Metadata can play a crucial role in helping an organization recover following a data spill, and it’s natural to want to find the fastest and easiest path to doing so. The problem is, there are many steps to take before you actually get to where you need to be.
In a way, gathering metadata is like mountain climbing. You can’t go straight from hiking in your local park one week to climbing Mt. Everest the next. However, you can greatly improve your chances if you start early building up the key strengths that you’ll need to actually scale the mountain. That’s why, if you’re a Chief Data Officer (CDO), or another leader in your organization’s data function, it may be in your best interest to arrange your own “boot camp” in which to develop the skills you’ll need.
Acquiring the skills needed to gather metadata
As I’ve explained in a recent guide, Using Metadata to Defend Against Data Breaches and Information Risk, gathering metadata is vital to being able to recover from a data spill. The reason is that until you conduct effective metadata acquisition and discovery processes, you can’t truly understand your data assets — and therefore you can’t know where to be on the lookout for suspicious data usage patterns that could be signs of a data spill.
But you can’t just rush into the process of gathering metadata, nor should you simply buy a product, plug it in and expect to have the metadata handed to you. Rather, it requires a specialized communication process that focuses on working face-to-face with a diverse set of data stakeholders in a room (or more likely, working with several or many such groups in multiple rooms over a period of time). This process allows you and the participants to collaborate around your data assets in a focused way, and eventually produces the metadata that provides a context around your organization’s various data elements and your data supply chain.
Whether you are your organization’s CDO or another data leader trying to make your organization more data-centric, one of your most important skills is the ability to facilitate these data stakeholder meetings. If you already have this skill, that’s great. If not, you’ll need to either acquire it, or pay someone to facilitate these conversations for your organization. Although many companies take the latter approach, by hiring external consultants to facilitate such groups, that’s not the only way — and it’s certainly not the most cost effective.
The boot camp approach for increasing organizational maturity in metadata acquisition
I suggest that a better strategy is to start your metadata gathering process like a boot camp, where you have two goals. Your functional goal is to begin the process of extracting the metadata about your organization’s data assets from the minds of the people who understand them best. Meanwhile, your personal goal is to start exercising and strengthening you and your team’s personal skills as facilitators.
Why bother with this process? To get an accurate view of the metadata surrounding that data, you need to have all of the different stakeholders involved, who each see the data from their own perspective — the data architects, the technologists and the business users. More than likely, individuals in the different functional areas will have a range of communication and thinking styles. If you’re familiar with the Myers Briggs system of classifying people and their personality preferences, you’ll probably have at least a few people who like to think very conceptually but may be quite introverted, while some others may prefer to talk freely about more concrete subjects, and still others will have their own preferences. And those are just a few of the many kinds of variables you can encounter.
It’s not impossible to get results from such diverse groups, but it does take some awareness of personality types and group dynamics. Approaching it as a boot camp allows you to develop your own strategies for engaging with each style, and giving participants the time, processes or other conditions they need to feel fully engaged.
To underscore the importance of facilitation in acquiring metadata, it’s still the one area where clients most often ask for my personal involvement. Of course I’m happy to do so — but I’ve also seen that those organizations whose data functions already have skilled facilitators on board can significantly control costs and get results faster.
Keep an eye on your goal
Think about your metadata boot camp as the first step in a long but worthwhile journey. Reaching the mountain in this analogy means getting a solid handle on the metadata in your organization — and all the insights, competitive advantage, and resiliency that come with it. But before you can get there, you need to acquire the facilitation skills that allow you to engage with your various teams, and get them to engage with each other. Only when they do so can they start providing the metadata you need.
Just as in climbing a mountain, you have to take it one step at a time.