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How Complex Databases Are Governed In the Mormon Church

In addition to the world's biggest set of genealogies and missionaries in 160 countries, the church has more than 260 centrally managed databases.

SAN FRANCISCO -- With 13.5 million members and 53,000 missionaries in 160 countries, the Mormon Church has one of the largest and most complex IT systems in the world.

In addition to keeping the world's biggest set of genealogies, the church translates materials into 166 languages and broadcasts some of its events live, simultaneously, in 66 languages. (CNN, by contrast, broadcasts in six languages). There are more than 260 centrally managed databases, and those are just the Oracle and SQL Server applications.

Pablo Riboldi, who's been the church's information governance manager for three years, calls it a "large, non-profit, bureaucratic organization" -- except that it has a clearly defined purpose, to invite people to come to Jesus. Riboldi demonstrated what he's learned at the Enterprise Data World conference in San Francisco last week.

The biggest lesson he's had to learn in his job, he says, is patience -- a surprise, since Riboldi was once a Mormon missionary himself and now has seven children, all home-schooled. He describes himself as a diplomat between IT and the business, "talking both languages, translating for both groups." One of his hobbies is teaching community courses in Euclidian geometry. Another is running, which he says helps him take the long view of problems.

His big challenge with the church's IT systems is that they're siloed: Like the systems in many large organizations, they've grown independently over the years to handle the needs of individual departments, and "the mentality is that the department owns this information," he says.

So how did he figure out how to do his job? He talked to people, attended conferences, and adapted, borrowed or stole ideas -- ideas that he, in turn, presented last week at the conference.

Here are Riboldi's five principles for setting up a data governance program. Below these five are his five principles for keeping a data governance program running once it's set up.

1) Pick the Right Driver

Find the thing that gives you the authority to justify your program -- your main program driver. If you work in a non-profit, your driver is policy. In a for-profit organization it's ROI - return on the investment that you've estimated of your and your staff's time. In an organization that has to comply with regulations, it's compliance - your estimated cost of a breach. Sometimes these drivers overlap, but the Mormon Church has policies for classifying and handling data so that it will be accurate, confidential if necessary, and complete.

2) Govern Through Principles

For example, "We want our data to be accurate." Figure out which truths are important to your organization, then write them down, share them, uphold them and make decisions based on them. "Marketing, marketing," Riboldi says. "Whenever there's a new situation, you can rely on the principle."

3) Structure Your Program to Use 'Non-Invasive' Data Governance

Figure out how the program will be organized, who makes what decisions and who implements them to avoid conflicts later. At the church, an Information and Communications Committee, which includes the CIO, makes decisions and sponsors programs, while the managing directors of each department designate "data stewards" - people who make the daily operational decisions, such as how data should be classified and what can be shared. In IT, meanwhile, there's an enterprise information management group that supports the whole program.

4) Don't Try to Do Everything -- You Can't

Delegate responsibilities -- hence the Mormon church's data stewards. Data stewards are accountable for the quality, completeness and accuracy of the data in their departments, as well as who gets access to it. They avoid duplicating data so managers don't have to reconcile it later - that means information transferred from one system to another can't be changed. They also manage their data for all other departments -- which means they have to take other departments' needs into account.

The church's facilities managers didn't want to keep track of the capacities of their buildings, Riboldi said, but departments that hold classes in those buildings needed the information. Facilities manager also started keeping better track of the latitude and longitude of buildings after the CIO, who was traveling in California, looked on the Web site for the closest meeting house so he could attend church and found it located in the Pacific Ocean near the Catalina Islands.

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