Data changemakers: Nicola Askham

Welcome to #datachangemakers, you're a something of a celebrity of the data governance world, but governance is not necessarily an obvious career choice for people starting out in data, would you like to tell me how it started for you?

[laughs] flattered to hear myself described at a celebrity. I kind of got into data governance by accident and I think that happens to a lot of people an awful lot of the time. I was actually working for a large bank and I was a project manager (PM) of a data warehouse (DWH) programme. I had a lovely team, I was new to PMing at that time and the bank's stance was that PMs didn't need to understand what they did. I got on really well with my IT team and learnt loads about data warehousing. When we were planning the migration of data, somebody on the team spotted that the data was really bad quality. We, as a team, had this amazing idea that we could fix it and make everything better for everybody.

This was great until, as a young, naïve and inexperienced PM, I tried to get a finance manager to sign off his reports for the new data warehouse. He wouldn’t because we'd changed the data, even though we’d improved it! I got really frustrated and upset, I couldn't understand why people wouldn't want better data.

During the migration, we'd done what I now know is the worst thing possible - we'd fixed the data during the migration process but had done nothing to fix the data sources themselves. As soon as we plugged in the source systems, you can guess what happened... it went back to where it was. I was absolutely devastated although my boss couldn't understand it at all, she said 'I don't know what you're doing, this is ridiculous, you're a PM, just move on to your next project .'

So I wasn't 'allowed' to worry about this data quality issue but it niggled at me. I was attached to the data management team, so I only did data projects; master data, data warehousing etc and I got in to work one day and the bank had announced a major re-structure as large organisations do and I was told that I could no longer be a PM. I was quite upset because I thought I'd found my thing. I really enjoyed sorting things out and making things right as a PM. My boss said 'Tough, the bank is putting all PMs into a central pool of change management and you're not going.'

I said 'Well I don't mind going, I want to carry on doing my projects, and she said 'but they won't be data projects, you could be doing anything, you could be doing a project putting cash machines in a shopping centre' and I thought 'well I don't want to do that!'

My boss said 'it's irrelevant, you're not going, we've escalated this up to HR, you're staying with us.' I was a bit worried because the majority of the data management team was actually the very technical business intelligence team. I had done my SQL training course and the first time I ran some SQL the DBAs rang me up immediately and they weren’t overly polite to me!

I thought 'what am I going to do? I'm not a coder, I can't integrate the data like these guys are doing.'

I asked my boss and she said 'Well that I don't know. We don't actually have a job for you but we escalated this and made such a fuss so ... for heaven’s sake make yourself look busy’

I had no idea what to do because up to that point I'd followed a very carefully planned career path- I'd ticked every box and done everything that I'd had to do, whether I enjoyed it or not. I was a bit bewildered at having this option to choose my own job… or make it up!

I went home to discuss it with my husband and I suddenly had this lightbulb moment

'I want to go and sort out the people who messed up the data in my data warehouse'.

I said the same thing to my boss the next morning. She said

'Oh, you're not still going on about that are you?' But I didn't know what else for you to do so 'Go on then but promise me you won't upset anybody senior.'

I just started talking my way into senior people's offices and talking about 'roles and responsibilities around data' - I didn't even know it was called data governance then. I'd been doing it 18 months and was at a master data conference when I discovered there was a name for what I was doing!

I think it's fair to say I did it really badly in the early days and I did upset some senior people, including getting thrown out of some meetings. I learnt some very valuable lessons along the way.

That's a fascinating introduction to the subject. You've talked about how there are things you did back then that you wouldn't do now, what are the key lessons that have you learnt along the way?

One of the big things is that you shouldn't do data governance for best practice or because somebody says you should. There needs to be a very clear reason. In the early days, I could convince people to do tactical DQ projects but they didn't want to do anything such as a framework that would be sustainable and really get something embedded in the organisation.

It's the same with data migrations- for years I've been told to butt out of numerous data migration projects where I would say

'I can help you!'

and I'd be told

'We don't need you, all we're doing is lifting and shifting the data from one system to the next'

and then they'd go wrong because they hadn't understood the data, or they hadn’t checked the quality of the data before they'd moved it, or they'd made inconsistent decisions because they didn't have a DG framework in place. I still see pockets of that but it is getting less and people are getting a lot better at understanding that 'this is an integrated thing'. In the DAMA International DMBOK wheel, data governance is in the centre- I like to say that's because data governance is the centre of the universe, it controls everything... that's a little tongue-in-cheek but in reality it does provide this really good framework that supports all of the other data management disciplines. Having data owners identified and the right people making decisions about data, whether that's security, privacy or data quality and so on, makes such a huge difference to an organisation.

