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Sallie Mae exec: Meetings, metrics spur data governance best practices

In an interview, Michele Koch discusses the data governance program she leads at Sallie Mae and provides insight on key governance best practices.

Michele Koch knows a great deal about data governance best practices. As director of the data governance office at Sallie Mae Inc., Koch has spent the past five years leading a companywide governance program and making sure that the Newark, Del.-based student loan provider’s business and IT operations are on the same page when it comes to data governance policies and procedures.

A frequent speaker at information management conferences, Koch says one of the keys to Sallie Mae’s ongoing enterprise data governance success lies in its ability to measure and quantify the business impact that the governance efforts are having. It also helps, she says, to have a large contingent of business representatives sharing their concerns and hammering out agreements to resolve any conflicts that arise when new data governance policies are implemented. spoke recently with Koch, who also is Sallie Mae’s director of enterprise data management, about the company’s data governance program and her view of best practices for data governance. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Did you have any trouble getting executive buy-in and sponsorship for the data governance initiative?

Michele Koch: The vice president [of IT] and the CIO bought in right away. We told them this was part of being successful, and they bought into it. I’ll tell you, though – and this was a little interesting – IT middle management was much harder to sell. I really think they felt like they were already over-allocated and this was just one more thing that we wanted them to do. I did get pushback. But then, finally, our CIO told them that we are going to do this, that this is going to be part of your everyday work and that it’s really not going to take up that much of your time. [That] was an eye-opener for me. I was not expecting that.

How did you structure the data governance program at Sallie Mae?

Koch: We have a data governance office, and I’m responsible for that. It includes me, my assistant and the chief data steward. So it is more like an actual team, but we have other people helping us. I’m lucky because I can tap into other resources. We established a data governance council that is made up of representatives from every line of the business – I think [we’re up to] 22 to 25 representatives. We [have] IT subject matter experts, data SMEs and business SMEs who we pull in and out as we need. We have a data quality services team, which is also under me. [Everyone] on the council has their real jobs; it’s just that this is another role for them. There isn’t anybody who does this full time.

What I tell everybody now is that you should think about metrics up front. Think about the kinds of metrics you want to track and track them as you go along.

Michele Koch, Sallie Mae

Does your chief data steward come from the business side of the organization?

Koch: She works in loan accounting and was our controller. She has been with the company for a long time and has also worked at a very high level at a couple of our [loan] servicing centers. She’s great because she knows the business inside and out – she knows finance and the accounting [and] how everything affects our 10-K and general ledger. She also knows who to contact [when data issues arise]. That saves me a lot of time, because it would take me five phone calls to get to that same person.

Would you say, then, that she serves as a liaison between the business and IT?

Koch: You know, I think of myself as that, and I think of her as that as well. I kind of consider myself to be both business and IT. In other words, I’m not so technical where all I can talk about is the technical stuff. I’m able to take that and explain it in normal business terms. [The chief data steward] has a business background, but she [understands when we say what a certain piece of data] is going to mean. She gets that, and then she’ll go and explain it to other people. It’s just a good partnership.

What are some of the biggest missteps that Sallie Mae has taken on the road to enterprise data governance?

Koch: This was not a terrible mistake or anything, but when I started, I was so new to all of this that I didn’t think about metrics until after it was done. And then we went back and tried to do [the metrics], and it took a lot more effort to do it after the fact. What I tell everybody now is that you should think about metrics up-front. Think about the kinds of metrics you want to track and track them as you go along. That was a lesson learned. I [also] underestimated the amount of time that it takes to do stakeholder care and to communicate, and it was a big eye-opener to realize how much of this is hand-holding and, you know, doing those five versions of every darn presentation. I still have to force myself to do that. I don’t come natural to that because I’m an IT person [laughs]. But I’ve learned.

Could you give some examples of your favorite data governance best practices?

Koch: Well, there are a couple of things. I always say the first thing that I did right was insisting that we pull everybody together the very first time [for two days of meetings about the data governance initiative]. That was really important to kind of get everybody together in the same room. All the little light bulbs went off, and they saw how [data in] one business area could impact another business area. [Another example was] creating the “cookbooks” and documenting all of the policies and procedures – and doing that in PowerPoint. Then I could take the PowerPoint slides and make my presentations with them. That was a huge timesaver.

How do you measure the results of the data governance efforts at Sallie Mae?

Koch: We measure how the program is doing. We measure the number of issues that are opened, closed or works in progress. We measure the number of [data] fields that we’ve standardized and what the maturity level is for those fields. We measure the business value of working through a data quality issue. We can show potential business value if we fix the problem, and then we can show actual value, too. We’ve done some good work [on metrics] over the last six months.

What does the future hold for Sallie Mae’s data governance program?

Koch: We’re going to keep going. Our company has been going through drastic changes with all that has been happening in the [financial] markets. My thing is that we need to stay flexible and change with the company so that we can continue to add value.

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