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From Central to Mesh: How to Transform Governance Right?

Zoltan Csonka
May 30, 2023
Read: 7 min

Governance is an essential part of any organisation. With good governance practices, businesses can manage processes and ensure the company follows strategy and goals. As companies grow, some transition into a decentralised business model and organisation. Using the data mesh approach, their governance model changes from central to mesh or federated governance.

This article is going to explore how to transform central governance into federated governance, touching upon what you need initially and what the most critical focus areas are.

Here, we seek a transition from central to mesh that is going to provide greater freedom to domains and boost productivity but also help ensure we are not creating silos.

transform central governance into federated governance

Let's first take a look at where we are now and where we are heading in terms of governance.

Centralised governance model

When we think about governance, the central governance model is what most of us have in mind. It often involves a traditional top-down approach where the power and the decision-making authority are strongly connected and are concentrated at the top of the organisation or the community.

The central governance model remains prevalent in many places from corporations to government institutions and non-profit organisations.

A well-defined central governance model provides clear lines of authority and responsibility and is easy to implement and maintain. However, it can stifle innovation and creativity as the central governance team is often too far from the business and technology experts. This could impede the effective decision-making process, becoming the blocker of innovation and efficiency across the organisation.

Federated governance, a.k.a. mesh governance model

A federated governance model is a key principle of data mesh and a relatively new approach to data governance in which data management responsibilities are distributed across decentralised domain teams. With this model, interconnected individuals and organisations share power and authority, but some standards are defined centrally. This means that a small degree of centralisation will remain for the purpose of ensuring interoperability.

Reorganising the authority with federated governance promotes ownership, collaboration and innovation, as members can share their ideas and expertise. Here, decisions are made collaboratively, allowing for greater flexibility and adaptability. Nevertheless, this model can also be challenging to coordinate and may make it difficult to hold individuals accountable for their actions.

Federated computational governance operating model
Federated computational governance operating model - Zhamak Dehghani, Founder and CEO @ Nextdata

The biggest challenge is balancing between top-down, centralised control and individual autonomy. It is essential to identify the level of accountability without restricting creativity and encouraging collaboration and transparency.

In other words, federated governance allows for sorting out decisions that should remain at the local level from those that must be made globally.

Global decisions aim to create interoperability and a compounding network effect through the discovery and composition of data products. A degree of centralisation benefits data product compatibility and common self-service tooling.

How to make a successful transition from central to mesh?

In order to transition to the mesh governance mode, you need to start out with a clear understanding of the goals behind the transition. Moreover, you need to be aware of what you have right now and what else you are going to need in the new, federated governance system to commence the transition.

Start by asking this question:

Do you have a well-defined and working central governance?

In the case where you do have well-defined centralised governance, your path to a federated model is fairly straightforward. You might already have many of the policies, processes and tools that you can use initially, such as programming languages, conventions, modelling standards, data interfaces, metadata standards, product lifecycle management, security (encryption, roles), compliance, such as GDPR or RTBF, and many more.

If you do not have mature central governance, you must define the rules, standards and processes from scratch. The lack of well-defined governance before transitioning will quickly lead to silos and chaos across your organisation.

In his book Building an Event-Driven Data Mesh, Adam Bellemare identified four main focus areas that should be considered before starting a transition to a federated governance model:

  • Data concerns;
  • Technology concerns;
  • Legal, business and security concerns;
  • Self-service platform concerns.

four main focus areas

Start small, iterate, collaborate and grow

The actions that you need to take depend on the maturity of the governance and data environment at your organisation. Let’s take a look at the specific steps to give you a good idea of how to start this journey.

To make all of this possible, you should set out with a good understanding of what you have and what you are going to need in your newly adopted federated governance system.

Here is what lies ahead on your transformation journey:

transformation journey

1. Establish clear values and goals that guide decision-making

Success depends on clear goals and support from the highest-level stakeholders. Make sure you define, understand and communicate your goals and values transparently across the whole organisation.

Each company should define and adopt its own values and goals but there are a few examples to consider.

