I vividly remember reading this passage from Bob Seiner’s TDAN.com article “Things I Think I Think about Data Governance”, from August 1, 2015:
If we were going to remove two words from the Data Governance vocabulary, I would choose the words “assign” and “owner. When someone is designated as the “owner” of data, that implies that it is their data and they can make the decisions about that data no matter the consequences. I know many organizations refer to people as the “owner” or something. Perhaps the better word is steward or somebody that takes care of something for somebody else. That somebody else is the organization.
This rang true to me because, for as long as I can remember, I have always been extremely uncomfortable with the role of “data owner.” Something about an individual owning data has seemed incongruous to me. More recently, I came across Trevor Plant’s thesis, Whose Information is it Anyway? An Argument for Information Stewardship. The author describes a study of an organization to find signs of individuals considering themselves data owners:
During the analysis of the data, we determined that some of the sub–units of the organization displayed ownership of their information, at this lower organizational level. The ownership behaviors exhibited included creation of separate systems to manage information particular to their task, often created from information originally obtained from the primary information systems…This attitude of ownership of information, as determined from the behaviors exhibited, contributes to the propagation of unmanaged, uncontrolled information sources that readily confound the organizations view of its information base.
After I finished my last article on data stewards, I thought it was time to delve into this odd aversion. I knew it had something to do with my strong belief that data is a critical asset of any organization. This is not a unique view, of course. Today, leaders of many organizations name data as a corporate, enterprise, or strategic asset. This is indicative of both their appreciation of data’s value to their organizations and their belief data will yield greater benefits going forward.
We talked about the meaning of data in my last article, but what about “assets”? The etymology of the word is itself a tale. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word derives from the French asez or assets, and its original, now obsolete meaning, from usage as early as 1325, was “sufficient estate or effects, esp. the amount of property necessary for executor of a deceased person to pay off debts and legacies.” It’s only since the 1800s that we find a familiar definition of assets: “an item of value owned” (and not necessarily by a dead person).
This definition is very much in line with the modern financial meaning of the word provided by Investopedia, which begins “An asset is a resource with economic value that an individual, corporation, or country owns or controls with the expectation that it will provide a future benefit.” This definition focuses in on the two critical aspects of “assethood” – having value and an owner.
Of course, what “an item of value owned” can be is situational, as we see in this exchange from my all-time favorite movie, The Princess Bride:
Westley: What are our liabilities?
Inigo Montoya: There is but one working castle gate. And it is guarded by… sixty men.
Westley: And our assets?
Inigo Montoya: Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel.
Westley: That’s it? Impossible… I mean, if we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.
Inigo Montoya: Where we did we put that wheelbarrow the albino had?
Fezzik: Over the albino, I think.
Westley: Well, why didn’t you list that among our assets in the first place?
I assume most readers have seen the movie and know that our heroes find this asset does provide future benefits for storming the castle. They convert the wheelbarrow to something of value, which is what businesses who say “data is an enterprise Asset” wish to do too.
But if data, as a corporate/strategic/enterprise asset, possesses the requisite characteristics of having value and an owner, why do I think the “data owner” role makes no sense?
I will illustrate by playing a game of Mad Libs. I enjoyed this word game in high school and college, back when we used a Mad Lib pad and a pencil. Now, of course, there’s an app for that, but the essence of the game remains how replacing one word with another can change a sentence’s meaning from sensible to ludicrous.
Let’s fill in the blank “_________ is an enterprise asset” with the word businesses typically pair with “owner.” Appointing individuals as owners of something is pervasive in all the organizations for which I’ve worked.
We can start with “Application Owner,” a common role.
Applications are an enterprise asset.
This would work for some businesses, which capitalize software they have developed as assets on the balance sheet. Investopedia describes the accounting approach in How Is Computer Software Classified as an Asset? But a corporation may consider applications liabilities, not assets, and expense them.
How about “Process Owners”? Again, a familiar role especially for companies focused on process efficiency.
Processes are an enterprise asset.
This seems dubious. Though business process management circles discuss processes as assets, I do not think most companies consider that their processes have economic value generating future benefits.
Then there’s “Issue Owner.” Whether a project or audit issue, managers believe it’s crucial to assign an owner to each and every one.
Issues are an enterprise asset.
Well…I feel confident stating that no one has ever said that issues are an enterprise asset.
As an aside, I do think “Data Domain Owner” works as a role associated with data governance. Domain implies categorization and taxonomies, kinds of metadata, and an individual could “own” the definition of metadata. Furthermore, metadata is highly unlikely to be classified as an asset of any kind.
For all this, I do believe data does have an owner, as well as value, so it passes the asset test. What or who is that owner? We often talk about the fact that “The Business” owns the data, and this is true. But it is “The Business” in the organization, enterprise, or corporate sense. That is why the job of data stewards (remember them?) is to care for the data on behalf of the organization which owns it.
Virginia Collins and Joel Lanz, finish their article Managing Data as an Asset, with this call for action:
There is no good reason not to measure and manage data as the asset it is. Turning data into information is probably going to become the most critical operation of every business in the near future, if it is not already. Organizations must begin managing data and the information derived from it as real assets.
I believe organizations that assign individuals as “data
owners,” rather than deeming the organization as the true owner of the data,
are creating obstacles to managing their data as a real asset. Instead, they
are treating data as an application to manage, or an issue to resolve. Collins
and Lanz write: “Managing data as an asset starts the process of valuing it as
one.” Valuing data as an asset begins with ascribing ownership correctly – to
the organization, not to individuals.
 Plant, T. W. M. (1997) Whose Information Is It Anyway? An Argument For Information Stewardship [Master’s Thesis, Air Force Institute of Technology]. Homeland Security Digital Library. https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=3384
 Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition (2008); latest version published online March 2021.
 The Princess Bride. Directed by Rob Reiner, performances by Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and André the Giant, Act III Communications, 1987.
 Process as an Asset, Christine Dicken and Kirk Gould. https://www.bptrends.com/publicationfiles/07-08-ART-Process%20as%20an%20Asset-Dicken%20and%20Gould-final.doc.pdf
 “Managing Data as an Asset”, By Virginia Collins, CPA/CITP, CFE and Joel Lanz, CPA/CGMA/CITP/CFF, CISM, CISSP, CFE, The CPA Journal, June 2019.