Data changemakers: Roberto Maranca, Data Excellence VP at Schneider Electric

by Guy Bradshaw on 14th October 2018

Roberto Maranca is Data Excellence VP at Schneider Electric. A highly-accomplished senior business leader with a wealth of experience across B2B, financial services, banking, and global corporate sectors, he is a committed data management evangelist. In this interview he talks about the importance of the CDO role, why data governance is a people problem rather than a technical problem, and advice for those starting out on data governance projects. 

Guy: Can you start by outlining a little bit about your background?

Roberto: I’m actually an aeronautical engineer but my mum wanted me to be an archaeologist, so I ended up studying a lot of Latin, Greek, history and philosophy. However, I couldn’t find a job as an aeronautic engineer so I had to recycle myself as an IT professional. I did IT with Nissan and then Ford, and then General Electric came about.

My data baptism of fire came really with Basel 2 in the early 2000s, while I was working at GE Capital – a big thing for banks at the time. It was a very data intensive exercise. After Basel I was the BI leader for GE Capital for two and a half years, together with doing governance and other stuff. In 2013 when GE was putting in place lots of data-related roles and I came across a job description of something that I immediately fell in love with. That was my first role as CDO and I became CDO for GEC’s International, which broadly was all of Capital’s operations outside of US

Guy: Would you say you’re more of a business person or a technologist?

Roberto: Discussing the first CDO role, after “YES!” the second thing that I said to my boss-to-be was “This cannot be an IT role. This is a business role”.

CDOs are there to establishing a relationship between the business culture and the discipline of data. You try to educate people how to get the best out of the data. Technology is no longer the problem, assuming it has ever been, people are.

Guy: Is it helpful to have come from an IT background initially?

Roberto: Well, I’ve got to know many CDOs since then and talked to lots of people in similar roles and they come from all walks of life. The only common thread is the passion for data.

To be passionate about data you don’t necessarily have had to be an IT guy. However, the relationship between the CDO and the IT team needs to be a close one, and so it helps to understand and being able to speak the lingo.

Guy: When you talk about being passionate about data, what is it that you like so much about it? What’s the thing that’s so appealing?

Roberto: For me, the appeal is that when you start to think data you realise that everything is data, data has become a digital extension of our reality, and its laws and fundamental equations are still unknown: all of us are all pioneers trying to codify a craft that is not a science yet. It is exhilarating to think that in the physical world we have more or less been everywhere whilst in the data world we have not.

Guy: How much of a challenge it is to bring people along with you? Are you generally talking to people who are agreeing with you or are you trying to push change where people are resisting?

Roberto: There is a bit of a Cassandra effect for people in my position. Cassandra was given the gift of seeing the future, but then Apollo cursed her so that nobody would ever believe her prophecies. In my position sometimes you can see the future very clearly but most of people I talk to aren’t ready for that future.

You ought to be careful when evangelising about data, as there needs to be a balance between showing something very shiny, very interesting, very appealing whilst not making it look too much of a far-fetched dream. People are bogged down so much in the way to work these days that they don’t believe you when you say, “Look, one day a complete working model of your company based on its data will be available at your fingertips, all the unknown unknowns will be known: a change will not provoke unexpected disruption, a project will not spend loads of cash just to describe the “As is”. You’re not going to go and search, there is going to be a place where you find what your company is through its data.” People don’t believe that but I think it’s very possible to achieve.

Guy: In your current role your job title is Data Excellence VP. What’s the significance of that?

Roberto: I was very keen not to have ‘governance’ in the job title. The reality is that people experience governance as something that happens in a different plane of their reality. Usually you do stuff and then you need to jump somewhere else, put a tick somewhere into a governance space and then go back to what you were doing. That type of governance is very short-lived and doesn’t give you any comfort as it doesn’t give you any real pulse of whether people are really doing what it is expected for the greater good of your customers, employees, investors, etc.

