How to Achieve a Long-Term Data Governance Career: Nicola Askham Interview

In this interview, Nicola Askham, The Data Governance Coach, talks at length about her career in Data Governance.

Nicola discusses how she has transitioned from being a permanent employee to running her own data governance practice as well as operating in both the commercial and public sector.

There are lots of practical tips to note and you can also contact Nicola at Nicola Askham Ltd or her LinkedIn profile if you have further questions.

Dylan: Can you give people a quick indication of where you are now on your data governance journey and then we'll look at how you got started.

Nicola: Sure, I'm now running my own data governance consultancy.

I work primarily by myself but I do involve other people when necessary. I also do some in-house consulting so I can go and be an interim data governance manager for a client if required.

I enjoy that as I like keeping up to date with current practices, but I am much more passionate about spending time when I'm coaching and training people to do data governance.

I run training courses on my methodology that I've developed over the years. It gives people the building blocks for a successful data governance implementation.

I also coach clients over the phone or on Skype and handhold them as they go through data governance themselves. Clients do either training, coaching or indeed both.

I find the training and coaching rewarding because I can relate to how my clients are back where I was when I first started doing data governance for the first time. Personally, I had no-one to turn to, but now I can advise clients on the best route forward.

For example, I can advise them not to try a particular approach if I had found out personally that it hadn't worked. I can stop people making mistakes and fast-track them (or as fast as data governance can be!) and help them make the process as successful and smooth as possible.

Dylan: Let's start at the beginning. How did your data governance career begin?

Nicola: Many years ago, I was working in Lloyds Bank (Lloyds TSB as it was then).

I was in their corporate bank, and I got a job as a project manager for a data warehouse implementation.

At the time, I didn't even know what a data warehouse was, but luckily I was a business project manager and not an IT project manager! But I was blessed to have a fantastic IT team who taught me everything I know about data warehouses and tolerated my naive questions.

I ended up becoming very passionate about this data warehouse and as part of the migration into the new warehouse; we did some data cleansing.

That was a significant learning curve but after the successful project, and because we had done the cleansing in the wrong place, from day one the data quality in the data warehouse started deteriorating. I got very upset about it because I'd invested a lot of effort into it.

Colleagues told me it was nothing to do with me because I was a project manager and that I should move on now it was over.

But it niggled me in the back of my mind. I carried on project managing data projects on that team for about two years and then my boss told me one day that there had been a big restructure in wholesale banking, and I was no longer a project manager.

I was devastated because I'd suddenly found I understood the value of managing data properly. I'd loved the fact I was managing projects that helped people improve their data or gave them systems that had the potential to manage their data.

But my boss explained that the bank was setting up a central change management department, and they were sucking in all the project managers. If I stayed as a project manager, the team would lose me and I would end up in a central pool of resource and I could be put on any project - probably not data related ones.

So I agreed the best thing was to remain in the team. I was bewildered because up until then I'd always done what I was told to do so I asked my boss what should I do now?

She suggested as I was on the data team that I should make up a job that had something to do with data!

I was flummoxed, but overnight, the idea suddenly came to me that perhaps I could go and sort out why the data quality had gone wrong in the data warehouse after our project.

I told my boss I'd like to talk to people about roles and responsibilities and discover whose fault it was that the data went wrong and how could we stop it happening.

My boss agreed and told me to get on with it. I was obviously very lucky to be given that chance.

I spent a lot of time talking to people who were interested, and some who didn't want to talk and some who were downright rude! I think that's given me a real grounding in the things I teach now.

At the start, I didn't even know it was called data governance.

Dylan: I noticed on your profile that you worked on the BASEL programme. Did that come after this initial discovery that there is a requirement for roles and responsibilities? Did you mature that role into these regulatory requirements?

Nicola: Yes, I'd been working on this before BASEL II came along and I think I was probably about 18 months into doing it when I went to one of the Master Data Management conferences in London. I heard Aaron Zornes speak, and that was the moment where I found out that what I was doing was called data governance!

I carried on working, but it was slow. I can't pretend that my fist attempt was incredible. I wasn't entirely sure what I was trying to get people to do which probably didn't help. But we'd started putting in this foundation, and I was making progress.

I had worked out who my allies were across the whole bank. Then BASEL II came in and I think even the regulators would say now (with BASEL III and BCBS239), that with BASEL II they knew that they needed people to manage data, but they didn't understand it well enough.

