What Zappos' bold moves teach us about data governance

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If there's a non-casino flagship company here in Las Vegas, it's clearly Zappos, known for legendary customer service. Some have even called the way in which Zappos treats its customers insane. (Think 9-hour calls and free pizza deliveries. I'm not joking.)

Recently, though, the company has been making waves for very different reasons: An unprecedented, mass employee exodus. From "Zappos Stopped Managing Its Employees. They Don’t Seem Too Happy About It":

Chief executive Tony Hsieh announced that the company would eliminate all titles and managers and transition to a holacratic structure.

He offered dissatisfied employees at least three months severance if they quit; 210 of them – or roughly 14 percent of the company’s workforce – took it.

In a word, wow.

Hsieh's rationale here is consistent, if not controversial. (Zappos famously offers employees $2,000 to quit after they have completed training.) Why find out in six months that an employee isn't really committed to the company? Isn't it better to know that ASAP? Hsieh clearly wants Zappos' employees to exhibit the same fierce loyalty as its customers do. He's willing to put his money where his mouth is.

The Zappos' example begs an intriguing data-related question: Should organizations today require their employees to exhibit an evangelical commitment to data? Or is it acceptable to tolerate indifference and ignorance on what might be its most critical asset?

Two divergent DG views: One common ground

There's never been one "right" way to do data governance (DG). One size never fits all and, as my friend Jill Dyché likes to say, "your mileage may vary." At a high level, though, organizations have attempted to govern their data via several methods. From a recent Gartner paper titled "Gartner Prediction 2015: Information Governance and MDM will be foundational to improving digital culture" there have been two diametrically opposed views regarding data stewards in the past:

  1. Everyone is a steward and must take responsibility for governance.
  2. There are allotted stewards according to domains, departments or function.

I'm not going to argue over which is the better or "best" one in absolute terms. There are too many other variables at play to even attempt such as a simplification. I will, however, make the case that bad apples make life difficult for everyone, regardless of approach.

With the first approach, employees matter by definition. That argument is less obvious under the second, though. As I have seen all too often during my consulting career, uninformed and/or indifferent employees cause major problems throughout the organization even they are not specifically responsible for data. I can think of several organizations that required my expertise precisely due to the previous statement – and I'm hardly exceptional in this regard.

Simon Says: Data quality is everyone's job. Do your employees know that?

Hsieh is right. It's too risky today to carry any dead weight. If that's true for a company that sells shoes, then why wouldn't that hold water across the board?

Data is streaming at us faster than ever. The presence of a formal DG program certainly helps, but it's unlikely to accomplish its goals unless all employees are fully committed to them, whether they work as proper data stewards or not.

If we want to make DG sustainable (PDF), it's time get radical.

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems). He also runs 5marbles, an Agile software-development shop.

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