The Italian Data-Stallion: How Getting Knocked Down Can Lead to Governance Glory

youtubeThe spotlight blazed down on the Richfield Coliseum in Ohio on a chilly March night in 1975. In one corner stood the legendary Muhammad Ali, the undefeated champion, famed for his footwork and lightning-fast jabs (the legendary “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” mantra). His challenger was Chuck Wepner, a local liquor salesman; a virtual unknown without much of a chance to win the fight. In fact, few expected Wepner to last a round, but his unlikely resilience in the face of overwhelming odds would inspire a young Sylvester Stallone watching the fight from a movie theater across the country. Wepner‘s gutsy performance, though ultimately unsuccessful, would spark an idea in Stallone’s mind – the story of a small-time boxer getting a shot at the big time. This underdog narrative would become the iconic film “Rocky,” and the story itself serves as a powerful metaphor for the often-daunting world of data governance.

The early rounds defied expectations. Wepner, employing a crouch-and-shooter style, absorbed Ali’s blows and surprised everyone by landing a powerful right hook in the ninth round, scoring a knockdown against “The Greatest” – for only the fourth time over his entire career. Wepner‘s corner erupted in celebration, convinced an upset was brewing. However, Ali, fueled by anger and by his having underestimated his opponent, rose quickly and dominated the remaining rounds. Though Wepner tried to keep up the fight, Ali secured a technical knockout with just seconds left in the fifteenth round. Out of the 61 fights in Muhammad Ali’s entire professional career, only two other boxers were able to last the full 15 rounds: Ernie Terrell (who lost to Ali in February 1967) and Joe Frazier (who defeated Ali in March 1971 at what was called the “Fight of the Century“). It’s probably a safe assumption that very few have heard of Chuck Wepner, but it’s probably an even SAFER assumption that even fewer have NOT heard of the “Rocky” series of movies.

To that point, just like Rocky Balboa’s journey in the ring, data governance initiatives can often feel like an uphill battle against seemingly insurmountable challenges. This article explores this parallel, drawing lessons from Wepner’s fight and Stallone’s storytelling genius to illustrate how data governance can transform from suffering a potential knockout to being a true champion that defies the odds within your organization.

Establishing effective data governance is akin to training for the biggest fight of your life. You know the fundamentals – defining data standards, implementing stewardship processes, enabling data quality monitoring. But the real challenge lies in going the full 15 rounds against cultural resistance, complex legacy environments, and simple inertia.

The first few rounds can feel relatively smooth – you make a solid start by inventorying your data assets and documenting definitions. Landing some early policy and process wins builds confidence that you’re on the right track. But just when you start feeling good, the real haymakers start coming. Disparate business units dig in their heels, protective over their data fiefdoms. Application owners resist changes that could disrupt long-established, if inefficient, routines. Suddenly, punishing blows of non-compliance start battering your carefully laid plans.

Like Wepner absorbing Ali’s onslaught, the key is to stay on your feet and keep battling through the adversity. Here are some proven data governance tactics to help you stay standing:

Favor a federated model over heavy-handed centralization. Don’t try to own every aspect of the data governance process. Instead, cultivate a collaborative ecosystem of data domain experts, stewards and stakeholders across the enterprise. Provide guidelines and guard rails, but empower teams to self-govern based on established standards.

Don’t get sucked into technical minutiae. Data governance is only partly about tools and technology. The human elements – change management, communication, accountability – are what ultimately enable success or failure. Speak the language of the business, focus on articulating the “why,” and address cultural barriers head-on.

Make the governance experience seamless and user-friendly. No one will adopt overly bureaucratic processes that disrupt their daily workflow. Wherever possible, embed governance directly into the applications and touchpoints your stakeholders already use. Guide and nudge, don’t block.

Prioritize pragmatism over perfection. Your first round of policies and standards won’t be perfect. That’s OK. Iterate quickly, update based on feedback, and celebrate incremental progress over holding out for the governance equivalent of a knockout punch. Steady progression keeps initiative momentum alive.

Tell success stories that inspire trust and buy-in. Data professionals often speak in technical terms that alienate the business audience. Craft compelling narratives that use real-world examples to convey the tangible value and impact enabled by sound data governance.

Even Ali, the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time,” acknowledged the brilliance in Wepner‘s heart and determination. “He’s a real fighter,” Ali said with admiration after their bout. “He wouldn’t quit.” That grit epitomized Rocky’s spirit – overcoming adversity through sheer force of will and resilience.

The Challenge: In 2012, Citigroup, a global financial services giant, wrestled with a data governance nightmare. Inconsistent data definitions and siloed information across departments hampered regulatory compliance, risk management, and overall business efficiency. Citigroup needed a knockout punch to unify their data and empower data-driven decisions.