So BASEL II didn't ask for any data governance, and I think that was probably the beginning of me thinking it was time to leave the bank. I wanted to do data governance and get it right from the beginning and get people to care about their data.

BASEL II made people focus on the quality of the data, but only as an end product. So you had to prove what you were using was good enough.

So from my time at the bank I ended up doing work that was primarily data quality focussed. This wasn't a bad thing, but it was tactical and doing things just to satisfy the regulators.

The problem was nobody else got to benefit because of where it was done whereas with data governance it gives you the framework to get much bigger and business-wide benefits.

Dylan: Based on your years of experience, and looking back at your original role, is there anything you would have done differently?

Nicola: There were several things I did wrong.

One was being an evangelist.

I'd had this lightbulb moment of how important data was to the bank. I thought I could spout on about it, and others would catch my enthusiasm.

But they didn't.

I was naive. I wasn't explaining what was in it for them and what would happen after they got involved. I wasn't good at precisely articulating what I wanted to do. I think I just wanted to evangelise about how important it was, and everyone should do it all now, but people were asking "what is this all really about?".

If I did manage to explain it, I would scare them off about how big it was.

Over the years, I've become much more pragmatic and I've focussed on the "why do you need to do it".

Focusing on the 'why' is where I start my methodology these days because I realise that's why I had previously found it so hard. I didn't have a clear message; I couldn't explain why the organisation needed it. I couldn't articulate a different story for whoever I was speaking to.

For example, the reason the finance department signing for up is totally different to the operations team. I was using the same message and expecting everybody to get as excited about data as I was.

Dylan: What were the personal traits you had to develop quite quickly in those early stages?

Nicola: Be persistent. You've got to have tenacity.

Many people are confused by what data governance means and what it delivers.

You must keep asking to talk to people because often if someone doesn't know what data governance is, they think it probably hasn't got anything to do with them. If they have 101 other things to do they'll put off seeing you.

You need to build a rapport with people to explain why it is important.

Be patient.

Some people will agree to talk to you, you'll explain what data governance is, and what you want to do with them and their department and they'll agree to it. But then because it was all new to them, they can't exactly remember everything and you'll have to repeat it all over again.

You need to be patient and explain it all again.

Sometimes you have to be patient until someone is ready to talk to you. You need to gauge the right time and not give up.

Dylan: Do you find that the word governance can be a negative term to some people? Do you ever have to change it to something more agreeable?

Nicola: It's a great point.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of starting a campaign to re-name it but I didn't think it was worth adding to the confusion surrounding the term by coming up with another title.

It does have all the negative connotations associated with corporate governance and IT governance. Many people push back and say "That's compliance's job or internal audit's job and not my job".

You have to use it as a badge but get past that and explain to people that it is about empowering them.

Whether or nor they own the data, putting in place a data governance framework enables people to explain what they need.

People can say "I need this information from you and I need it to be this good or meet these criteria". Without a data governance framework, it's hard for anybody to have that right to say that to someone else.

People think governance is about somebody with a big stick but it's not. It's about getting people to communicate and talk about their data and being in a position to ask for what they need with their data. The people on the other end need to understand they have a responsibility to meet that requirement if possible.

Dylan: Where did your career take you after the bank?

Nicola: The bank began to go through a number of changes.

Regulation was changing and the department was restructuring.

My boss said whereas data governance had previously been 'flavour of the month', they now wanted me to have a business architecture role.

I understood the value of business architecture but I passionately wanted to remain in data governance.

I tried to find a data governance role elsewhere in the bank but it wasn't possible. I finally became brave enough to leave the bank after 19 years.

With the help of Aaron Zornes, I contacted a small information management boutique consultancy called Platon and they employed me.

Dylan: How did you adapt to the move to a consulting firm?

Nicola: It was more challenging in the lead up to it.

I had many sleepless nights about whether or not to leave the bank and even once I'd resigned, I felt in limbo.

However, once I started at Platon, I felt I'd found my dream job.

It was intimidating to begin with but my colleagues offered a fantastic support network and it was an amazing company to work for.

I discovered Scandinavian companies care about work life balance. We worked hard but I loved my job so much, it was worth it.

Dylan: What was the work like at the start with Platon?

Nicola: When I was at Platon, I spent most of my time with Thomson Reuters.

