What You Need to Know About Data Democratization

June 23, 2022
October 17, 2023


With the 4th of July coming, it's a fun time to talk about democracy . . . in the context of data, specifically data management and the continued cry for the “democratization” of data.

As I recently reflected on what it means to be a true democracy (or, technically, a federal republic) with its benefits and challenges, I wondered, “Are there some lessons from the political philosophy realm that we can apply to the concept of democratizing your data?” The answer is yes.

In this article, you're going to find answers to these questions:
- What does democratizing your data mean?
- What value can it provide to your organization?
- What are the benefits and pitfalls of data democratization?

We’ll relate our conversation to concepts like voting, egalitarianism, pluralism, trust, education, literacy, policies, freedom, and a central governing body that has a sort-of “final say” when it comes to data decisions that affect the larger enterprise.

If nothing else, in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s probably your patriotic duty to read on.

Definitions, Definitions, Definitions

Let’s start with some fundamental definitions. I’ve chosen common-sense explanations that are high-level enough to apply to data management. Here's the main one:

Democracy: Giving the people direct access to have a voice in the creation, application, and overall direction of the larger entity to drive towards a shared (or even at times, disjointed) vision. In our case, let’s just say data (and thus power) to the people!

And here are the remaining definitions for the terms noted above. They're important to our discussion, so please review them before you read on.

Ok, now let's paint these definitions in the context of data management.

Democratization and Data Management

Looking back to the sixth century B.C., for Athenian democracy to work appropriately, it helped that there were a small number of citizens and they were all educated.

In our modern American democracy, we operate in more of a federated republic with a much larger population with varying interests, education levels, and backgrounds, such that a political system with more than one center of power (pluralism) is going to exist.

The same can be said of larger institutions when it comes to data management, particularly at the enterprise level. You'll have various constituents based on department, function, level, interests, education, and analytics maturity.

If we think about “data to the people” in this context, we definitely want to have some discussions around organizational change management to help ensure you create an educated population, a set of consistent policies that help guide the distributed creation and curation of data assets, and some sort of governance to help prevent complete chaos. I like to call this responsible data asset development.

Data Democratization: What and Why

So “data to the people," or the democratization of data as it relates to data management, refers to the process of supplying the right data to the “citizens” in your organization in the right form whenever they need it.

That’s easier said than done. How do you prevent chaos when data is pouring in at an exponential rate, the business is asking for new insights, IT can’t keep up, and unsanctioned assets are being developed at warp speed by people using next-generation business intelligence tools designed for the non-technical user?

The solution is to create a balance between governance and democratization of data.

Advantages to Democratizing Your Data

There are some clear benefits to the democratization of data. When done right:

  • Data is made accessible to those who know it best.
  • Democratizing data asset development and creation is a force multiplier that is no longer throttled by the number of hours IT has available. When you minimize your reliance on IT, the result is quicker time to value.
  • New levels of data sharing and awareness occur as communities form and the social fabric associated with the enablement of democratization of data develops. This leads to a better shared understanding and use of data, while improving the dialogue around how best to deal with challenges inherent in the data.

So faster time to value, better awareness, and the establishment of a civil society to help with a shared dialogue can all improve an organization and their management of data. When these occur, a true data marketplace can be developed to allow “citizens” to discover data assets, make social comments regarding the data assets quality, usefulness, meaningfulness (think Yelp for data), and even crowd-source business data in a shared business glossary.

Issues with Democratizing Your Data

Democratization sounds like a great idea, but when is it not? Here are some pitfalls to consider:

  • The uncontrolled proliferation of data assets.
  • Duplication and near-duplication of data assets.
  • Confusion over terms – fields called by a specific name in one data asset do not have the same meaning in another.
  • Creation of "dark assets" unknown to all but one person or a few people.
  • Reporting based on non-sanctioned assets – ungoverned assets used for reporting can put an organization at risk, particularly if those numbers are reported to the street.
  • Time wasted reconciling numbers from different assets that should tie out.
  • Not having a strong enough governing body or set of policies won’t provide the set of checks and balances that democracies need.
  • Poor overall management or tooling can make it difficult to know and understand asset lineage.
  • Depending on technical platform, uncontrolled asset creation and exploration can have real cost implications for data work in the cloud as compute costs can get out of control without proper monitoring and guidance.

Is it worth it?

There's an upside and downside to data democratization. Whether it’s worth it to your organization should center around the idea that too much of anything is rarely good.

Striking the balance between full-out democratization and providing the right level of governance should put your organization in a position of moderation where you can reap many of the benefits of data democratization while avoiding or mitigating many of the risks.

You want your citizens to have freedom, but you also must ensure they are properly educated, have the access they need to that education (so that policies can be appreciated and understood), and a community is fostered to build out the social fabric to continue to benefit the organization as a whole.

So as you enjoy Independence Day, reflect on the benefits and pitfalls of democratized data management and start looking for opportunities to move your organization in the right direction. As you make the shift, Onebridge can help you with the technology enablement, process considerations, and organizational change management to help you on your data democratization journey.

Have more questions about data democratization? Contact us

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