Learning from Wepner: Instead of a forceful, top-down approach, Citigroup adopted a more collaborative strategy. They established a centralized data governance council with representatives from across the organization. This council focused on setting clear data standards, but also on educating and empowering business users. A data governance framework with user-friendly tools and self-service data management options was implemented. This fostered a sense of ownership and increased user adoption.

The Rocky Balboa Moment: Citigroup’s data governance initiative wasn’t an overnight success story, but a measured, strategic victory. By focusing on collaboration, user education, and user-friendly technology, they successfully standardized data definitions and improved data quality across the enterprise. This achievement streamlined operations, enhanced risk management, and improved regulatory compliance. Unlike Wepner‘s outcome, it was a true data governance knockout.


Just like Sylvester Stallone transformed Wepner‘s fight into the underdog story of Rocky Balboa, you can turn your organization’s data governance journey into an inspiring narrative of resilience, perseverance and ultimate triumph. By adapting your approach with pragmatism and prioritizing collaboration over domination, you can become the champion of reliable, trustworthy data.

The key is recognizing that sustainable data governance isn’t about flexing technology muscle or enforcing rigid control. It’s about empowering users, instilling a sense of ownership, and meeting them where they are. Guide with conviction, but govern with humility. As Albert Einstein famously said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” In the context of data governance, your greatest value lies in equipping and inspiring others to harness the power of accurate, accessible information. Share success stories that reveal data governance’s impact in ways that are tangible and relatable.

In the same way the fictional Rocky Balboa found his path to glory through grit and determination in the face of daunting odds, your data governance initiative can go the full 15 rounds by embracing an iterative, user-centric approach that adapts to real-world demands. Each small progressive step – every revised policy, every educated stakeholder – represents forward momentum that ultimately cultivates an embedded culture of data excellence across the enterprise.

So don’t swing wildly for an immediate knockout. Fight smart and stay light on your feet. With the right strategy focused on creating value through collaboration and empowerment, you can transform your data governance effort from just another knockdown into a true Cinderella story that defies long odds and rewrites everyone’s expectations, emerging as the improbable champion your organization needs.

“Bringing Data to Life and Life to Data”

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Dr. Joe Perez,
Team Lead / Senior Systems Analyst,
NC Department of Health and Human Services



Dr. Joe Perez ( Dr.Joe ) is also the Chief Technology Officer – CogniMind

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Dr. Joe Perez was selected as the 2023 Gartner Peer Community Ambassador of the Year.

Dr. Joe Perez is a truly exceptional professional who has left an indelible mark on the IT, health and human services, and higher education sectors. His journey began in the field of education, where he laid the foundation for his career. With advanced degrees in education and a doctorate that included a double minor in computers and theology, Joe embarked on a path that ultimately led him to the dynamic world of data-driven Information Technology.

In the early 1990s, he transitioned into IT, starting as a Computer Consultant at NC State University. Over the years, his dedication and expertise led to a series of well-deserved promotions, culminating in his role as Business Intelligence Specialist that capped his 25 successful years at NC State. Not one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Perez embarked on a new challenge in the fall of 2017, when he was recruited to take on the role of Senior Business Analyst at the NC Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS). His impressive journey continued with promotions to Senior Systems Analyst and Team Leader, showcasing his versatility and leadership capabilities.

In addition to his full-time responsibilities at DHHS, Joe assumed the role of fractional Chief Technology Officer at a North Carolina corporation in October 2020. A top-ranked published author with over 17,000 followers on LinkedIn and numerous professional certifications, he is a highly sought-after international keynote speaker, a recognized expert in data analytics and visualization, and a specialist in efficiency and process improvement.

Dr. Perez’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. He is a recipient of the IOT Industry Insights 2021 Thought Leader of the Year award and has been acknowledged as a LinkedIn Top Voice in multiple topics. He holds memberships in prestigious Thought Leader communities at Gartner, Coruzant Technologies, DataManagementU, Engatica, the Global AI Hub, and Thinkers360 (where he achieved overall Top 20 Thought Leader 2023 ranking in both Analytics and Big Data). His reach extends to more than twenty countries worldwide, where he impacts thousands through his speaking engagements.

Beyond his professional achievements, Joe’s passion for teaching remains undiminished. Whether as a speaker, workshop facilitator, podcast guest, conference emcee, or team leader, he continually inspires individuals to strive for excellence. He treasures his time with his family and is a gifted musician, singer, pianist, and composer. Joe also dedicates his skills as a speaker, interpreter, and music director to his church’s Hispanic ministry. He manages the publication of a widely recognized monthly military newsletter, The Patriot News, and is deeply committed to his community.

To maintain a balanced life, Perez is a regular at the gym, and he finds relaxation in watching Star Trek reruns. He lives by the philosophy that innovation is the key to progress, and he approaches each day with boundless energy and an unwavering commitment to excellence. His journey is a testament to the remarkable achievements of a truly exceptional individual.

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