I maintain that governance is something that needs to be interlaced into the reality of the workplace: the purpose of governance is to make sure that people’s natural choice of action is actually the right choice. Governance will achieve this purpose only when what you do is designed in such a way that you’re led to the right place, while you are doing it and not reporting it after the fact or during an audit.

By the way this is for any governance framework not just for “data governance”. Data governance needs a bit more help and that’s what for me three pillars of data excellence are.

The first pillar is cultural unity. People are always talking about silos, I don’t talk about silos anymore, I talk about tribes. A silo is a physical thing and it would be easy to see the silos and maybe to insert pipes between. Unfortunately, in our companies, silos are not visible, they’re liquid and flexible, ethereal and yet very real, those are in fact groups of people guarding their beliefs, customs, rituals and languages to please their chieftains.

Data is very much affected by this because data is not just the thing that comes out of your screen, it’s the words we’re using to tell each other what we’re doing, to build our products, to tell our customers what we are selling them, or to tell our regulators what is it that they want to know. Data has to be a common language and if you have tribes then your common language is affected. If you haven’t got a common language, then you have ambiguity, and ambiguity is the first and the most important root cause of data quality issues. To combat ambiguity, you need cultural unity.

The second pillar is changing the way we change. The biggest challenges we have are related to complexity and change. The longer you’ve been around as a company, the more complex you are. If you don’t deal with change properly you are adding to the complexity. A more complex system is a system in which taking care of data is almost impossible because you don’t know where it comes or where it goes, you don’t know who owns it and who consumes it and in which way.

The way change processes today are designed, they’re usually oblivious of data. Pick any change management process or methodology (assuming you have one in your company because it’s not a given) you will see that there are almost no artefacts that are specific for data, data is in effect an afterthought.

The third pillar is a methodology to evaluate data. Even if you have your culture completely unified around data, and even if your change process is now completely data-driven, the third thing you’re missing is that the understanding that there is a legacy out there. There is a legacy of the data neglect that has happened over the years, a data debt, which I think from an excellence point of view, it is crucial to estimate.

A data valuation methodology in place to understand how big is your “data debt” could give you a true measure of everything that is out there that is impeding you to gain velocity in your digital transformation. It is a bit more than a common “gut feeling” that most digital transformations crash on the fact that when you try to operationalise the shiny, beautiful products conceived in a completely controlled environment, you discover that the data out there is not good enough to scale at the enterprise level. Having a measurement of how “good” data, gives you a much better criteria to prioritise and measure success of projects, all in all a greater ability to measure the effectiveness of what you’re doing.

And so you close the loop: not only is your organisation now united around data, but you’re actually doing the right thing. When you change things, you change them with data in mind, and you also have measurement in place that tells you whether you’re going the right direction or not. These three things – cultural unity, changing the way we change and evaluation, are the three pillars of data excellence.

Guy: So is data governance primarily a people problem or a technology problem or both?

Roberto: My observation is that in the 21st century, the companies that are successful are good at one basic thing: connecting their data with their people. If I created a company tomorrow, I could subscribe almost instantaneously to all the fantastic technological tools in the world, Google, Amazon and the likes could be my IT shop: my company could be born adult from a technological point of view.

However, it is important not to overlook the fact that the human capital and the data capital are the key, and it’s important for you to be able to connect these two in order to provide services, products and decision-making power, it’s not a technological problem anymore, it’s how you connect your data and people and how you keep this relationship sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective.

Guy: Is there an issue with decision makers in organisations that don’t really understand the things you’re talking about, assuming that data management is a technology problem and not really understanding the importance of the people part?

Roberto: Yes. There is still a belief that data is an IT ”thing”. No, data is a language “thing” Whenever people ask me, “What can I do for you?” I usually reply “One day I’m going to ask you to sit in a meeting and to go through a very difficult conversation, a confrontation on how we agree on meanings, I would like you to promise that you will be there and be engaged.” Meanings drive things, if we have different ideas, different meanings and different approaches, then we need to reconcile our understanding. It’s way easier to ask the IT team to change something in a process or in a system rather than sitting with the other chieftains and agreeing on things. That’s very difficult, but if we can’t do that then we can’t do data.

