Data Governance Interview with Karima Makrof

Data Governance Interview with Karima Makrof

Karima Makrof started off as a consultant focused on Oracle ERP implementations, before moving onto the soft(er) side with diverse roles within data governance, data quality, enterprise architecture, information architecture and other lead roles in Information Management. Karima currently has the role as Information Manager within Swedbank – Large Corporates and Institutions.

In her free time, she runs a lot, mostly marathons, and added cycling and swimming recently to get further challenged in Ironman triathlon distances. Interest in data management is fully integrated in summer reading, as well as detective or novels.

How long have you been working in Data Governance?

I would say I have been working in Data Governance “for a while”. One may work with Data Governance without having it said out loud… Originally, my plan was to work in the banking industry. Trading room at first. My career started differently though. Starting at Oracle, working as a consultant, I have seen and shared quite some experiences with clients having challenges with their data. Working with process improvements when they changed from current systems to Oracle eBusiness Suite. Defining roles and responsibilities, ownership, process for approval, ensuring data quality. All this was included. But I cannot really recall that it ever was called “data governance” back then.

Moving on to ESAB (Welding and Cutting), my role was to develop and lead the team to manage our main data (customer, supplier and articles), as well as set requirements and support the harmonization of processes for those central data , working with the implementation and rollout team, which meant introducing and implementing new processes, with roles and approval workflows, as well as embedding data quality in those. Operational responsibilities. Once again, I cannot recall that it was ever said we dealt with data governance. Until starting to share experience through being speaker at conferences  Following roles in my career have been with Data Governance in the center, extended to information management areas (master data management, information architecture, data quality, modelling and even the tech stuff needed to support all this).

I like bringing structure and understanding in ways of working. To get better results, being more efficient, considering data and facts to improve the decision-making process. Collaborating with people and supporting them in their approach and use of data are other parts which attract me with the data governance area. Sometimes, talking with each other might bring solutions. Changing slightly roles and how they interact, as well as setting clear guidelines on how to work with each other – this is what data governance is for me.

Having had roles including data governance for the past two decades is not really what I would have guessed at my diploma ceremony of business school. But no regret to have let the trading room dream for working with data governance and other data management areas. I learn every day. I grow every day through meeting people and figuring out how to tackle their data challenges. I find challenges to solve every day. It is also surprising that some seem to “discover data governance” now. 2021… Better late than never though. Having a background with many implementations of ERPs has also helped me to see several cases, how to resolve issues, how to NOT resolve issues and most important listen to the people to understand the overall picture… The key learning has always been to deal with people first. Technology can support at any time. But people are the most interesting part of the data governance work. Often the deal-breaker (or make). Closely followed by processes. If you can get people to express their needs out loud, their challenges with data, what they want to get out of it, if you can thereafter define or adjust existing processes with clear governance (roles, responsibilities, ownership, accountabilities…) which can be realized in a pragmatic way, then the technical part is a piece of cake (almost).

What characteristics do you have that make you successful at Data Governance and why?

I am open, transparent, listening and letting people express their thoughts and needs. Having the ability to get people to work together when setting them in the same room (skill which is not to be underestimated…).

To be successful with data governance, it is a daily part of my work to facilitate, to get input from different stakeholders and link the dots together. Be a spider in the web (even though I really do not like spiders, the reference is clear. Make things happen…).

Establishing a culture of feedback is also key. This is what makes the overall data governance work efficient: to know what works or not, and to be able to adjust and correct.

Being pragmatic. “How to convince people” is also not a neglectable skill. Not everyone is keen on listening to “data governance stuff” or that “there is a new process, and this is what it is impacting you…” By listening to people and understanding how they currently work (and their expectations), I am always taking a very pragmatic view and approach to explain the “What’s in it for me?” when working with different parts in a company. To be able to understand their needs and see how they can interact with each other to move towards the same direction (and yes… having a special power for getting rid of silos. Between units, between people, between processes… This is a very special skill this one ).

With the roles I have had, I also develop the ability to talk with the myriads of stakeholders in a company. To explain data governance to top management, and to people working in a factory requires adjusting your message to their view of the business. To their challenges. To get the buy-in, even when it is tough and a decision “from above”. To sell the need for structure, even when hearing “we are doing well without it (ie. it=data governance)”. Being able to have a holistic view on how to resolve data challenges, seeing the bigger picture (and ability to explain it): once again, this “connecting the dots”-ability.

Endurance… With all challenges existing in a company, data governance is just one of them. You must show that you are able to run the distance. I do not easily give in. Not afraid to question a process or a role, comment, again and again to understand, ready to try out new ways. If it fails, it is one piece of the overall puzzle: go up again, think again and learn from it. Be flexible (some might want to add “be agile” here 🙂 Sure. Just be certain to evaluate why it did not go as expected, why the results are not there or different. Analyse, re-boot.. Data governance work should not take decades for being implemented or leading to results. On the contrary: if it takes this long, it is probably done wrong… and you have been waiting for something that will never come…

And yes, I very much love working with Data governance and other data management areas. Having some enthusiasm to share, as well as competences in the area will definitely make one successful at data governance.

Are there any particular books or resources that you would recommend as useful support for those starting out in Data Governance?

This is no easy question here. One may recommend a methodology bible, when others might suggest starting with the “soft parts” of data governance.

I do have a few books at home which I refer to on a regular basis. Old ones are still very good, new ones are adding to the newer challenges (especially for example if the past year with a pandemic worldwide has been affected with how we work with data governance). I like to keep myself up-to-date with this discipline. And nowadays there is a flora of books or resources making data governance more “approachable”. Below are books which would bring a good start for many (and routined practitioners too…):

Non-invasive Data Governance, by Robert s. Seiner. I very much like the ease of description, the ways of describing the roles and the approach to implement them in a non-invasive way.

