What is governance?

I was reading Governance without goodwill is dead by Brian Sondergaard and this got me thinking about a definition of governance.

When I want a definition I sometimes consult the much discredited Wikipedia and on this occasion, the entry was predictably weak.  I don’t feel I have the authority to contribute to the Wikipedia definitions of governance or IT governance but I thought I might add my two penneth here.

For starters governance is governance – I don’t see the difference between project governance, IT governance, corporate governance etc.  It is a management system that can be applied to any administrative challenge.

For me, governance is about making sure all stakeholder views and interests are taken into account.  Note I did not use the word “accepted”.

Stakeholders are clearly not equal, for example the Finance Director will carry more weight than a lone programmer.  So where different stakeholders’ interests clash, the stronger will win.  This should, in theory at least, be the best result for the organisation because the strongest stakeholders should be the ones with the most authoritative mandate from the board (usually auditors – ever tried to get round a security or compliance policy?  When directors can go to prison, compliance rules and laws tend to get attention).  Since the board is responsible for steering a company’s strategy, and their arses are on the line if the company is not successful, they should have the largest say.  But where a lot of companies go wrong is in riding roughshod over the views and interests of the “lone programmer” who frequently can have surprisingly good (and strategically aligned) ideas.

Am I going to prison then? 

I work on the board of a small company and it’s still really hard to make sure that strategy is communicated downwards as well as allowing contributions back up the chain.  This is perhaps my most frequent failing in my job.  It’s not so much an inability to listen as a lack of time to ask.  If its hard for me, how hard must it be for enterprise sized organisations?  Still, that’s no excuse for not trying.

I think the key may be to encourage a culture where people at any level have a motivation (and perhaps a mechanism) to speak up without fear of reprisal or mocking.

My view is that governance should be a fully inclusive process not just a top-down set of rules.  This applies to any form of governance whether steering a corporate ship, an IT architecture project, or running a country.

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