The Art of Data Governance

The Art of Data Governance

The Art of Data Governance

Sun Tzu as a military strategist some 2 – 3000 years ago, fashioned his own strategy about war and called it the “Art of War”. I studied him many years ago now, for my own thesis at university about “Information Warfare”. In this article I will take each of the headings that Sun Tzu uses and apply them to data governance. A topic that for some is when they roll their eyes or start to think about something rather more exciting! Well, hold onto your coat tails, as it doesn’t get any better than this!

Before we start, I must lay out the customary “data governance” definition. If you look at the net, you will find some dull, confusing and rather cumbersome definitions.

Here are some of the definitions that I came across:

“Data Governance is the exercise of authority and control (planning, monitoring, and enforcement) over the management of data assets.” (DAMA International)

“Data Governance is a system of decision rights and accountabilities for information-related processes, executed according to agreed-upon models which describe who can take what actions with what information, and when, under what circumstances, using what methods.” (Data Governance Institute)

Both are harsh and not business friendly. By the time I finished the second one, I’d forgotten how it started, and needed to go back and read it again!

So, to simplify it as much as I could, here is my definition for data governance:

how organisations manage data with guidance and direction, to achieve their business strategies and vision”

That’s it! I didn’t want it to be too technical or have too much jargon in it. No policy this or framework that.

Now as I had mentioned let’s get back to the headings that Sun Tzu offers and align them with Data Governance.

Laying Plans

Sun Tzu said: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state.”

I say, “the art of data governance is of vital importance to the organisation.” Why? Simple: bad quality data = bad quality decisions. Sun Tzu knew that data / information was paramount to his succeeding in battle, but yet, most organisations don’t get this within their realm and think data governance / data quality is a waste of money. Here are some questions to ask yourself (based on the 7 considerations that Sun Tzu laid out:

1) Who is best placed to lead this activity?

2) Where do we do this well now up and down the organisation?

3) Where do we start to get the biggest bang for our buck, and gain the most advantage in the organisation?

4) How do we implement the discipline required and look at the culture?

5) Which data has the best quality to benchmark against?

6) What skills do we need to have across the organisation?

7) What kind of rewards and recognition do we have to put in place to ensure constancy?

Waging War

Sun Tzu said: “In the operations of war, where there are in the field a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand li, the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armour, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day. Such is the cost of raising an army of 100,000 men.”

I say, “In the operations of an organisation, where there are too many systems, people, processes, culture and each are siloed, it will hamper their ability to wage war against the competition. Data will not be utilised for decision making, and to win in a swift manner against their foes. This is the current cost of ignoring data governance.”

Attack by Stratagem

Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

I say, “if you know your data and your organisation, then you will make killer decisions and not fear a hundred competitors. If you know organisation, but not your data, then that’s obvious, you will work in a vacuum and scratch around in the dark to become data-driven. If you don’t know either your data or your organisation, then you might as well put down your tools.”

Have a data governance strategy and make sure you know your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats within. If not, then you are clearly losing the fight and you data won’t be working in parallel with your business objectives and vision.

Tactical Dispositions

Sun Tzu said: “In respect of military method, we have, firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory.”

I say, “In respect of data governance, make sure you have measurement, secondly estimation of the gaps in the organisation, thirdly, calculate how much data needs attention, fourthly balance the attack on data (don’t’ attempt to correct everything at once), and fifthly see where you get most value against the business strategy and then victory will come.”

Remembering, that Data Governance is not a 5-minute job, it will be a long-term project with a move from a programme vision to an operational view.


Sun Tzu said: “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

I say, “The quality of decisions is only possible if you have a well-timed data governance plan and deliverables. This enables the team to swoop in and implement the right structures, to manage, control and destroy bad practices.”

Weak Points and Strong

Sun Tzu said: “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

I say, “Do not repeat the tactics of thinking in siloes, but let your methods be timed to look at the whole enterprise, to gain many data governance victories.”


Sun Tzu said: “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign.”

I say, “In data governance, the organisation must be led by example from the top, and the word must filter down. Accountability must be top down and responsibility must bottom-up.”

Variation in Tactics

Sun Tzu said: “In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces.”

I say, “In data governance, the C-Suite receive the vision from the CEO, gather their teams, and connect with all departments to concentrate efforts on implementing a successful data governance programme.”

Sun Tzu said: “The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.”

I say, “The teams who work to the strategic objectives of the organisation, understand the advantages of varying data governance tactics to enable the vision, align to market opportunities and defeat the competition.”

The Army on the March

Sun Tzu said: “41. He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.”

I say, “The person that runs the data governance programme who exercises no forethought about people and culture, but makes light of it in the plan, will fail in the endeavour of data governance. Do not make light of this situation and put technology first – people and process before technology.”


Sun Tzu said: “Now an army is exposed to six several calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible. These are: (1) Flight; (2) insubordination; (3) collapse; (4) ruin; (5) disorganization; (6) rout.”

I say, “The person that runs the data governance programme is exposed to six several calamities. . These are: (1) Poor planning; (2) lack of skills; (3) no roadmap of priorities; (4) little stakeholder buy-in; (5) not aligned around a business outcome; (6) No take up of controls as vision is not aligned to culture.”

The Nine Situations

Sun Tzu said “Be stern in the council-chamber, so that you may control the situation.”

I say, “Make sure you have a Data Governance council can make quick decisions, that are prepared by the Data Governance Project team. Be in control of the meeting and make sure it’s not too onerous – 60 minutes a month! Otherwise, people will not turn up!”

The Attack by Fire

Sun Tzu said: “In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.”

I say, “In order to carry out data governance, we must have the funds, people and long-term thinking available. The resources for raising a data governance programme should be in line with all other projects, so that the organisation has an enterprise view, and is ready and willing to win with their data.”

The Use of Spies

Sun Tzu said: “7. Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes: (1) Local spies; (2) inward spies; (3) converted spies; (4) doomed spies; (5) surviving spies.”

I say, “Hence the roles and responsibilities, of whom there are 5 classes: (1) Data Owners; (2) Data curators; (3) Data creators; (4) Data consumers; (5) Data Governance Manager.”