Your values could include:

  • Transparency: Promoting open communication and sharing of information related to data governance processes and decisions;
  • Collaboration: Encouraging cross-departmental cooperation and knowledge sharing to leverage the collective expertise;
  • Empowerment: Granting departments the autonomy and responsibility to manage their data within defined guidelines and standards.

Your goals could include:

  • Fostering innovation: To do that, encourage exploring and utilising the data as a strategic asset, promoting innovative ideas and solutions;
  • Improving data and data product quality: To reach this goal, implement processes and mechanisms to enhance data accuracy, consistency and reliability across the organisation.

2. Pick the first domain

You might have already identified all of your domains, but pick one and focus on it first. You want to prove the value fast, so do not seek a big boom too early on.

The ideal domain to start with is one that is related to a business need but suffers from a bottleneck caused by centralised functions. It is also one where the data product can be well defined.

Note that identifying and specifying the domains to follow can be just as difficult; this entails a series of decisions to be made (we are going to cover this topic in a separate blog post, so stay tuned).

To make this happen, you need a product definition in place. In many cases, it already exists in the centralised model and assigning the ownership to the domain solves this task.

3. Establish a federated governance team

You need a federated governance team in place to help discover common ground for mutually beneficial solutions.

The members of this team depend on the specific organisation with its data management needs. Some possible members could be:

  • The new domain representatives;
  • Business stakeholders;
  • Representatives from the existing centralised governance team;
  • IT security / DPO;
  • Data analysts.

When putting together your federated governance team, you need to ensure comprehensive coverage of domain-specific knowledge, technical expertise, compliance considerations and business requirements.

Involving stakeholders from different areas enables your team to address a wide range of governance challenges, foster collaboration, and make informed decisions that align their efforts with the organisational objectives.

4. Develop a data governance framework

At this point, you need new structures, templates and processes that support a more distributed approach to decision-making. In other words, you need a framework.

As pointed earlier, you likely already have certain processes and templates in place which you can work with and adjust as needed. But you will need new items as well.

If you find there are too many missing pieces (e.g. realising you need to draft a number of templates and adopt a series of new policies), you might not be transitioning from a mature centralised governance in the first place. This would mean that you will be building mesh from scratch, which could be more challenging but is not nearly impossible.

The federated governance team and domain teams will establish new roles and responsibilities. They will also phase in new decision-making processes and ensure that the organisation leverages technology to boost communication and collaboration.

Do you remember the four main focus areas we discussed earlier? This team will be key in defining standards and processes across domains to cover them.

Technology as a strategic advantage

Consider how technology can help with the transition when transitioning from central to mesh model of governance. The transformation process could tremendously benefit from automation and the utilisation of cutting-edge tech to boost efficiency and ensure compliance.

This could involve leveraging cloud-based data storage and processing solutions for flexibility (e.g. Snowflake, dbt) or data catalogues (e.g. Atlan) for search and discovery, communication, glossary, handling processes and transparency. The list could go on and depends entirely on the case.

As with any other aspect of moving to a federated model, technology calls for a robust strategy that is carefully aligned with the specifics of the organisation, the business goals and the culture. A lack of a tech strategy in place, and one developed at the right time, could result in the transformation team being unequipped to plan for addressing the 4 key concerns at this crucial time.

Conclusion

To transform the organisation's governance from central to mesh, you need to identify the areas where decision-making can be decentralised. The whole idea of federated governance is to balance the autonomy and independence of individual domain teams with the need for overall coordination and alignment across the organisation's data management practices.

Start with small steps that are rooted in what you already have:

  1. Establish clear values and goals;
  2. Pick a domain;
  3. Appoint a federated governance team;
  4. Initially, use the existing standards, roles, templates and processes to change only when needed.

Aim to focus on one domain at a time and provide value fast. Let the new domain begin with the existing governance rules, processes and tools and change what is needed, allowing enough time to adjust.

Infinite Lambda is your technology partner when planning your transformation to a federated governance model. We are here to perform a data mesh maturity analysis that helps you make sure you are asking the right questions. Get in touch to talk about your organisation.

Meanwhile, if you are a business leader considering data mesh for your organisation, make sure to read our article on the business reasons and challenges associated with adopting data mesh.

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Everything we know, we are happy to share. Head to the blog to see how we leverage the tech.

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