Introduction to Guerilla Data Governance: An interview with Mike Meier

Guerilla data governance is a distinctive approach that several practitioners have adopted to accelerate governance principles in their organisation.

Guerilla data governance is a distinctive approach that several practitioners have adopted to accelerate governance principles in their organisation.

Introduction to Guerilla Data Governance: An interview with Mike Meier

In a continuing series of articles relating to data governance, we speak with data governance and data quality expert Mike Meier.

Mike has formulated an approach he terms “Guerilla Data Governance” and regularly presents at his blog and industry events his experiences of improving data governance without executive backing, budget and dedicated resources.

We caught up with Mike to find out more about his approach and some of the techniques he adopts.

Check out the useful Guerilla Data Governance slide presentation Mike has included at the end of the interview.


Data Quality Pro: Please can you tell our readers a little about your background.

Mike Meier: I have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science (and German) from Iowa State University and a Masters in Management from Cardinal Stritch University. I have worked in industries from Defense to Transportation including Manufacturing and Healthcare in roles from development to data administration and data resource management. I have publications as well as presentations on my resume.

Data Quality Pro: You are a strong advocate of “Guerrilla Data Governance” – can you explain what you mean by this term?

Mike Meier: By Guerrilla Governance, I mean the application of guerrilla principles to the creation of governance. Industry-wide (meaning the information industry) we have a tendency to view governance as a huge initiative that can’t be undertaken without the active support of the C-level and a substantial budget. This view causes us to wait rather than do. My own experience is that big results can be obtained without budget and without dedicated resources (though not without dedication).

Data Quality Pro: What are some of the main reasons you see for the failure of data governance in modern organisations?

Mike Meier: There are two main reasons why data governance efforts “fail”. First, the vision is unclear. The evidence of this is the confusion and uncertainty that abounds and the “wait to be told what to do” attitude that makes progress impossible.

Second, there are very real limitations on what can be done if we have no existing governance to tie into. Data Governance may be thought of as a process (a very complex one composed of many sub-processes) and if we recall our education in mapping process flows, we will note that the inputs to a process must be consistent and of known quality.

In many instances, we devote time, energy and money to defining the data governance process only to roll it out and learn that it takes human resources that are not available due to the number of decisions that must be made because of the complete lack of consistency of the inputs.

Data Quality Pro: Are there any techniques you have found particularly useful when trying to build a data governance community within an organisation?

Mike Meier: The techniques are those that we in technology-related fields have chosen to ignore. The core is Communication, which consists of listening, asking knowledge acquisition (rather than knowledge transmission) questions, and listening some more.

We have become focused on telling others what we need and why they should care—though we have never become adept at it. We need first to show others that we care about their problems and how, with their cooperation, we can solve them. Communities are built on shared concerns, shared pain. Every guerrilla leader has a feel for this.

Data Quality Pro: On your blog, you mentioned some informal data governance surveys that you undertook with members of varying sized organisations, can you summarise the findings for our readers and any conclusions that can be drawn?

Mike Meier: When I say “informal” I mean the kind of survey that one takes from the front of the room. Sometimes it’s a show of hands, and sometimes it’s a mental tally based on the kinds of questions being asked.

My audiences have included people from both very large and very small organizations. Because of the guerrilla governance subject matter, it may be that I’m not seeing people from organizations with “mature” data governance efforts.

I will say, however, that even in casual conversation at events from DAMA chapter meetings to the annual Data Governance Conference, there is an element of approval-seeking that feels like “are we doing it right?”

Data Quality Pro: You mention that in some of the “big name” organisations that are implementing data governance, staff are feeling a ”…considerable degree of anxiety…” or possess ”…a pretty fatalistic attitude…” about data governance – why do you think these people are feeling this way?

Mike Meier: I tend to think that the reason for the anxiety is that people feel that they’re in deep water and no longer in contact with the shore. The overall vision is lacking. Data governance seems manageable when it’s a matter of solving a handful of recurring problems, but once people leave the dock, the sea suddenly appears much larger.

The fatalistic attitude stems from a lack of ownership. In many organizations, initiatives like this are launched amidst much fanfare but with no feel for the commitment and dedication that must be present if it is to succeed. Politically-based commitments are like fireflies. There it is! Where did it go? Another reason for starting where the commitment level is highest—at the point of pain.

Data Quality Pro: Where do senior executives fit into “Guerrilla Data Governance”, the phrase implies that their involvement is not mandatory?

Mike Meier: I asked a CIO who was present how he felt when I said. “Just do it!” He confessed that it made him very nervous. I think that if executive management wants to be involved, it will only help and there’s no reason why one of these folks couldn’t lead a guerrilla movement.

The issue is that managers are accustomed to focusing on budgets and resource allocation and they operate in an environment in which political factors are a paramount consideration. This orientation leads directly to waiting for the stars and planets to align before starting something as far reaching as [data] governance. It’s not that they don’t want the results—they just don’t want to risk their credibility on something they really don’t understand.

I would love to have management be part of my community because they have access to information that others don’t and can help the community avoid situations that could be very costly in terms of credibility and commitment.

A guerrilla leader and movement can operate across a broad front in a very coordinated way so there is no reason to fear fragmentation and working at cross purposes—in fact, this is much less likely than under a more traditional approach.

Managers are forced to think first of their own budget and resources while the guerrilla leader is committed to a comprehensive vision and able to recruit new community members from other organizations as needed.

Data Quality Pro: Can any organisation start a guerrilla initiative or do they need a certain level of data maturity beforehand?

Mike Meier: Any organization can benefit from a guerrilla initiative. The concept was born in an organization that was a newborn in terms of data maturity.

What is required is a vision that has sufficient detail that the leader can define sub-initiatives and formulate a plan for attacking them, either in parallel or sequentially as opportunities present themselves.

At the start only one person needs this vision. As time goes by, other leaders will emerge as they begin to perceive the full scope of the vision.

Data Quality Pro: How is a typical guerrilla data governance team structured?

Mike Meier: There is no such thing as a guerrilla governance team.

Teams (I prefer communities) form themselves around specific problems or pain points. As individuals participate in these and solve problems (that management has either ignored or seemed incapable of handling), they begin to feel a sense of empowerment. Communities overlap and have no set source, format or size.

The leader(s) are always on the lookout for the “teachable moment” when they can take individuals or small groups aside and show them a little bigger piece of the vision.

Solving problems previously seen as insoluble or unimportant and relieving the associated pain creates a bit of hunger to do it again.

Data Quality Pro: In which type of organisational departments have you witnessed the most traction for data governance?

Mike Meier: Every department has recurrent problems characterized by poor quality inputs from some other department. These are incredibly frustrating for those who are involved.

When the only consistency in your day is your starting time, when you are being handed new problems at a rate that you can’t hope to handle, when you feel alone, powerless and stressed beyond your capacity—you are a starting point for a guerrilla initiative.

I think every department in every organization has those people. Their problems are real. They invariably involve data issues. Their solution is always a step toward [data] governance.

The only question is who is committed enough to step forward. The solution needs a focal point, a leader who can string successes together.

The leader who can see my pain as a data governance opportunity and use a win-win approach to create consistency and get rid of unpleasant surprises will be on everyone’s speed dial.

Image credits: cc


Mike is launching a data management coaching practice as WhiteLake Data Management (http://www.m2dxtx.com). 

He maintains a blog relating to governance and coaching at http://bi-keep-it-simple.blogspot.com.


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