There are many parallels between America’s favorite pastime and data governance, since both are governed by rules, require action, and need excellent communication.
While peanuts and cracker jacks may not be readily available in data governance meetings, and you may actually care if you get back [home] at some point, the essence of baseball can be broken down into three core areas that quite clearly depict the fundamentals of successful data governance — rules, action, and communication.
In baseball, there are rules and then there are RULES! The general rules are the accepted basics of how to play the game of baseball, but then there are very specific rules that define the intricacies of how individual plays and situations are handled on the field. The leagues or tournaments in which teams play often define these detailed rules. Once defined for the scope of play, these rules are non-negotiable and umpires handle any discrepancies. In addition, in data governance, there are rules and then there are RULES!
Guiding Principles – There are many different players in data governance, all with diverse priorities, ideas, and expectations. Without guiding principles, stakeholder’s actions and decisions are biased to the areas in which they directly work. Guiding principles provide a general set of rules or standards that direct decision making processes based on an understood, shared set of values. The rules are broad such that all stakeholders can conform and still act with a significant amount of autonomy. Guiding principles are often presented within a program charter to define the scope appropriately. Like baseball, guiding principles are the general rules by which all players abide to ‘play the game.’
Business rules – Also like baseball, in data governance the rules become more explicit for defined areas such as individual business units, across user groups, or when considering particular data classifications. These rules are established to optimize processes, protect data assets, or limit risk and exposure. The definitions of these business rules are often very detailed and have distinct purpose. Outside of the area of specific intent, these business rules lack application and can actually create unnecessary confusion or worse, precipitate costly work-arounds.
In the world of baseball, business rules are like tournament inning rules or time limits that speed up game play. Moreover, while appropriate for specific tournaments, if applied to all baseball games, these rules would dramatically alter the essence of the game, forcing many teams, coaches, and players to make decisions they would not otherwise make. In fact, these rules applied at the wrong level could be such game-changers that they could be, in fact, game-enders. Therefore, the business rules must be applied to the specific conditions both in data governance and in baseball.
Umpires (aka data stewards or data governance council) – Even with all the rules, there are always exceptions both in baseball and in data governance. Some situations are too close to call and some, from varying points of view, become points of contention. Enter the umpires or the data stewards, individuals trusted by both teams to make objective decisions based on the known guiding principles (rules) and documented business rules (RULES!). All parties typically accept their authoritative decision as the final rule. However, in scenarios where a call is appealed or a decision is too complex for a single decision maker, the umpires or a data governance council convenes to ensure all aspects have been considered to issue a final decision.
Baseball and data governance share interesting aspects of “play.” While they both are extremely team-oriented, individuals have the autonomy and responsibility to make decisions. While all individuals have accountability for their defined roles, they are expected to back up their teammates, play wisely both offensively and defensively, and collectively win the game.
Players at bat and on the field must monitor game action closely to inform their individual decisions – Steal a base? Bunt? Swing for the Fences? Cover second? The very moment a team member forgets that their single decision effects the whole team is when plays fall apart. This is absolutely true in data governance. The autonomy to make data decisions is the beauty of a well-formed data governance framework, but everyone must carefully consider the broader implications of every decision they make. One decision soaked in self-interest can create enormous liabilities and have serious ramifications. Yes, one play can cost a team the game.
Baseball players are defensively trained to understand the decision tree of “Where’s The Play?” This means that players intimately know the obligations of their position but are also aware of gaps that may be created as their teammates all work towards making the play. They quickly jump on board to back up the positions expending effort elsewhere to ensure that the play is made. Successful data governance teams operate in a similar fashion, recognizing that the workload for various roles will wax and wane over time. They must back each other up and make the plays.
While rules and action are essential in both data governance and baseball, it is communication that brings it all together – both on the team and outside of the team. Communication is not only critical for the players during the action of the game, it is also necessary for the fans, the stakeholders.
Heads Up – Perhaps not present in a major league game where fans eagerly await the opportunity to catch foul balls in the stands, but in little league games you frequently hear the screams of, “heads up.” With foul balls flying backwards over fences into areas where uninvolved folks could quickly get walloped if their attention was not quickly grabbed, the “heads up” screams in unison usually prevent a major incident. When the unexpected data event occurs that could catch people off guard, it is important to be ready to exclaim, “heads up” and prevent worst case scenarios. Consider it lightweight mitigation.
On Field Communication – In order to execute the player decision tree on the field, there are variables that players must know at all times. How many outs? How many strikes? Where’s the play? With all the moving parts, it is possible that team members can miss a piece of the action. Consistently at every play, all players are expected to communicate these critical variables to each other so that they know they are all on the same page, prepared to execute from the same point in the shared decision tree. It should be no surprise that strong data governance programs have figured out how to share critical factors consistently. This sharing enables them to operate effectively and efficiently.
Base Coaches – Even with the most skilled players batting and running the bases, there are coaches at 1st base and 3rd base to keep an eye on the action and provide specific direction as to what the next move should be. Runners are moving at warp speed and laser focused on getting around the bases. They do not always have time to take in the full view of what is happening on the field. They trust the advice of their base coaches and act accordingly – no second guessing. In data governance, do not forget to station base coaches during your times at bat. When the action gets going, you want your players laser-focused on the goal. Put well-trusted advisors in place throughout the data governance program. They will help data stewards by removing distractions, assist them in making quick decisions, and bringing in the runs.
While the data governance “game” is really never over, the team as a whole is always working together playing by the rules (and the RULES), driving action, communicating and demonstrating wins. Undoubtedly, it is a team effort. Now, let’s play ball!
N.B. A version of this article appeared in The Data Administration Newsletter July 2017