How do you try to convince that individual from, say, IT security, that it's not just another layer of overbearing control, it's not exciting, it's not relevant and it's just going to get in the way of me doing my business?

[laughs] the job title doesn't help! Governance does make it sound like it's going to be more red-tape making it harder for me to do my job. DG should actually be the opposite. Whether it's a security person or someone else, you need to find out about their challenges, their frustrations. When you're talking about DG to somebody, you've got to couch it in terms of 'what's in it for them?'

If there's nothing in it for them apart from more work, then they're not going to be interested. But if you can explain it in terms of what the benefits are, then they're more likely to come on board. In the security person example, they probably get sent from pillar to post to establish a relatively simple fact such as the level of encryption required or whether data can be shared with other people in the company. If you have a data owner who has already signed up as part of a data governance framework then you have one person who makes decisions about that data set. I've never had any trouble convincing data security teams that data governance is a good thing that will make their life easier.

If data security is on one side of this arm wrestle, on the other side you may have marketing, for example, who may have a more laissez faire attitude to data governance?

Marketing is always great fun. When I first walked into a marketing department I thought I'd walked in a time-warp. I was doing some work for an insurance company. All of their offices were staid, as you'd expect a financial services organisation to be and I walked into the marketing area; there was a telephone box in the corner, everything was pink and there was bunting all across the walls- I thought 'where have I gone?'

And it's true, you're dealing with creatives in marketing, but many do understand the value of data. You need to sit down and talk to them, asking the right questions, establishing the impact of poor data to them. For example, what's gone wrong in their marketing campaign, have they sent letters out to the wrong people or emails out to the wrong people? Has the marketing campaign failed?

I had one marketing department who told me that 20% of their email addresses were invalid. It was a junior person who told me that and the senior people didn't care. It almost seemed that the cost of this person fixing data was accepted as part of getting the marketing campaign produced! It was not until we managed to put some real numbers to that cost and highlighted things that had gone wrong (customer complaints because they'd been sent irrelevant material for example) that we started getting people engaged. I think that's true for everybody you talk to; you've got to find what pain points they're suffering from and get their angle to be able to get them onboard.

What's the worst example of data governance you've seen?

The poorest is basically 'nothing'. That's the absolute extreme and that is still common! Other examples are where it's done in pockets, let's say to meet a regulation but it’s only been done on the data sets that you had to rather than everything else. This will lead to conflicting activities or duplicated effort. This creates chaos and doesn't deliver any benefits, but also it makes it even harder for you to get data governance done properly. If you do it wrong first-time round, it makes it more difficult the second or third time when you're trying to get it right. I even helped a client going through their fourth cycle once! It's harder every time you don't get it right and you don't deliver any benefit.

One of the most common things that I see done wrong is ignoring stakeholder engagement, where people are just told 'you're the data owner, just go and get on with it'. For Data Governance to work the Data Owners must be the right people, but if there's no engagement then there's the risk that there's no understanding of what's required- that's probably the worst thing that I see- and surprisingly often.

That organisation on its fourth iteration, how are you going to convince them that it's going to be different the fifth time round?

At least I can say I've done this many times before! I will normally take time to sit and talk to the senior stakeholders and let them tell me about everything that happened before. It's not just a case of letting them vent and let off steam, it's more a case of you're going to get some real gems about what went wrong, they'll give you some real insight into the culture of the organisation. You then get that chance to say to them 'ah yes, well I've found that doing it that way has never worked, so don't worry, we won't do that”. With these conversations, people get het up about the 'data' and the 'governance' words and they forget entirely that the majority of the job is about engaging stakeholders and getting them onboard with the concept.

Interesting to see that we haven't mentioned technology yet. There are many data governance solutions about there, what's your view of the current technology response to data governance challenges?

Following on from what I just said, we must not underestimate the amount of effort we need to put into the people side of data governance, but technology does have a role to play.

On the downside, you can be constrained by legacy technology in a company so you may set up a data governance framework but it's limited in the benefits you can deliver. On the positive side, there is now a proliferation of tools that help you do data governance. This wasn't always the case; I trawled my LinkedIn posts from 10-15 years ago and I found that I was advising that organisations didn't need a data governance tool.

