate payback.”

    I also value your point that new thought seldom comes from where everybody is looking.


  • Jay Heiser says:

    Governance is one of those increasingly overused words, like freedom, and Cloud Computing, that become so ambiguous that they lose specific meaning, becoming connotational ghosts, used to improve the truthiness of a statement or idea without necessarily adding any substance.

    Cynicism aside, I’m very keen on the equally ambiguous word ‘transparency’.

    Both concepts are frequently cited as corporate and social goals, yet the public and private trend is to continue to outsource, and to rely on ever more obscure and opaque forms of productized service. The providers of these services tell us that they are well-governed, yet without adequate transparency, how can anyone evaluate such claims?

  • Bill Hewitt says:

    Debra, great thought provoking post. You make a great point about governance having to be someone’s business, and how it is so often overlooked. The question is why? Too often because governance, like many things is seen as a point in time activity, rather than a process. For good governance, any organization has to constantly pay attention to the things that matter most to them.

    Just like a good business process, there will be many participants, but there needs to be someone who is accountable. When it comes to data governance, the “what” is as if not more important than the “how”. What is defined and how it is managed determine the effectiveness of a strong data governance program. To your point, it is pervasive and requires serious commitment to make it work, but it also requires an underlying technology foundation, just like a business process, to make it fully effective.

  • Phil Simon says:

    Interesting post, Debra.

    I tend to have a “new system implementation” focus with regard to data quality issues and data governance in general, so take my opinion with a 50 lb bag of salt if you like.

    Many organizations have long neglected DQ and DG. A new system or data migration represents a unique opportunity for organizations to change their methods, but this isn’t as simple as turning on a switch. It’s cultural.

    This gets back to a point made by many people: there’s a chasm between traditional IT and business roles. Until that bridge is built, I fail to see how most organizations can enter the world of effective data governance.