Data governance: How to get started

Insights Article - Series analytics powered campus

Whether in retail, banking, or healthcare, today’s savviest business leaders count data among their top corporate assets—as valuable as products, equipment, facilities, and employees—and they govern it as such. Higher education needs to adopt this approach as well.

Without a formal strategy for managing data, institutions are leaving a key driver of efficiency, growth, and innovation underutilized. “Data governance” is the framework for implementing that strategy. And data governance is foundational in building an analytics-powered campus.

In this three-part blog series, we’ll help you get started with data governance by answering basic questions like “Where do we even begin?,” “Who and what are involved?,” and “How do we sustain success?”

Starting in the right place

I work regularly with colleges and universities on setting up governance programs, and I find that getting started—or more precisely, starting in the right place—is a common challenge. Here are three things that must happen first:

1. Understand what data governance entails

What is data governance? There’s no shortage of blogs, papers, training materials, and conversations these days on the topic. There’s also no shortage of jargon, which can make it difficult to understand—and communicate to other stakeholders—exactly what the practice entails.

But most of the commonly used terms—whether governance, management, or stewardship—all describe different aspects of the same goal: using data to better “govern” the institution.

In essence, data governance entails putting policies and systems in place to ensure that people have access to the data they need to make sound business decisions and to lead the institution toward success.

data governance blog

As you can see in the left column of the chart above, data governance has essentially four basic components:

Data ownership: As with any area of life, if there’s not someone explicitly responsible for making something happen, chances are it won’t. Institutions can’t take that chance with data. Governance entails assigning the appropriate people across the institution with responsibility for managing, defining, interpreting, and protecting the appropriate data.

  1. Data access: Setting rules about who can see what data—and then putting systems in place to enforce those rules—is one of the cornerstones of governance. Without rules, you risk non-compliance with privacy regulations; staff who won’t share data because of fear of misuse; and people lacking the relevant information they need to do their jobs.
  2. Data quality: “Bad data” is what people most often associate with lack of governance. That’s because unreliable, missing, or inaccurate data has the most visible impact on day to day operations. Governance entails creating formal processes for careful data entry, as well as defining, coding, and interpreting data consistently across the institution.
  3. Data security: While there is obviously a large IT component to data security, the way in which average users handle data is just as critical. Governance entails establishing and enforcing rules about how data can be displayed, shared, and disposed of. Ellucian CIO Lee Congdon recently wrote a six-part blog series on data security that contains an in-depth look at the “human side of data security.”

I’ll be going into greater detail on the people, policies, and processes that go into each of these components in the next blog.

2. Establish a data governance council

Data governance is not an IT function. It’s an institutional mandate that requires cross-functional collaboration and stewardship.

One of the first things I help clients do is establish a formal data governance council. It should be comprised of senior staff who oversee the operations and strategic direction of all areas of the business. That’s because complying with regulations, setting and enforcing policies about data usage and integration, and resolving conflicts all require cross-departmental collaboration at the highest level.

Successful data governance requires a massive culture shift and implementation of new technology and workflows. Council members ensure buy-in and reinforce the legitimacy, importance, and careful management of each major change.

3. Get leadership on board

Securing leadership endorsement is a must. You may establish a world-class data governance framework, but it will only work if everyone complies. So the rules can’t be perceived as optional. The President, leadership, and board must signal to the entire institution: “We consider data one of our most valuable assets, and this is how we manage it.”

As with any program, you also need funding and resources. Without leadership support, it’s difficult to integrate activities into the institution’s annual budget and strategy or tie it to key performance indicators. Bottom line: engage leadership early and often.

Next steps

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the key elements of an effective data governance strategy and framework.

And for more insights and resources about becoming an analytics-driven campus, check out our analytics-driven campus resource page.

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