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If everyone is a data steward...

September 13, 2019

You hear it all the time at governance conferences and on webinars: “Everyone who uses data should be a data steward.” What does that really mean? And why do we still have a need for people with the formal Data Steward title?

 

Let’s start with a definition of steward. Generally speaking, a steward is someone with accountability to look after something, such as another person or a place. It comes from medieval times when a Steward was the keeper of the keys and was responsible to ensure the castle had food, water, supplies and appropriate personnel to care for the residents and royal owners. It was a critical role for the health and safety of a population.

 

The Steward/Stewardess role carried forward into modern times as the person on a ship, train or airplane that both brings you essential nourishment and ensures that everyone onboard is following the rules as defined during the safety briefing.

 

When we start talking about other areas of our lives, such as the information we utilize for our jobs or personal life, we still need someone to care for that information, and to ensure it is managed according to established rules and safety procedures – in this case to protect our privacy and the integrity of our transactions.

 

The role of Data Steward came about with the formal establishment of governance of our information. It is all well and good to decide that this or that executive “owns” the data, someone still needs to understand where it is, how it’s used, when and why it gets distributed, how it is transformed, and under what circumstances it is shared between teams. With modern privacy regulations such as GDPR or CCPA, a specific, named individual needs to ensure the lineage and provenance of data is kept intact and is traceable.

 

Most people who use, manage, or consume information or data don’t understand the full lifecycle of that information. So, while it is their responsibility to “steward” the data that they are utilizing while it is under their control, they aren’t in a proper position to make decisions about the full lifecycle of the data. Hence, we have formally titled Data Stewards who do have the access, training, and responsibility to ensure that the care and feeding of our information assets occurs and data integrity is maintained.

 

The responsibilities of the formal Data Steward include all or some of the following:

  • Data definitions

  • Metadata documentation

  • Data Lineage categorization and/or documentation

  • Aligning physical data models to business/logical data models

  • Adding Context to Content

  • Establishing and maintaining data taxonomies

  • Maintaining and/or creating transformation rule repositories

  • Consulting on data standards

  • Ensuring data Rules, Standards, Definitions, Quality measures and metrics, and Lineage are established, maintained, and reported

  • Collaborating with Data Stewards from other domains where terminologies or data usage overlap or are shared

  • Representing the data domain on committees and workgroups

  • Partnering with data modelers, IT, architecture and the business users to ensure seamless data changes and utilization

 

There are other responsibilities depending on the organization. The primary point is that the formal Data Steward has accountability for the environment in which the information and data live, much like a medieval Steward had accountability for the environment in which the people lived.

 

When we extend the accountability of data stewardship to everyone who uses data, we are accomplishing two main objectives. First, the users of data can assist the Data Steward to know when changes need to occur and are the main hands and eyes of the Data Steward for quality and integrity of the data. Second, it promotes a culture of governance, which once established, makes using and maintaining data according to established protocols that govern the data “just the way things get done.” It is not until this point that we can finally begin to recognize the non-invasive state of data governance.

 

So, it is true that everyone should be a good steward of the information and data that they use or modify. By doing so they play an important role in the day to day lifecycle of an organization’s information ensuring a more comprehensive engagement with good principles and more opportunities to identify areas of improvement.

 

But we also need the formal Data Steward roles in every data domain to ensure that we have a single accountable person for each set of data and who will shepherd the organizations information between groups and processes and add the important governance content of metadata and lineage to better organize and clarify information.

 

Two different methods and levels of accountability, but both playing vital roles in the stewardship of an organization’s information and data.

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