To Activate Data Governance, Everybody Must be a Data Steward

By Robert Seiner

Published on November 20, 2020

In this blog, Bob Seiner focuses on the concept that everybody must be a data steward in order for data governance to be activated. Read more.

This blog series has focused on staying non-invasive in your approach to data governance, the relationship between the work culture and governing your data, and the selection of the best approach to implementing data governance for your organization. This blog is operational focused and shares the concept that everybody in your organization must be a data steward in order for data governance to be activated across the entire organization.

What is a Data Steward?

A data steward is someone who has formal accountability for data in the organization. I repeatedly say that everybody in the organization must be a data steward. I hope to clarify this assertion by the end of this blog.

My premise is based on the fact that, to fully activate data governance, everybody that comes in contact with data must have formal accountability for that contact and the relationship they have with the data. In other words, people that define, produce, and use data must be held formally accountable for how they define, produce, and use the data. This may be common sense, but the truth is that this is not happening in most organizations. Formalizing accountability to execute and enforce authority over data, my definition of data governance, is the essence of following an active method of data governance.

To fully activate data governance requires that everybody be a data steward.

Activate Your Data Governance Program

Everybody who uses sensitive data must protect it. The sensitive data may contain PII data (personally identifiable information), 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 it. 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 must be followed.

To activate data governance programs, administrators must partner with a variety of business functions that already regulate different aspects of the organization. These departments include (but are not limited to) IT, Legal, Privacy and Risk Management, Corporate Communications and Human Resources, that, in their own right, have governance responsibilities. To activate the program, organizations must partner with these functions, and communicate the nature of the partnership with the stewards, to achieve compliance to the rules that must be followed to fully implement governance enterprise-wide.

As one example, privacy rules for protecting sensitive data must 1) apply equally to everybody that comes in contact with the data, 2) be understood and lived by everybody, 3) be formally enforced, and 4) the organization must be able to demonstrate that people are following the rules. This, my friends, is what I am proving in this blog. 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. An active data governance program focuses on formalizing that level of data usage accountability.

Data usage is only one facet of the notion that everybody is a data steward. 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.”

Shouldn’t all people with a relationship to data be formally accountable for that relationship?

People that define data – either by entering the data or finding new data sources, creating new systems, creating new databases, or propagating new spreadsheet-marts that will be used for decision making – should be held formally accountable for checking to see what already exists before producing another version of the data. People that define the ‘golden record,’ 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.

Active data governance recognizes 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. This includes the quality, accuracy, and value of the data they produce.

Data stewards must know the difference between healthy and unhealthy data-related behavior.

To activate data governance and therefore hold somebody formally accountable requires that they know and understand the difference between healthy data-related behavior and unhealthy data-related behavior. That means that somebody in the organization has to be held accountable for defining what healthy behavior means in terms of people’s daily relationships to the data. Practicing formal accountability also means that there must be repercussions for not following the letter of the healthy data law. That is what makes the accountability formal.

Eight Rules for Becoming a Data Steward

To complete the thoughts that everybody is a data steward, please consider these eight rules that I detail in the article Guidelines for Becoming a Data Steward. These rules explain that to activate a data governance program, everybody must be a data steward.

Rule 1: A Data Steward Can Be Anybody Rule 2: Data Stewards Describe a Relationship to Data and Is Not a Position Rule 3: A Data Steward Is Not Hired to Be a Data Steward Rule 4: A Data Steward Doesn’t Need the Title of Data Steward Rule 5: A Data Steward Doesn’t Have to Be Told How to Do His or Her Job Rule 6: Public or Industry Data-Steward Certification Is a Load of Bunk Rule 7: More Than One Data Steward Exists for Each Type of Data Rule 8: Data Steward Training Should Focus on Formalizing Accountability

Realizing that everybody is a data steward may be scary for some organizations since they may not have the accountabilities of each relationship for each type of data defined in a way that can be shared with their Data Stewards. This gives you an excellent place to start with fully activating your data governance program.

If you, as the data governance program administrator, haven’t defined what these relationships mean and the formal accountabilities that go with the relationships, or the specific rules associated with how specific data can be defined, produced and used, how do you expect data stewards to know what to do? The definition of formalizing relationships to data to activate your data stewards is also a good place to start.

In the last blog of the series I will write about how to get started quickly with data governance. The blog will cover how tooling and demonstrating success and value from data governance, by utilizing a data catalog, does not require a multi-year journey. Success can be quicker and easier to demonstrate when you follow the Non-Invasive Data Governance™ approach and realize that everybody is a data steward.

  • What is a Data Steward?
  • Activate Your Data Governance Program
  • Eight Rules for Becoming a Data Steward
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