Today, you can do data governance without a tool but the larger and more complex your organisation is then the harder it gets. Most DG tools are actually data glossary tools, storing all the meanings and definitions of the data, they'll often include data lineage and they'll integrate with your DQ tools so they are very useful. I prefer to say that they can 'facilitate' or 'enable' your data governance initiative. I do worry, and the vendors I speak to have the same concerns, that people see a tool and they think that by buying that tool it can solve all of their problems for them... and it doesn't. In the early days of tools being around, one vendor introduced me to a couple of their clients because the client thought the tool was rubbish. When they went in to find out what was wrong, they had to explain 'the tool doesn't do the governance itself, you still need to do that.’

The vendor said 'we'll introduce you so that you can coach them'. Sadly that misunderstanding still happens, organisations think that the tool will do the DG for them- and it just doesn't.

It really does facilitate, it makes life a lot easier and if you're in a big organisation in multiple locations then how are you supposed to know who the data owner is? How are you supposed to know who to ask if you want to use this data? Who do you report data problems to? If you have a tool then that problem goes away, but you do need to have people engaged and doing data governance- the tool won't do that for you.

What's the next big thing in DG?

Data governance is never going to go away. It's becoming more important because all companies are becoming more data focused. Terms are bandied around such as 'data driven', data transformation' etc my personal opinion is that those companies with good data management and good quality data upon which to make decisions, are those most likely to survive the current coronavirus situation. They will be able to make the right decisions about their business, to increase their chances of survival. That is true whatever industry sector you are in- people are talking about embracing artificial intelligence and machine learning. I've seen some amazing things online about what they can do but... if you put that powerful technology on top of rubbish data then you won't get the results you are expecting. If anything, we're entering a phase where data governance needs to be done to underpin the more exciting, sexier-side of data. Until 2-3 years ago, the majority of my clients were in industries where there was a regulatory compliance requirement for them to adopt data governance. More recently- and I'm seeing the trend accelerate- companies I'm working with don't have to do data governance, they have no regulator, they just realise that in order to thrive- or even to survive- they need to understand their data and manage the quality of it before they do anything else.

How has coronavirus impacted your working life?

I am lucky in that some of my work was done remotely anyway, my coaching calls have always been done from home. The big change for me is the training, which has traditionally been face-to-face. I love the engagement model of talking to people, helping the get their head around how data governance is going to work in their organisation. That's no longer possible with the lockdown, but many clients have adjusted to training remotely and that's been working amazingly well.

I had a few sleepless nights working into the early hours to adapt content for virtual sessions. I didn't want to ask people to sit in front of a screen for the whole two-day course. You can't expect people to do that and get that same level of interaction. I'll be honest... it's been stressful and uncomfortable but... it has forced me out of my own comfort zone and has got me thinking about different ways of doing things- now it's up and running I've been really enjoying it.

Do you have any online training scheduled?

I do yes, I do live online training based on pre-recorded modules that you can complete on your own but you still have the access to me to ask questions, to talk as a group and even to network with people in the same position as you. It's important to me to keep that interactive element and I've scheduled those over the next few months. You can find out more about the training and register on my website: well as DAMA, what other resources do you recommend to people?

I'm biased about DAMA, I'm on the committee of DAMA UK, they're always a really good resource. For data governance, I recommend the book by John Ladley, it's definitely the best if you like the theory and you want to crunch it. I would also say follow people on LinkedIn, such as 'The Data Quality Pro' Dylan Jones and as a shameless plug, I've a lot of free resources on my website (, including videos and webinars. I've made it a mission to help as many people do data governance as possible. When I started I found it very hard, I felt very vulnerable and even stupid in the early years of doing this on my own. I try to make it so that people know there is some help out there.

Outside of governance and data, how do you occupy yourself during lockdown?

I've been lucky, most of my hobbies have gone online. For exercise, I do ballet and yoga- now it's online and I’m stuck at home I'm doing more exercise that I was before lockdown. The thing I love the most is singing, I belong to a lovely choir. I can't say that we sing beautifully on our weekly Zoom choir practice, but it's really great to still get together once a week. Everybody has a really good laugh and we're still singing, which is very good for the spirit.

Nicola, thank you very much for talking the time for this interview, stay safe during lockdown.

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