How Complex Databases Are Governed In the Mormon Church

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.

5) Figure Out Who in Your Organization Can Help You

Don’t fight other groups, Riboldi said — make alliances with them and offer to help. Riboldi was on the job for six or seven months before he discovered a group within the church working on master data management — they were programmers and database developers, and Riboldi helped them market their work to the data stewards.

He also found groups working on enterprise architecture, information security, and Web services. Also, don’t change what doesn’t need to be changed. “With legacy applications, we leave them alone,” he said. “Don’t stir the pot too much.”

Here are Riboldi’s five principles for keeping a data governance program running once it’s set up.

1) Figure Out What Needs Governing

In other words, not all data is equal. Focus on the data that’s easy to govern (reference data, such as currencies), the data that suffers from poorest quality (addresses) and the data that’s most requested across the organization (in the church, it’s organizational charts, leaders, members and employee facilities). Also look at what data is most often independently duplicated – in the church’s case, it’s member data — and figure out how to stamp that duplication out.

2) Data Stewards Can Be Discovered

Find the people who can help you most. Ask around the departments to see who should own that department’s data — who cares about the data the most? Very soon, Riboldi said, “people will point out the guy who knows the rules and is passionate about the data.” Once the stewards are approved — by the Information and Communications Committee, of course — Riboldi trains them. He’s also established a Data Steward’s Council to make sure the stewards keep talking to each other.

3) Communicate

Make sure everybody understands how the data governance is done — publish an explanation of who does what and how it works, along with forms you’ve designed for people to file to get any data that they need.

4) Select and Develop Tools for Your Program

Deciding on tools can be tricky, Riboldi said — if you buy them too early, they will define how your program runs, but if you wait too long, your program will suffer from lack of support. Start with something that doesn’t cost much — an Excel spreadsheet or flow chart to show how your program or data is structured, a template in Word for data sharing agreements.

Riboldi also developed a Sharepoint site to archive the data-sharing agreements, since there are more than 200. Another project in the works is a portal that allows people to group and identify their data domains. The next step is a “shareable data package” — groups of fields in their data stores that they’re willing to share.

5) Learn From the Best

And share what you know with others. Consultants can be helpful and can save you a lot of time — network to meet the best ones. Also, keep your perspective. Data governance is a program, not a project — a marathon, not a sprint.

“You have to be aware of the doldrums,” Riboldi said. “There are going to be times when you feel like you’re not making any progress. The bureaucracy can beat you up — but smile! You’re part of the bureaucracy.”

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