Data diplomacy, by Håkan Edvinsson. Having worked with data management, information management, data quality, data governance, information architecture… for a while, it is always refreshing to read new approaches and views on those areas. This book is bringing new thoughts, and definitely worth checking.

Data Governance, by John Ladley. This is very straightforward. Easy to read and digest. Good start for newbies (and for more experienced too…).

Data Governance for the executive, by James C. Orr. I received this book as a present a while ago. It is never leaving my side (almost). It is 10 years old now, but honestly very much applicable to daily work with executives (and others…). Great to start with!

DAMA DMbok is of course a reference to be mentioned. I would however not suggest taking it as evening reading right through. I found (and still do) this book very helpful for specific challenges faced in companies I have worked for or where some of my network is. I do not apply it strictly to the letter. But take regular inspiration from it.

Other books obviously can be mentioned related to Data Governance, depending on the background you have, the interests you have, and the challenges you are facing. Working with storytelling is having more and more focus lately and indeed, to get successful with data governance, you need to be a good storyteller. Webinars from Dataversity are often of a good level for both beginners and more experienced. And they often touch a lot of data management disciplines, with experience sharing based on real use cases.

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in a Data Governance implementation?

Most likely to have a lack of sponsorship from Top Management. This would be the biggest challenge. People working daily with data (and we all do…) can well-define what they have for problems. There might even be some solutions (with or without related costs). But with data governance, you often (or always?) have to make people understand this is done for the long run. And compared data governance activities (to be implemented) to quick wins in tweaking a system or setting a firefighting squad to solve a problem, the choice is most often going for the quick fix. Top Management support and understanding is key. Data governance is an investment in the long term.

There is no magic silver bullet. I might be good at what I do, I might be able to convince people, and even find solutions, but I do not have a magic wand which could turn all this into perfection (although sometimes I wish I could be a data fairy…)

Jumping onto the latest technology or tool in belief that it will solve everything and beyond, is too often how data governance implementations start. A fool with a tool is however still a fool… Data governance is about transformation, not technology. You will get there eventually though…

Another challenge quite close to this one is the lack of resources (read: involved in the change) and right after, the belief that implementing a tool will solve data governance challenges. Change management is often lacking in most data governance or data management efforts. Which unfortunately leads to the negative view people might have to areas like data governance.

Having resources is good (and necessary), but you need the right skills set and competences in the people both leading the data governance work and the ones hands-on. Challenges are most likely here too when awareness, data literacy and change management are not part of the competences in place. Communication is also a challenge, as for all implementations.

Get the buy-in and official support from Top Management. Set a team with right competences and skills, as well as good at communicating, in order to lead the work (note: competences and skills needs can change over time. Be flexible. Adapt. Adjust.) Define the broader picture and have it communicated to all. Explain what’s in it for all and everyone. Set a clear framework with roles and responsibilities, question and revise your processes. Is that really so difficult?… Data Governance is nothing that should be done “because you have asked kindly”. It must get the proper attention, resources and correct competences, and not be left aside. Incorporate data governance seamlessly into processes will be key to success.

Is there a company or industry you would particularly like to help implement Data Governance for and why?

No industry in particular. Having been working in automotive, manufacturing, finance, banking, I would say that data governance challenges are quite similar. Solutions and ways of working might even be similar. Implementation can differ though. Then, there are of course regulations which are existing and very stringent in some industries like banking, making data governance needs higher, and more focus on certain areas (risk management for example).

I am working a lot through networking, exchange of experience with other practitioners from other companies and industries. So it feels sometimes like working in another company through their exchange.

What single piece of advice would you give someone just starting out in Data Governance?

First of all, get yourself some experience and competence related to data. Might be technical, might be process, might be people-related. As long as data is involved. This will help understand the overall picture. Do not underestimate experience with data and all the challenges all around. When you have suffered due to customer duplicates issues or delivery addresses not matching to real ones, you never forget… You know where it hurts, and how painful it is to get a proper understanding of the business when data is flawed.

Then, make it tangible. Make it pragmatic. No need to get a full-blown data governance framework, supporting a possible data strategy or else, if there is no clear understanding or plan for “how to realize all this”.

In the “non-invasive” way, what I like is to incorporate data governance in the existing structure of a company. Do not define new fora if you might have some already set and working. Include responsibilities into existing roles. Do not recruit an army of data stewards without having clear what they are going to do, and how they interact with other roles. It does not mean that it is easy. Work with change management. Get people involved.

Better start little and grow. Set a broader goal for the overall company, but if you are not ready for lots of sweat and tears (and probably fail overall), get all this piloted and then rolled-out. Manage expectations in a transparent way. Make no promise you cannot take. And yes, failing is ok. As long as you learn along the way. Learn from others’ mistakes and success too. Be patient. Resilience is key…

Have fun. Never be afraid to question existing and suggested processes. Working with data governance is actually fun. Meeting different people, with different goals and perspectives. Having them moving towards the same horizon…

Finally, I wondered if you could share a memorable data governance experience (either humorous or challenging)?

Apart from having received cute nicknames such as MDM Queen, Master Data Fairy or Data Governance police? The most memorable experience is probably the connections I have made with people. Working with data governance, with data quality, information management, master data… from all over the world, from all industries. Sharing experience and hearing the struggle from others like yours have been brightening many days (which sometimes felt like despair). There are constantly new things to learn, new challenges to take, new silos to battle, and new friends to find. Thanks to data governance, running friends have been met through MDM and Data governance networking exchanges. This is priceless…

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