Implementing a Data Governance Framework

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to

This month’s question is answered by Garry Hansen, Director of Institutional Research and Planning, St. Thomas University.
The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article. 
Dear Garry: What are some tips for implementing a data governance framework?
GarryHansen.jpgIn the simplest terms, a data governance framework is a system of rules, policies, procedures, and responsibilities clearly establishing who can do what with what information and how and when those things can be done. An effective governance initiative promotes data quality and ensures information is both secure and available to those who should have access to it. Because such a framework is ideally integrated seamlessly throughout an institution, administrative silos, long-held practices, institutional politics, and resource limitations are more likely to be greater obstacles than any purely technical challenge. Drawing on lessons learned while establishing a data governance framework at my small liberal arts university, I’d like to offer a few practical tips to help you leap those hurdles.

Secure executive sponsorship. The visible, public support of engaged senior administrators will validate the importance of the data governance initiative for both senior leadership and unit-level administration and staff; this is essential to securing resources, breaking down silos, and establishing data itself as a crucial institutional resource. Discussing the initiative with a senior administrator in finance or advancement, where the stakes involved in issues of data quality and security are particularly obvious, might be a good place to begin.

Emphasize the broader scope of data governance. Don’t allow data governance to be dismissed as “an IT problem” or “an IR issue.” The term “data” itself, with its connotations of the strictly digital or numerical, can contribute to this oversimplification. When communicating about data governance at your institution, give real examples demonstrating that it encompasses all forms of information – documents, electronic records, emails – and includes the processes that produce, record, maintain, and distribute information.

Recognize that one size doesn’t fit all. The multi-leveled data governance structure that works well at a large institution may not be practical at a small college where the same handful of staff members may serve the functions of governance council, stewardship committee, and information custodians.  It’s important to establish a framework that’s appropriate for the size and resources of your institution.  Although a large governance council may be useful in creating institution-wide engagement and representation from a variety of stakeholders, it can also be impractical and unwieldly.

Ensure buy-in. Even the most meticulously designed governance framework will quickly wither and die if those who must live it don’t recognize its value. While senior sponsorship may help with compliance, consultation throughout the development process will ensure that the framework is not seen as strictly and arbitrarily imposed from above. Secure the support of managers and frontline staff by emphasizing the benefits of a good data governance framework to an office’s functionality (i.e. clear procedures for creating, maintaining, and handling information will help, not hinder, the operation of your unit).

Consider an incremental approach. Although an incremental approach to establishing a data governance framework can be problematic (because some pieces of the framework can’t function until others are in place), consciously implementing the framework in logical phases has several advantages. First, it allows you to identify and celebrate concrete successes early in the process, which is crucial to developing buy-in and momentum. Second, like any major task, realizing something as broad and involved as an institution-wide data governance framework is more manageable when deliberately and thoughtfully divided into its component parts.

Don’t despair. Introducing data governance can be a frustrating process, particularly when it requires a shift in institutional culture. While the benefits of good data management may be obvious to you and your team, they may not be so to others. However, as your institution’s data governance framework begins to take shape, even the most resistant data users will begin to recognize that the improvements in data quality and security are well worth the effort.



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Total Comments: 1
Marlene posted on 6/24/2016 10:25 AM
This is very helpful, thank you. It would be great to have a list of related resources (e.g., related professional associations, example frameworks, guidance on incremental approaches, etc.).