However, as I was the person with the most data governance experience, I was often asked to review my colleagues' proposals and papers for other clients and I used to do training and presentations to the rest of the company to share some of my experiences.

The fact that it was all data focused was so much fun, even though it was tiring at times.

Dylan: Sometimes data quality and data governance overlap and are bundled in together. How much involvement did you have on the data quality side and how do you delineate the two disciplines?

Nicola: It is challenging.

It depends on the project as to how much I get involved in data quality. Data governance is more about the people side of things and you need data quality experts for the data quality side.

But it is a question of when do you hand over? It often depends on how big the project is and the resources you have available.

At Thomson Reuters, I worked closely with a colleague from Platon, who was an expert with data quality dashboards. My job was to get the data owners and stewards to define the KPI's and then my colleague profiled the data and used the results to articulate how they wanted to tweak the rules a bit.

He would then design the dashboards and deliver the actual reporting capabilities.

Dylan: How did the role progress?

Nicola: Sadly Platon decided to withdraw from the UK so my only option was to find a new position.

I had previously met someone at a DAMA UK event and had been relieved to discover there were other UK consultancies with data practices, even if they weren't purely data focussed.

So I got in touch with him and that was the second time in my life that I realised the value of having a network and knowing people who can introduce you.

At that time, this person was building the data practice at Glue so he welcomed me with open arms and I worked with them for a while.

Dylan: Did you do your networking primarily through DAMA?

Nicola: The only networking I did outside of the bank was through DAMA. Online networking is invaluable, there is a great online community for data management professionals, but you still can't beat meeting people face to face at events.

Dylan: While at Glue, you set up a Centre of Excellence for The Ministry of Defence. How long does something like that take?

Nicola: It takes a long time, and it wasn't complete when I left there.

It was my first and only experience of working in the public sector and I found it very different. While the senior people I worked with had a desire to achieve a centre of excellence, some people didn't have expertise in the area or a desire for it. This lack of appetite from some quarters helped me practise my soft skills, particularly empathy.

This helped bring them around and I was able to work out what they were good at. This, in turn, helped me identify which roles they would be suited for in a centre of data excellence.

Dylan: Were there any other skills you had to develop to cope with the move from the private to the public sector?

Nicola: I had to learn to be even more patient because this was a culture that moved slower. That was hard. I became, even more, aware of the amount of energy you need to maintain momentum in data governance programmes.

Dylan: In the banking sector, there's a push for regulatory directives. Can you point to a driver that was used in the public sector?

Nicola: When I was in the bank, and even Thomson Reuters, they only really have data and nothing real at the end of it. So sometimes people would say but nobody is going to die if we don't do this.

I guess that had kind of got into my head to always remember that data wasn't really all that important.

Early on with the MOD, I was trying to sell the same sort of benefits that I'd sold to commercial organisations. Then one day, a senior person took me to one side and said:

"You do realise that what you're trying to sell them isn't the right thing? You're trying to sell the wrong benefits."

I asked what I should say instead and they said:

"If we do this right, people won't die."

I asked what they meant because I thought the focus was on cost-saving, reducing waste and inefficiency. They said that yes, those things would be great to have as well but they said, what about when we don't send the right things?

He pointed me to a widely known report by Charles Haddon-Cave, QC, into the Nimrod explosion in Afghanistan, 2006.

There were a number of factors cited in the report that led to the crash but one of them was an o-ring, of precisely the same dimensions, was only listed in their supply systems once. In actual fact, two versions of the part existed, one in a soft metal and one in a harder metal. Because of the vibrations in a Nimrod airplane you need the tougher metal but the sub-standard one had been put on it and failed.

It was only when this was explained to me did I realise I'm doing it all wrong. Yes, they probably would like to save a bit of money but those particular people were focusing on the fact that they never wanted that to happen again. They didn't want anything they did to cause someone to die. People's lives would directly be affected by the improvements we made.

That was a real eye-opener for me.

Dylan: I guess that's a perfect example of why it's so important to develop data governance skills in a variety of different organisations. You need to experience the different politics and drivers found in these diverse sectors. Everyone organisation, and indeed every individual, has different motivations. What an interesting example.

So, after the MOD, you had a spell at Direct Line. What did that involve?

Nicola: It was around this point that I had started documenting what worked well and what didn't. I now had a definite and more focused approach.

