"We're kicking off data governance, but we're not sure where to start."
I hear this line—or some version of it—every single week. Whether it's in conversations with IT leaders building a data warehouse, Institutional Researchers developing consistent decision-support tools, or frustrated analysts working in student success, the sense of paralysis in the face of an enormous, institution-wide task is felt by most institutions starting (or restarting) on this journey.
Below, I discuss why champions are crucial to improving your data governance efforts and outline three characteristics that I look for in a data catalyst to help drive an institution forward in their data maturity journey.
Engage a catalyst with a clearly scoped project
Based on our work with data leaders across higher education, EAB recommends agile, iterative data governance. Specifically, we encourage campuses to identify tightly-scoped data projects as the basis for building and scaling their various governance capabilities. That way, they can work on identifying data stewards and technical owners for data elements as a use case for them arises—rather than trying to "boil the ocean" and waste governance conversations (and political capital) on data that won't show the value of these efforts.
Starting with a tightly scoped project with clear business value is something we recommend to every institution. But the exact project you pick to start implementing better data governance will be unique to your campus. One campus might start with prospective student data to support mission-critical enrollment objectives; another might take advantage of an ERP transition to document and standardize their HR and finance business logic. If you're struggling with where to start, it can be helpful to first find a campus champion—or even a whole functional area—that might serve as your collaborator for initial governance conversations. This is your data catalyst.
3 things that make a good data catalyst
1. They ask for actionable data to support specific campus strategies
The best governance partners already understand that the rationale for governing campus data is to put it into action. Whether that's to support streamlining and automating processes, to inform critical resource decisions, or to develop more compelling experiences for students doesn't really matter.
As long as your data catalyst can identify specific data attributes that will support their current goals, their dedication to their own strategies will propel your data efforts forward by association—and provide essential ROI to support further governance conversations and data standardization projects.
2. They will commit resources to support stewardship and data quality
The data lifecycle starts and ends with users—and their impact on the quality and comprehensiveness of institutional data far outweighs the potential that technical staff have to make improvements while data are being aggregated and modeled.
To establish sustainable data governance, campuses must bridge the gap between data creation and data use. Exploring quirky business processes and historical data requires close collaboration between the business system owners and frontline staff, often taking up to 2-3 hours of time on a weekly basis. If your catalysts can't commit to this kind of partnership throughout the data standardization project, it's likely that your efforts will grind to a halt with no results to show.
3. They champion collaboration projects among peers
The purpose of starting small with an initial data governance and standardization project is to inspire broader action and collaboration across the rest of campus. Turning data into insight, insight into action, and action into value is a complicated process. But once it's done, having a digital leader evangelizing the outcomes of the partnership will go a long way to building the buy in and excitement that you'll need to turn the project into a process that's both broader-reaching and sustainable.
If you're focusing on catalysts that don't collaborate well with other parts of campus—or operate against rogue strategies that are divorced from the broader institutional plan—you might be boxing yourself into a corner that it's difficult to break out of.
The right data catalyst is your key to success
There are many ways to prioritize across different initiatives—and the expanding list of tech-enabled projects doesn't make it any easier. But by far the most common indicator of data governance success is the presence of an executive champion for the project outside of the technical teams. With these three characteristics in mind, you can find the right catalyst for any project and start making the most of your campus data.
Design your data strategy
Transforming your institution's data strategy and culture is a long-term project that requires coordinating between multiple campus teams. To help you kick-start this process, we developed our Data Strategy Toolkit.