How to successfully deliver a corporate data quality program – Sherry Michaels interview

What does it take to deliver a large, complex data quality initiative in a heavily regulated industry? How do you get senior leaders bought-in and data stewards empowered?

These are just some of insights shared by Sherry Michaels, currently Data Quality Program Manager for The Hartford, and a data quality leader for over a decade.

Sherry has 3 decades of insurance experience and talks openly about the practical techniques she has adopted to help mature data quality, data governance and data stewardship across her past projects.

Dylan Jones: What is your current role?

Sherry Michaels: My role is that of Data Quality Program Manager.

Dylan Jones: How did you get into the profession and how did you develop your education in the field?

Sherry Michaels: I’ve been in the insurance industry for 30 years and have always been involved in data quality activities of some sort, whether as a policy processor, programmer, on project teams or in a management capacity.  However, it was approximately 11 years ago when I formally began leading a data quality team.  We began with a focus on stewarding and cleansing customer data, but as the company adopted a formal data governance program, we broadened our scope to include a wider variety of data elements in multiple domains that would feed into our master data management and data warehouse tools.

A great deal of my knowledge around data quality comes from the various responsibilities I’ve had throughout my career.  Not only have I been able to work with data during the beginning, middle and end points of the data lifecycle, I’ve also worked with the systems that carry the data through that lifecycle.  I’ve worked with customers and agents, too, providing me with a good understanding of the impact data errors can have once they leave the organization.  And although quite challenging at times, I found invaluable learning opportunities as we moved data into MDM and data warehouse environments.

Formally, I have taken courses and obtained certifications in areas such as data management and stewardship.  But I’ve found incredible value in reading all that I can (books, white papers, blogs), attending conferences and networking with other data quality professionals.  It’s just as important to learn about the tools used in the industry as it is to learn about the practice itself.

Dylan Jones: Can you describe something of the journey your organisation has been on with data quality?

Sherry Michaels: I recently joined a new company and the journeys of my current and former employers have been very different.

My previous employer’s approach to data governance was driven by the desire to create a more customer centric environment.  Master data management, data warehouse and business intelligence tools were implemented and data quality efforts were focused on the needs of these environments and the projects looking to leverage the new technology and customer centric approach.  Data steward roles and responsibilities, as well as formal data quality activities, were handled based on domains where the biggest projects or greatest involvement with MDM and the data warehouse would be.  Data analysis, problem resolution and cleansing were coordinated with the business areas affected and handled only if the resources were available.  Data quality activities and checkpoints were included in the SDLC and were allotted time in project resourcing.

My current employer’s approach is focused more on the data itself.  The stewardship practice is solidly in place, critical data has been identified, formally named and defined, and placed into a metadata repository.  Projects are calling on stewards regularly to help name and define the data needed and move the right information to data modelers and data architects.  Data stewardship activities are recognized in the SDLC and work is being done to include time allocation for stewardship and data quality work in project resourcing.

Dylan Jones: What are the initiatives you’ve helped put in place that you’re particularly proud of?

Sherry Michaels: I’m especially proud of the work I did to help establish the data governance, data stewardship and data quality programs at my last company – putting guidelines and processes in place, developing role expectations and accountability measures, working with executives and management teams to explain the importance of the programs, working with project managers to understand the importance of including data quality activities in their planning efforts, and integrating data quality work and checkpoints into the SDLC.

Most recently, I was able to drive the development of a formal business data quality analyst position at my new company.  I developed the business case, the role description, responsibilities and requirements.   I have been able to work with both the hiring manager and our Human Resources area to appropriately price the job and set up screening and interview criteria.  We are now officially interviewing for the first hire in this role and I’ve been asked to assist the hiring manager with the candidate review and interview process.

Dylan Jones: I know you’re passionate about data stewardship – can you describe how you’ve structured stewardship in your current organization particularly in relation to the core data quality team?

Sherry Michaels: First and foremost, my philosophy on stewardship is to pull forward the right resources to steward the data.

They must be resources that understand the data, are passionate about the data being correct, know why the data should be correct and have a positive influence/reputation in their area.  They must be able to stand up for the needs of the business and put facts and experience behind anything they are saying.