I had to read the regulations and understand what the framework had to meet to keep the regulator happy. I was lucky enough to work for someone who said they wanted to put this structure in place for the whole of Direct Line.

It was a case of understanding what the regulator wanted but also getting my head around Direct Line itself, its structure, the challenges it was facing, and what it was trying to achieve apart from just meeting Solvency II. I don't believe you can get away from that if you want a successful data programme.

People ask for an off the shelf framework but it doesn't exist.

That's why I developed a methodology that helps design a framework that works for you.

I spent a reasonable amount of time at Direct Line doing senior stakeholder engagement and finding out what their problems and challenges were, not necessarily talking about their data problems.

By probing and asking more questions, I could find out what data might be contributing to those problems.

Designing the framework was a massive task of bringing all that information together to create something that was as simple as possible that met the regulator's requirements.

We had to get everyone bought in to put in enough effort to make it worthwhile but not making it look too scary in which case they may not sign up to do it.

Dylan: Where did you go after Direct Line?

Nicola: Things started to change a bit while I was at Direct Line and a few people noticed me from my contributions on Data Quality Pro.

Aspen contacted me to say they were looking for a data governance expert to do presentations for them or training and coaching.

I was starting to take days out of Direct Line to do these other things and realised how passionate I was about that type of work and how much I had enjoyed it.

At Direct Line, I was running two teams. I had the project team that was designing and implementing a data governance framework and I also recruited and trained the permanent team.

It was getting to the stage where I could see the future was coming that they could do it properly without me. That was fine with me as it was the whole purpose of my being there.

I suddenly started to realise that I would really enjoy training and coaching.

A similar opportunity then came up at Aspen so I explained that I would also like to do training with them and they agreed.

I'm called an interim data quality manager even though it is really data governance.

Dylan: Do you feel if you are doing data governance correctly, at some point you should be out of a role because data governance should become part of the fabric of the organisation.

Nicola: You'll always need some central support otherwise people will tend to forget to do the things they should do to maintain the data governance framework. But it's a lot more effort up front getting it designed and implemented.

I also feel quite strongly that it's a different skillset to sell it to people and get them engaged and involved compared to maintaining it going forward.

In business as usual (BAU) you may have one manager that runs the data quality and the data governance team which is a small central team of people supporting the data governance framework and doing the data quality reporting.

But when you're setting up you probably need somebody purely focused on data governance with a small team to help them.

It's all about getting that transition to BAU right.

Dylan: Let's wrap up by exploring what a typical data governance function consists of?

Nicola: It depends on the size of your organisation. For example, at Aspen, I've done it primarily on my own.

It's only now I'm transitioning to their BAU team that there are people of different levels of seniority to support.

If you've got a big enough organisation, it's useful to have a data governance analyst. That is someone a bit more junior who can do things like writing reports, documenting things and revising policies rather than having the challenging conversations with stakeholders.

That means you can get more value out of the manager role if you've got someone supporting them.

It obviously depends on the individual company and whether they've got the budget to warrant that.

Dylan: Great, thanks for all the insights you've shared Nicola. Where can people go to learn more about your coaching?

Nicola: Please go to my website

I run my training courses in-house or as public courses.

I have my blog on my website and there's lots of free resources and useful things to help people in their data governance.

Dylan: Thank you, Nicola. Your presentation on the Data Quality Virtual Summit website is also an excellent resource and is one of the most popular. We look forward to your appearance on this year's summit in the Spring.

About Nicola Askham - The Data Governance Coach

Nicola Askham

Nicola Askham - The Data Governance Coach

Nicola's experience in coaching both regulatory and non-regulatory organisations to design and implement full data governance frameworks, is unique within the Data Governance field.

The coaching approach enables organisations to self manage the process beyond initial implementation.

Nicola’s coaching and Data Governance workshops, including Solvency II, ensures an organisation’s data governance framework is embedded as an integral part of the “business as usual” policy.

The benefit is that once the framework is in place the organisation will be confident, competent and compliant.

Nicola is a Director and Committee Member of DAMA UK and has been presenting on data governance at International Conferences for seven years. She has presented at many IRM UK London Conferences on Data Governance, but also at several company specific events and as well as Enterprise Data World, Enterprise Dataversity, the International Data Quality Summit and the Data Governance and Information Quality Conferences in the US.

Website and blog:


Twitter: @nicola_askham and @TheDataGovCoach