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Data stewardship program: Quality booster, but a hard step for many

While data stewardship can help improve the quality of corporate data, analysts say there's more talk than action when it comes to adopting the concept.

With data increasingly being recognized as a critical corporate asset, the issue of who is ultimately responsible for the care and quality of information is escalating in importance as well. Data governance programs offer a potential solution to the frequent tug-of-war between IT and the business over that point, and data stewardship has a potentially important role to play in the governance process -- if organizations are ready to step up and do what needs to be done.

If data governance results in a set of definitions, policies, processes and business rules designed to ensure that information is created, managed and used consistently throughout an organization, an associated data stewardship program covers the people part of the equation, according to data management analysts. Data stewards, they said, are responsible for making sure that business users adhere to all of those rules and definitions on an everyday basis.

Some analysts describe data stewards as the foot soldiers of a data governance initiative, and others view them as the referees overseeing the interaction between IT and the business side on data issues. Either way, stewards are at their most effective when they are active and fully engaged in the governance process, say analysts such as Jonathan Geiger, executive vice president at consultancy Intelligent Solutions Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Geiger said the primary responsibilities of a data steward can include leading the development of common data definitions, facilitating data-profiling activities to identify errors and assess their potential business impact, helping create data usage and security policies and then monitoring adherence to them and instituting data-quality controls. Stewards often also get involved in prioritizing data quality management efforts based on the requirements of the individual business units they represent, he said.

Basic beginnings bring initial benefits

And you don't necessarily need to have the overarching umbrella of a data governance program in place to get started on basic data stewardship functions. You can assign a small team with both IT and business representatives to begin formalizing and enforcing data definitions and data management and usage policies. That's a first step toward realizing the benefits of data governance: achieving high levels of data accuracy and consistency while ensuring that business users have ready access to the data they need.

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One of the most elementary benefits of effective data stewardship is "a high level of accuracy of insight so people don't have to put up with 'good enough' analytics," said Shawn Rogers, vice president of research for business intelligence and data warehousing at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., another Boulder-based consultancy. "Too many companies make business decisions with the assumption that the data they're using isn't as accurate as it could be."

Given the increasing focus on data analytics as a competitive tool and the growing treatment of data as a core strategic asset, you might think that companies both large and small would be locked in on adopting data stewardship best practices and processes. In reality, that's not the case, according to Rogers and other analysts. For now, they say, there is still more talk than action around data stewardship.

A number of factors are holding companies back. For one thing, the concept of data stewardship can be murky and hard to explain, making it difficult to communicate the potential benefits to corporate and business executives and get the required approvals and funding from them. In many cases, existing organizational structures don't easily lend themselves to data stewardship because there are no clear candidates for the role or a well-defined hierarchy that can ensure the success of data quality improvement and monitoring efforts.

Caught in a data quality trap

In addition, data governance and quality issues are often so overwhelming that companies leave them to fester for too long, which makes it harder and harder to break the cycle and get started on a proper strategy. As a result, organizations fall into the trap of ignoring the long-term ramifications of data quality problems and instead focus on correcting individual errors with short-term fixes that don't address the underlying issues.

But as more companies dive deeper into initiatives such as real-time business intelligence projects and master data management programs, a growing number of them realize they can no longer afford to ignore the combination of data governance and data stewardship, said William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group LLC in Plano, Texas.

McKnight chalks up the limited focus on stewardship mostly to the complexity involved in getting it right. "I don't think it's a lack of understanding that this is important -- it's just that it's hard," he said. "It's a soft skill that involves management and negotiation."

But, he added, the data quality benefits that can be gained from an effective data stewardship program make the pain of getting started -- and the effort required to stick with it -- worthwhile. In data management, McKnight said, "this is one of the few hills worth dying on."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for more than 25 years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

Follow on Twitter: @sDataManagement.

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