Elizabeth Davis led a division of the World Bank through one of its biggest-ever changes, fuelled by her passion for data governance and dthe esire to get it right. En route, she became a legend to those working with her, as David Reed discovers in an exclusive interview.
Data governance is many things - business-critical, long-term, challenging. What it is not usually described as is thrilling and heroic. Unless you are Elizabeth Davis, that is. The head of the information quality group at International Finance Corporation, the private sector division of the World Bank, not only has a thrilling story to tell about her data governance efforts at IFC, she has a commendation from the Executive Vice President for the “significant and heroic efforts” made by her and her team to meet an extremely challenging deadline.
Davis presented an eye-catching session at this year’s IRM Data Governance Conference called, “A data governance story of suspense, courage, mystery, a cast of many, heroism, success, leadership, disillusionment and, in the end, realism.” Contrary to the dry, technical nature of most data governance case studies, this one lived up to its billing.
The story dates back to February 2010 when Davis had just returned to the information quality role after a year-and-a-half working elsewhere in the corporation. Rumours began to circulate of a corporate re-organisation on an unprecedented scale and out of synch with the bank’s semi-annual re-organisation schedule.
“There were two people who knew how to do data governance around re-organisations - one of them had left for a different part of the organisation and the other was an IT contractor who’d been working with the bank for a decade,” recalls Davis. “We were thin on knowledge about how to go about this and we didn’t know what was coming.”
When the plan was finally revealed, it was beyond the scale of anything which had been undertaken before. Over the previous nine years, there had been an average of 45 organisational changes made annually. When Davis finally calculated what the new proposals had required, it involved 742 changes.
A chart set out what this would mean for staff, with a wholesale move from industry sector-based roles to regional ones. “It was a complete shift. We realised this changed everything and the number of reference data elements required was huge,” she says. (It was only two months into the project that Davis discovered this chart was not even the official version, but something put together by another employee to help explain the new structure.)
The data governance challenge was how to ensure that up to 900 people being affected by the re-organisation would still be able to create the business intelligence reports they required and make analyses against previous periods which used the old structure codes. Says Davis: “We didn’t have a system to do that - it all ended up on a spreadsheet managed manually which used up every cell.”
Before the change, reference data used acronyms relating to specific industries to identify whether an investment project was into manufacturing, agriculture, banking and so on. “The re-organisation created new acronyms without the sector code and added in regional information, creating two meanings in one code. There was a need to be able to do comparisons against the previous schema,” she says.
Being asked to change codings and reference data schemes is a common experience in the world of data governance. What made the IFC project unusual was the scale of the change and the short time-scale envisaged. Says Davis: “People asked me to convince management of the need to postpone the plan until the next re-organisation cycle.”
What happened next transformed Davis from an admired data governance practitioner into a legend within the organisation. She found herself that June in an eleventh-floor corporate boardroom facing the Executive Vice-President (EVP), multiple vice-presidents, senior directors and representatives of IT and presenting to them on the potential risks identified to date in the project.
These included significant workarounds to allow staff to access systems when they had been reassigned, an absence of reliable reporting in the new structure leading to a dependence on ad-hoc, manual reports, incompatibility between the new reporting period and previous years and no preparation for the impact on key systems. Combined with the other risks she had identified, it added up to a strong alarm about the project.
“The EVP said he thought it was a fear response and that I was crying wolf,” recalls Davis. She waited for colleagues in the meeting to provide support and evidence that the risks were real and that IFC was taking a significant gamble with the re-organisation. None spoke up.
“That was the moment when my passion for data governance came out and gave me the courage to speak truth to power,” says Davis. She refuted the claim of over-estimating the risks and emphasised that they had not all been identified. Postponement was the sensible option, she told senior management, using the extra time to prepare staff for the changes.
“It was one of the hardest meetings of my life. They were blindsided by the enormity of what they were facing,” she says. As the discussion unfolded, Davis realised that she had not turned off the instant messenger application on her laptop, which was now pinging with queries about how she was getting on and if all was well. Eventually, one of the directors told her to reply that she was ok.
“That meeting has become a legend,” she says now. But her courage did not alter the timescale - the re-organisation was still to proceed within two-and-a-half months, albeit with a clear awareness right at the top level of the risks involved. It was this which Davis most values, especially as none of her colleagues had felt able to discuss the possibility of failure. Even so, she remembers thinking, “holy shit, we will have to really do this.”
When she told this to the audience, it led to a heated debate about whether her gender was a factor and how male management approaches challenges differently. Davis credits her own personality - “I can sell” - and commitment to the cause of data governance for managing to push through the changes.
Evidence for this was clear in the way the governance function she had previously built up fell apart during her time away from this group. Returning to it in early 2010, she faced major changes with a lack of resources and support.
Speaking to DataIQ, Davis revealed that her personal role model is Elizabeth 1. Something of that willingness to muster courage when faced with difficult situations clearly came out at the right moment. “At the party we threw after the re-organisation went live, the EVP and the vice-president both referred to that June meeting and me trying to get them to make a decision based on facts. You have to speak up or you will have failed,” she says.
Her leadership clearly inspired both the three people in her team and up to 170 other contributors to the project. Holiday plans were cancelled and many worked straight through the final three days before going live to ensure the project would succeed. When it went live on 13th September 2010 with 99.9 per cent data accuracy, it was testimony to their commitment. “It was a serious leap of faith - all your confidence and leadership still does not tell you if it will work,” says Davis.
If people were essential to the data governance project, technology also had a part to play. Over five years, IFC had built an integrated data environment that eliminated silos, provided single source data capture and delivered information into reporting systems. With that as a backbone, Davis at least knew there could be positive outcomes. “For those of us who knew, we figured if we could get the reference data right, it would flow through everything. I’m not sure we understood all the connections and there was no time to do an impact assessment,” she says.
Three days after the successful launch of the re-organisation, she held a party for those co-workers and handed out certificates of appreciation to all involved, signed by the very vice-presidents and directors she had warned about the potential for failure. (Originally, the top level of management was not part of the celebration but, having heard about it, they insisted on attending leading to the certificates having to be reprinted with their names and signatures on.)
A learning points document Davis co-authored afterwards emphasised that early involvement of stakeholders would have greatly helped preparations for such a project. She also pointed out that the investment into the integrated data environment was the only reason IFC had been able to achieve its re-organisational goals.
As if to prove that the best of efforts still does not always change the world, a request soon followed for exposure to be reported on at client group level. “I realised that information doesn’t exist in any structured way,” says Davis. This time when she explained to the relevant vice-president, the request got put on hold.
Her personal reputation has been significantly enhanced by the project, giving data governance itself a higher status in the organisation as a result. Not that this fundamentally changes the demands being made.
“Data governance is always on the backfoot. We only get noticed when somebody finds 100,000 inaccurate records, not for our successes,” says Davis. That seems likely to change as more people hear her story first hand. But she is sanguine about the ongoing challenges: “It doesn’t ever stop.”