Guy: Can you give me an example how that happens in practice?

Roberto: Yes. In a previous job I was developing a dashboard to generate monthly operating reports that our CEO could use to manage the company. There was a section in that dashboard that related to my part business, and there was one cell in that database called “availability” – the time it takes from the customer placing the order to the asset being installed.

Now, the UK guy had one definition of “availability” while the French guy had a different definition. For three months they couldn’t agree on the definition, I couldn’t go live with that part of the dashboard. Guess what? You couldn’t go live with a partial dashboard, so I was holding the whole thing up for the CEO of the company because two people couldn’t agree. That situation was really the starting point of my thinking that maybe it’s not about the IT, it’s about the people.

Guy: What’s motivating companies to invest in data governance now? Is it compliance and regulation or are people now seeing that you can achieve competitive advantage this way?

Roberto: Let’s say there are three buckets – compliance, efficiency and agility. Of course, the catalyst for most company is the first one. Most people will embark on a data governance journey because there is someone externally telling them that they need to do it. Now, with GDPR, everyone is regulated whether they want it or not and that’s been the catalyst for many more data governance programs outside of banks. The ones that have been on a longer journey are starting to think, “this is actually making us more efficient.” But I think very few people are thinking about the agility governance gives you yet. In most people’s minds governance is still perceived as being in an oxymoronic relationship with agility. Yes, shoddy governance ties you down and chains your ankles, but properly done governance, low touch governance, embedded governance, governance by design gives you an amazing agility.

Guy: How has it been moving from a finance to manufacturing?

Roberto: What’s comforting for me is that having been in GE ad Lloyds and now in Schneider, going around I listen to people about their problems and challenges it’s quickly apparent that everyone has the same problems. Sometimes I feel I’m actually disappointing people because I’m telling them that they’re not special, everyone else has the same problems that they have.

What’s different is the approach to things. One of the reasons I didn’t want my current role to be called “governance” is because the perception of governance in a non-banking environment is very different, governance is perceived as the red-tape that slows things down, whilst in banks you want to be governed, because you want to have a badge of honour to show to your regulator. That said, in Schneider there is a real hunger for the benefits which data governance can provide. They want to be agile, they talk the right talk about data and they are genuinely ready to make a difference to their business practices.

Guy: What advice would you give to anyone that is faced with a data governance challenge and not sure how to start the project?

Roberto: You need always to think about value for the business. At the end of the day there has to be value for the business. You need to find a way to embed what you do in the fabric of the organisation, slowly but surely changing from within.

The most important question is “Where do I start?” And I suggest to start from the place where change is already happening: align yourself with the existing business strategy.

Let’s say that the business is betting on four or five important programs pick the two of them with an evident data component, then you align yourself to those projects start to change things from there. Add value in the places that really make a difference.

Guy: It’s almost like proof of concept in bite-sized chunk or by quick wins demonstrating the value?

Roberto: Yes. Align yourself to the agenda of change of the company because that helps you to impact directly the business strategy. Find yourself the right sponsor and possibly you should go to places where people are desperate, you might have a daunting task, but the rewards could be much higher. In any case it’s much better to do that than just sending out a communication like “Data Policy: From tomorrow everyone in the company will need to do a, b, c..” and expecting good change for data to happen.

At the beginning you will never have the strength to really make it happen everywhere, so you must pick your battles and the best battle you can pick is in the space where people already have a mindset of change.

Guy: I’ll just wrap up if you don’t mind with a more personal question – can you say something about your hobbies and what you like doing outside of work?

Roberto: I love sailing. I was born on the Mediterranean and the first picture you see of me standing up when I was one, was hanging to a boat on a beach, so as a proud father I am trying to pass it down to my two daughters. Then, because data is a bit abstract, I love to tinker with things: this time of the year is all about cider making, wine making and possibly, later on, there’s going to be a bit of cheese making. In general, I love to make whatever comes from my vegetable and fruit patches to a good use.

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