It’s all in the Data: Everybody is a Data Steward (Get Over It)

Data-ColumnA Data Steward is someone that has formal accountability for data in the organization. I say that everybody in the organization is a Data Steward. You may disagree with me or think that this idea is preposterous; however, I hope to change your mind by the end of this short column. Please give me five minutes.

My premise is based on the fact that everybody that comes in contact with data should have formal accountability for that contact. In other words, people that define, produce, and use data must be held accountable for how they define, produce, and use the data. This may be common sense, but the truth is that this is not taking place. Formalizing accountability to execute and enforce authority over data is the essence of using stewardship to govern data.

Most people agree that everybody that uses sensitive data must protect that data. The sensitive data may contain PII data (personally identifiable information) or PHI data (personal health information) or even IP data (intellectual property) that has a clear set of rules associated with how that data can be shared and who can have access to that data. The rules may be external as in the case of PII and PHI data, or the rules can be internal as in the case of IP data. But one thing is for certain: there are rules associated with at least some of your data.

The truth is that the rules for protecting sensitive data must 1) apply equally to everybody that comes in contact with sensitive data, 2) everybody must know and live the rules, 3) the rules must be formally enforced, and 4) the ability to demonstrate that people are following the rules must be auditable. This, my friends, is what I am proving in this column. Everybody that uses sensitive data must be held formally accountable for how they use the data. Therefore, they are, by my definition, a Data Steward. A Non-Invasive Data Governance™ program focuses on formalizing that level of data usage accountability.

Data Usage is only one facet of the Everybody is a Data Steward notion. What about people that define or produce data? Shouldn’t they also have formal accountability for their actions? The answer to that question is ‘Yes.’

People that define data – either by entering the data or finding new data sources, creating new systems, creating new databases, or propagating new spread-marts that will be used for decision making – should be held formally accountable for checking to see what already exists before producing, as an example, another version of the customer. People that define the ‘golden record’ or system-of-record or master data resources for your organization should be held formally accountable for the quality and value of the definition of that data.

Non-Invasive Data Governance™ recognizes the data producers as stewards of the data as well. If you produce data one of the ways mentioned previously, it is important that you understand the impact you have on the value of that data to the organization. Accepting default values may or may not be a good thing. Entering dummy data where real data is required is never a good thing. Allowing data that is not up to standards to enter your data resources may wreak havoc on decision-making. Calculating profitability may be inconsistent from product to product. People that produce data – through their functions and processes – should be held accountable for how they produce that data including the quality, accuracy, and value of the data they produce.

It all boils down to whether or not you believe that everybody with a relationship to the data should be held formally accountable for that relationship. Basically, every person in your organization has a relationship to the data. Therefore, Everybody is a Data Steward.

The idea that Everybody is a Data Steward may scare you a smidge. Most data governance programs do not follow the thinking that everybody in the organization is a data steward. In fact, most programs assign or hire people to be data stewards. The Non-Invasive Data Governance™ approach allows for certain people to be stewards at a more tactical level (subject matter experts), but the approach calls for identifying or recognizing these people based on their existing levels of authority associated with their data domains.

Are you convinced yet that Everybody is a Data Steward? Does this concept mean that your data governance program will become, in some way, more complex?  From my experience the answer is ‘not necessarily’. It depends on how you communicate and address this main tenet of data stewardship. The Everybody is a Data Steward notion guarantees that accountability for data is consistent across the organization for everybody.

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About Robert S. Seiner

Robert S. (Bob) Seiner is the publisher of The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN.com) – and has been since it was introduced in 1997 – providing valuable content for people that work in Information & Data Management and related fields. TDAN.com is known for its timely and relevant articles, columns and features from thought-leaders and practitioners. Seiner and TDAN.com were recognized by DAMA International for significant and demonstrable contributions to Information and Data Resource Management industries. Seiner is the President and Principal of KIK Consulting & Educational Services, a data and information management consultancy that he started in 2002, providing practical and cost-effective solutions in the disciplines of data governance, data stewardship, metadata management and data strategy. Seiner is a recognized industry thought-leader, has consulted with and educated many prominent organizations nationally and globally, and is known for his unique approach to implementing data governance. His book “Non-Invasive Data Governance: The Path of Least Resistance and Greatest Success” was published in late 2014. Seiner speaks often at the industry’s leading conferences and provides a monthly webinar series titled “Real-World Data Governance” with DATAVERSITY.

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