To that point, I firmly believe that the steward should have a clear escalation path up to the executive committee that oversees the entire data governance program.  The companies I’ve worked for have called their executive committee the Data Governance Council (DGC).  The stewards have worked up through a data management/stewardship committee, and the data management/stewardship committee then works up through the DGC.

The stewards should be in regular contact with the data quality team.   The data quality team can either guide or assist with the data quality work being done as part of stewardship, such as data profiling, data scrubbing, root-cause analysis, problem resolution, scorecards and trending, etc.  You may even find business data quality analysts (DQA) as part of the business areas or data quality teams to really focus on data quality work.  At my last company, the DQA was part of my data quality team; in my current company they are becoming part of the business area/stewardship teams.

Dylan Jones: In your role, how have you been able to engage and motivate senior business leaders within the organization to take action on data quality, particularly those who may historically consider data simply an IT concern?

Sherry Michaels: It’s been important to focus on what motivates our leaders.  That may mean tying data quality work to a corporate objective, cost impact/savings, improved business decisions, resource capacity, etc.  As I’ve talked with leaders – both business and IT – it’s been important to focus on the long-term impact bad data can have to their area of responsibility, as well as the long-term benefits good data can have.

For example, a business area may be very focused on delivering an insurance policy to a customer as quickly as possible.  In doing so, data quality may be compromised by allowing processors (or systems) to bypass fields or input fake data (ex. 99999) to move the process along.  The faster the process goes, the faster the policy gets out the door and to the customer.  Resources (people) may even be able to be reduced as more technology is put into place to speed the process.

However, in their interest to impress the customer, they may actually be damaging the entire reputation of the company – and thereby damaging their own reputation and risking their job – by placing inaccurate information into the hands of the customer.  Imagine holding your policy days before the competition could have delivered, but finding misspellings, incorrect rates, erroneous information, etc.  Not very impressive.

Just like the public speaking mantra of “know your audience,” you must do exactly the same when talking to and engaging senior leaders to take action on data quality issues.

Dylan Jones: We have a lot of data quality professionals in our membership who see your position as a goal on their career path, what advice could you offer them based on your own experiences?

Sherry Michaels: I’ve been in the insurance industry for 30 years.  So I’ve had the opportunity to serve in several positions in both the business and IT areas and have become quite familiar with the data and processes needed to run a successful company.  But 30 years’ experience certainly isn’t required to become a data quality professional in your industry.

You need passion.  You need to care about the data being correct.  You need to understand the data life cycle, from point of capture to point of delivery and all the touch-points in between.  You need to know what data is critical and what data is good enough.

Beyond the day-to-day understanding, read all you can on the data quality.  There are so many good books and white papers available today.  And read up on data governance and stewardship.  Learn how these practices tie together to build a successful data governance program.  Understand the role both business and IT areas play in data quality efforts.

I also recommend investing time in coursework related to data quality, governance, stewardship, etc.  You can visit organizations such as IAIDQ (International Association for Information Data Quality), IDMA (Insurance Data Management Association) and DAMA (Data Management Association) for great courses and certifications.

One of my favorite ways to stay on top of everything data quality, governance and stewardship related is NETWORKING!  I attend conferences each year, have made wonderful connections with industry leaders, belong to data-related organizations and participate in and follow many of the data-related groups on LinkedIn.  Find others in your organization who are passionate about data quality, volunteer yourself for data-related projects, offer to do root-cause analysis work, understand what data your organization values most.

When you put yourself out there and share your passion, the data quality roles just seem to come to you!

Author Profile – Sherry Michaels

sherry-michaels-data-qualityData Quality Program Manager – The Hartford

Sherry Michaels is the Data Quality Program Manager at The Hartford. She is responsible for the development, growth and oversight of data quality efforts across the organization.

She is closely aligned with the business data governance and stewardship programs to ensure corporate-wide consistency regarding data that is used for processing and decision making every day.

She has 30 years of insurance industry experience, spending the last 10 years in the data quality and data governance space. She had the opportunity to build a data quality program from the ground up, has actively participated in the development of a corporate governance program and has attended many conferences learning and building an invaluable professional network.

She is extremely passionate about data quality, especially in an industry that sells an intangible product, and enjoys sharing her experience and insight with others in order to raise awareness of the critical importance of high quality data.