What the Friendliest Animal in the World Teaches Us About Data Governance

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

The capybara is a large South American rodent which has developed an unexpected reputation as the world's friendliest animal. Yet perhaps more surprising is that for hundreds of years it has also been classified as a fish. The story behind this is not only seasonally appropriate, but it highlights a number of challenges organisations face when implementing data governance programmes.

During the 16th century, Spanish missionaries came to South America and one of the traditions they introduced was Lent. During this 40-day period leading up to Easter, observant Christians would abstain from sugar, meat, and alcohol. The problem was that local clergy soon developed a taste for the humble capybara.

To circumvent the prohibition on meat during Lent, the clerics appealed to the Vatican arguing capybaras should be considered fish. After all, they like water and have webbed feet. The Vatican consented and to this day no capybara has been safe during Lent. Questionable taxonomy seems to have been a trend – for example, the Bishop of Quebec requested beavers be classified as fish too.

So, how is this relevant to those of us who do not care for roasted capybara?

One of the critical elements of master data management is data classification. This involves everything from data taxonomies to data sensitivity and data hierarchies. While it can feel a bit of an academic exercise, things can get heated when it involves questions of ownership and accountability. For example, how should new products be classified? Should they fall within existing business structures, or should they be carved out as a way of incubating their growth?

I might have gotten carried away and requested a breathtaking amount of capybaras. Image by GPT-4.

So, while data classification might seem a technical affair, there are always business drivers behind the scenes – what some might call politics. Just like reclassifying the capybara was driven by a culinary agenda, organisations might choose to reclassify e-commerce revenues as store revenues in an attempt to instill an omnichannel mindset. Similarly, store associate compensation is not simply about categorising sales. Understanding the context is critical.

Another lesson we can draw from the capybara is that aiming for grand consistency tends to be a fool's errand. While it is easy to poke holes in the logic of the capybara's assigned phylum, what matters is that the decision had the intended effect – the clerics got their meat and were able to score points with the local population. Similarly, data governance programmes built on symmetry and logic are of little use if they do not further the aims of the organisation.

Thirdly, adoption is everything. If people had refused to heed the Vatican's edict and dieted by the book, the capybara could have been spared Lenten snacking. Similarly, the success of data governance programmes is not measured by the number of guidelines, documents, and standards published, but by their practical adoption across the organisation. This is particularly important to remember when working with consultants, who might be incentivised on the former.

Finally, one needs to have authority for any data governance programme to be successful. Before diving into specifics, it is important to understand who the stakeholders are that will be impacted and ensure they are willing to listen, adopt, and adhere to the programme's outputs. After all, while it can be tempting to go around reclassifying rodents as fish, few of us have the influence to go and do so. Still, does not mean we cannot learn a thing or two from those that did!

– Ryan

Cover image by GPT-4.

Data & Analytics

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.