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#ModernDataMasters: Nicola Askham, The Data Governance Coach

Kate Tickner, Reltio

data governance interview questions with Nicola Askham She is the leading data governance training provider in the UK with over 16 years of experience and research in the field. She delivers training and consulting to major organisations to help them implement full data governance frameworks. Nicola’s powerful methodology breaks down the data governance initiative into logical steps to implement a framework that suits each unique client. She has worked in a number of different industries including Defence, Utilities, Retail and Financial Services and is a Director and Committee Member of DAMA UK; a member of the Expert Panel of Dataqualitypro.com, and she regularly writes and presents internationally on data governance best practice.

What was your route into data governance and what attracted you to your career as an independent consultant?

Very soon after home computers were available my Dad bought my sister and I a ZX Spectrum. We’d buy magazines and type up the programmes – we taught ourselves Basic and wrote different programmes – for example ones that played music. 

“I think I really enjoyed the structured thinking required to get to the end-result. I wonder if that inspired the way I am with data today – I like lists and sorting things out at home too!”

However, I got into data governance totally by accident. I was a Project Manager for Lloyds Bank, working on the business side of a number of Data Warehouse projects. I was new to Project Management and my project team was also quite young and inexperienced and we made one key mistake. When we moved the data from the old environment to the new one we could see that the quality was poor. We wanted to help people so we cleansed it as we went along and we were really proud of ourselves. However, I needed sign off from the Finance Manager for the project and he kept telling me that the data was different. My enthusiastic response was “yes I know, but it’s better” and he said “yes but I am Finance so I need to understand why it has changed and reconcile all the differences”. Eventually we got sign-off but I think overall I was niggled because I felt we had helped by cleaning the data and no one seemed to be happy about it!

In the course of other data-related projects I had several “light-bulb” moments about the importance of data. I realised that my skill set was very much leaning towards helping to fix the fundamental problems with data and when I go the chance focus on this full-time I ended up starting with the data warehouse. 

“I was talking about roles and responsibilities and determining who should care about which data sets and why. It was quite challenging and I got it wrong a lot of the time as I learned. In my current job, I find I am usually helping people NOT to make the same mistakes I did at that time!”

After about 18 months I went to a master data conference and attended a talk about data governance. As the speaker got started talking about it I realised that actually he was describing what I had been doing! So when I went back to work I told my manager and told her that instead of being a Data Manager I should be a Data Governance Manager and that’s what I became. 

A couple of years before I left the bank I remember meeting someone who couldn’t believe I wasn’t contracting based on what I know about data but I was not brave enough to go out on my own at the time. Following a bank re-structure I left and joined a small information management consultancy – Platon – and it was like working with a big family of other data geeks! After that I continued in another consulting company until I was offered a contract project much closer to home for six months which coincided with a need to be home-based for a while. Thereafter the calls kept coming in and I had more than enough work to be self-employed on a permanent basis and I’ve never looked back. I have great fun presenting at conferences on Data Governance; develop my own training courses and take on consulting projects as well. 

“I really like helping people to do data governance themselves so they don’t always have to outsource it to consultants – for some it’s support over the longer term and for some it’s a one-off training course – I love the variety.”

How are “modern” data management technologies and the drive towards digital transformation in many businesses impacting the data governance arena if at all?

I definitely think they have had an impact. This whole evolving environment we are all working in now is driving even more need for data governance. What I am seeing is that AI, ML and digital transformation mean that companies who have not really thought about their data have suddenly realised there is huge value in it. What they are realising is that they cannot capture that value and embark on acquiring lots of new technologies unless they understand their data – especially the quality of it. 

I used to be a bit of an evangelist for perfect data but I have become much more pragmatic – it might not be perfect but you need to at least understand it and the quality of it so you understand its limitations when you are using it.” 

The drivers of data governance have also changed. 

“Many people think they can just digitalise everything – customers can self-serve, they’ll have unique propositions and everything will be amazing. They don’t get the results they expected because they haven’t thought about the data and managed and understood that first.”

