The Soft Skills Of A Data Governance Consultant: Featuring Nicola Askham, Data Governance Coach

What does it take to consult on data governance at a senior level? What innate skills and abilities do you need to help shape the data governance direction of large, complex organisations?

One of the UK’s most respected (and sought after) data governance experts, Nicola Askham, took time out to answer my questions on the softer side of data governance. She provides some useful tips for anyone looking to get started themselves.

Dylan Jones: Nicola, can you describe a typical working week at the moment. What are some of the activities you undertook last week for example?

Nicola Askham: My weeks are usually a real mix of activities and last week was no different. We are some way into implementing a Data Governance Framework now and my role has become two separate parts, firstly continuing to implement the framework and secondly to support that part of the framework already implemented.

I spent a lot of time briefing and training people on what data governance and data quality means for them. That included sessions briefing senior management on their role and responsibilities as Data Stewards, but also supporting training sessions for a new operational risk system. I’ve taken the opportunity to become involved so that I can get the message out about what Data Quality Issues are, how you should report them and what will happen once you’ve reported them.

I’m also spending a lot of time with the key consumers of the data helping them document their requirements, in terms of data quality rules, so that we can start to measure and monitor the data.

Dylan Jones: In terms of those key consumers of the data, what is a typical life cycle for getting this group actively engaged and fully embedded in the program?

Nicola Askham: The good thing with "key consumers” is that they have an interest in the data - it’s just a case of helping them realise that! Initially I ask them to spend some time explaining to me what they do. This gives me an overview of their work and provides an ideal opportunity to ask questions to identify what type of data they use and for what purpose.

The next step is to brief them on what Data Quality is and what it means to them (asking them for examples of data problems that they currently experience or have experienced, forms an essential part of this) . This can be done on a one to one basis or by holding a workshop to brief a whole team - this can be especially useful if some of the team have quickly grasped the concept and how it can benefit them, as if handled correctly you can have them participating and explaining to their colleagues using terminology and examples with which they are all familiar.

The final stage is a number of iterative steps as you help them define their data quality requirements, starting at a high level and helping them work out the lower level of detail to produce measurable data quality rules.

That’s the challenging bit over and embedding and moving into business as usual then takes over as you publish data quality reports and dashboards for them and help them address identified data quality issues.

It takes a while to gain momentum - after all the initial stages are all about getting them to give you lots of information and there is inevitably a time lag before they start to reap the benefits.

Dylan Jones: Which of those activities required "formal” data governance knowledge and which ones are really down to your personal skills as a consultant?

Nicola Askham: I think it is fair to say that all of them need formal data governance knowledge but the soft skills are extremely important. You can't train someone without understanding the topic upon which you are briefing them. How you engage with your audience and respond to their questions and challenges is a key factor in how successfully the training will be received.

Dylan Jones: For the data governance specific skills - how did you learn them? What training did you need and how long has it taken you to master?

Nicola Askham: I definitely took the long route to acquiring all the knowledge I now have. Initially it was purely through experience and trial and error - slow and painful at times but ultimately it taught me what I know now.

After a while I was lucky enough to go on a conference and found that what I did had a name and that I was not alone in my quest to get people to take on responsibilities for their data. That then prompted me to look out for more opportunities learn from others in both formal and less formal settings to I have attended various data management and data modelling courses and conferences over the years.

How long did it take is a very good question - if you asked me three years ago did I know all that I needed to know about Data Governance I would probably have said almost - but every year I’m continuing to learning more and more. The basic principles don’t change but how you implement them in different companies and cultures does. People are so varied and different, that the challenges you face implementing a similar Data Governance Framework are always different.

In truth I think I will always continue to face new challenges and learn more as the world in which we operate continues to evolve and change. After all it wasn’t long ago that we hadn’t heard of Cloud Computing and Big Data, let alone Data Governance’s relationship with them.

Dylan Jones: Do you think you’ve learned the softer skills or are they simply a part of who you are?

Nicola Askham: I think that an individuals particular make up will always incline them to find some skills easier that others so I think that it is fair to say that they are a reflection of who I am. But I also think that there are skills that people can learn and even if you have a natural inclination towards soft skills - you can and should work on them.

In my early days in Data Governance, I relied very much on my natural ability to get on with people but I have learned that it is vitally important to actively think about what you do that goes well and that which doesn’t go well, so that you can hone your skills.

There is absolutely no room for complacency - just because 10 people in succession have grasped the concepts of and been enthusiastic about Data Governance that doesn’t mean that the next person you speak to will be.

Dylan Jones: Finally, what are your views on the personal skills required by a Data Governance practitioner? Are there any core skills or abilities you think people absolutely need to possess?

Nicola Askham: Absolutely, this is a question I am increasingly being asked, so having recently launched my own website and blog, I have decided to do a series of blog posts focused particularly on the characteristics which you need to be a successful data governance practitioner.

You definitely need a good understanding of the data governance principles and practices. However, without the appropriate soft skills you are unlikely to deliver a successful data governance project.

I have identified six essential characteristics which are as follows:

  • Great Communicator
  • Passionate
  • Good Influencer
  • Pragmatic
  • Patient
  • Tenacity

Editor - Nicola expanded on these points over on her blog with this post: Six Characteristics Of A Successful Data Governance Practitioner. Do you agree with these 6 traits?

Are there soft-skills that you possess that would make a welcome addition to this list? Why not post your views below.

Contributor Bio - Nicola Askham, Data Governance Coach

Nicola is an independent data management consultant, whose primary area of expertise is data governance. Nicola is experienced in designing and implementing full data governance frameworks in both regulatory and non-regulatory environments. She has worked in data management for nine years, initially for a leading UK Bank, before becoming a consultant at the beginning of 2009. Most recently Nicola has spent most of her time delivering data governance for Solvency II, but also offers data governance coaching. Nicola is a Director and Committee Member of DAMA UK and is on the Expert Panel of Data Quality Pro.

You can contact Nicola via: