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Finance data governance program gets new start, broader focus

Businesses constantly need to evolve their programs for governing data. Nationwide's finance data governance team shares how it stepped up data governance strategy and processes.

Data governance is a constantly evolving process that requires perpetual attention and frequent updating. Letting...

those things slide can lead to inefficiencies, a narrow focus and, ultimately, stagnation in a data governance program.

A finance data governance (FDG) initiative at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. is a good example of how that happens -- and how to get the process moving forward again. The governance work began in 2005 to standardize the Columbus, Ohio, company's general ledger data for consistent financial reporting. Once the original goals were achieved, however, the program wasn't expanded to cover other types of finance data, and some participants started to become less engaged in it, according to Tonya Walker, associate vice president of Nationwide's FDG team.

In 2013, the team's leaders realized that the problems had to be addressed to get more business value from the data governance process. "We needed to step back and think about what data governance means," Walker said last week in a webinar arranged by the Data Governance Professionals Organization. The goal, she added, was to look for ways to get out of the governance rut: "How do you make sure you don't fall into the trap of just doing what you've always done because that's just what you've always done?"

The FDG team reached out to business users and data stewards in Nationwide's finance department to identify pressing issues that would be tackled in a new, more comprehensive data governance strategy and process optimization effort. Walker cited several "pain points" that people pointed to, including siloed operations and a lack of guidance for the data stewards.

In the webinar, she and two other team members discussed the ensuing changes made to the data governance program over the past few years. Here's some of what was done, and the impact they said it had on the program.

Produced a roadmap and charter to guide the governance process. The first thing the FDG team did in revamping the governance strategy was to create a roadmap. "It's important to understand where you are and where want to be in the future so you can make plans to get there," said Michael Randall, director of the team's data integration and quality unit.

Using the roadmap as a guide, the team also wrote a 50-page project charter that outlined the mission, organizational structure and specific goals for the expanded governance program. Randall said the charter, later condensed to nine pages for easier reading, set the stage for moves to get executive support, restructure the FDG team and "reenergize" the board that oversees the program, which had been idling with fewer major decisions to make following the creation of the initiative. He told listeners that the team often still uses the charter "to stay on track."

Instituted a dedicated data quality team. Before, the FDG operation had no official data quality team or standards. To increase the focus on data quality, it set up Randall's group and defined standards for data quality and procedures for identifying and resolving data problems, including service-level agreements on response times. The number of data quality issues submitted by business users in the first two months of this year exceeded the total for 2016 as a whole, Randall said -- an increase he chalked up to his team "actively starting to resolve [items] and have some success in this area."

The data quality team has also helped overcome resistance to the expanded data governance program from some corners of the finance department, Randall said. He described it as a "good ambassador" that shows finance managers what can be done to improve the quality of their data. That makes them "more willing to come to the table and talk to us, because they see the value we can provide," Randall noted.

Established governance standards, plus metrics to track the program's progress. The FDG team created a set of metrics that are incorporated into dashboard-based performance scorecards to measure progress against the goals outlined in the roadmap and charter; the governance program is also evaluated against industry benchmarks, said Julie Gribben, an internal data governance consultant on the team. Another step was defining new standards for structuring and using data, as well as control mechanisms to monitor compliance with them. Gribben called the standards "living documents" and said they're reviewed annually. The FDG is also in the process of creating a business glossary so that everyone in the finance department is on the same page when it comes to data definitions and lineage.

Defined the responsibilities of data stewards and improved training. At Nationwide, data stewardship isn't a full-time job, and there was no formal training for new data stewards before the restructuring of the data governance program. That meant many of them were unsure of their data stewardship duties, Gribben said.

To rectify that, the FDG team instituted a mix of in-person and online training to help the data stewards better understand their responsibilities and data governance concepts. An annual survey of the stewards is conducted to see how the training program works and what needs to be improved. And, Gribben said, it's now working with Nationwide's corporate-level enterprise data governance team to create an internal data steward certification process with higher-level training modules that could be used throughout the company.

The data governance program still hasn't reached the endpoint of the roadmap from 2013, Randall said. But he added that the FDG team has already laid out new short-term goals, plus a longer-term vision for future enhancements, as it looks to continue to evolve the governance process to fit the finance department's changing needs. "We didn't have a real strategy before," he said. Now, though, "we've essentially taken off the blindfold."

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