So digitalisation and the drive towards that is moving demand for data governance in a big way. I also know a lot about master data and I have had loads of questions about it in the last few months so my recent blog attempted to explain what master data is in layman’s terms. I am not sure I achieved that, but without master data how can you do digital transformation? 

What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring data governance professionals?

    1. Network with other like-minded individuals. This will really help you and build up your experience and help you not feel like the lone voice in your organisation!
    2. Join a relevant professional organisation like DAMA – I am on the board of DAMA UK– this can assist you in the same way as above and help you convince people of the value of managing data better
    3. Keep learning and training – there are a few more podcasts on data available these days – read books, attend conferences and understand other people’s viewpoints. 

 

You love to teach and help clients successful via data governance. Can you give an example of when things had not gone so well for a client and how data governance helped them to fix things?  

I have seen loads of examples where the purpose of the data governance process was not to solve a particular problem but where it found a problem and we solved it. On one project, which was a regulatory project, we found a problem where the client had been making duplicate payments to one of its vendors for some time. 

“I use a questioning approach to data governance and ask people “How do you know the data is good enough?” It was in the process of answering that question that they realised had been overpaying to the tune of £5 million and no one had said anything!”

That’s just one example of how a data governance review can uncover unknown problems and it’s often the smaller ones that go unnoticed over long periods of time. 

It’s also the same with “small fixes” that are done often over a long period of time and not regarded as expensive or worth changing. For example a student actuary spending 2 weeks a quarter fixing a spreadsheet from Finance before it was usable in a model. That’s 2 months a year! He had been taught that that was just part of the process rather than it being fixed properly. 

People don’t think about data being an integral part of their job – it’s often regarded as more of a necessary nuisance. 

“Data only becomes a problem when it is wrong – then everyone rushes around panicking and they want to fix it. Then they only fix it at the point of consumption – they rarely fix the source of the problem and it happens all over again the next time.”

I ask people if they have a problem with their data and they deny it, but when they think it through they realise what they really have is a series of work-arounds because they have accepted the data status-quo. They haven’t understood the data and fixed it properly. 

What trends or changes do you predict to the data governance arena in the next few years?

I think if anything things will just accelerate. With AI/ML it feels like we are where we were a few years ago with big data – many people are talking about it but very few of them are actually doing it. A lot of companies are only just building their data warehouse which means they have a chance to do it right first time. They can get data governance done properly which will put them in a good position and make them more agile than those who are trying to clean up their data swamps. I think there is quite a time lag between what people are talking about and what they are actually doing and in the interim the AI and ML tools are improving. 

“Things are accelerating and improving all the time and the pace will continue to pick up – this will in turn increase the demand for data governance.” 

Is there a question I should have asked you and what would the answer be?

Something a lot of my clients ask me privately which I think should be out in the open is “Why is data governance so hard?” 

It really isn’t that hard – you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to understand it – it seems so hard because most of the time people don’t think about data. Many organisations have been successful in spite of the terrible state of their data and so there is a difficult mindset to overcome to get them to start paying attention to it.

“The main problems are not that people don’t understand the concept or that they don’t think they should do it. It’s more getting around to doing it right away – they keep thinking of reasons not to do it now or not to change their habits.”

Data governance is a people problem – bizarrely. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

My main hobby is singing. I love going on the stage, dressing up as someone else and singing. I belong to a choir so I sing every week and we do a bit of everything – opera, rock songs and many other things. My favourite part was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and my favourite song is definitely “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

Which three guests, living or dead, would you invite to dinner and what would you all be eating?

Well I like to eat seasonally so the menu would depend on the time of year but if my husband was joining us I’d probably do Beef Wellington with loads of lovely fresh vegetables. Then something totally sweet and over the top for dessert like chocolate souffles.

I’d invite Richard Branson because I think he is inspiring as an entrepreneur and we’d have a great conversation.

“Going back a few years it would be Ada Lovelace because she was so ahead of her time it would be fascinating to talk to her. Having always worked in corporate banking which is considered a man’s world I’d like to talk to her about the challenges she overcame.”

The other one is Stephen Sondheim– I love his music and his lyrics are so clever and so witty and funny that I think he’d make a fabulous dinner party guest.