The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (particularly Section 404), has created a sense of urgency for senior executives to take an active interest in the accuracy, consistency and timeliness of their data. Now more than ever, corporate compliance, audit and governance issues must be efficiently resolved. Yet it is widely believed that less than half of large companies have a formal data stewardship or data quality program that protects and leverages their unique strategic asset of data. Smart businesses are proactive, not reactive; they comprehend the business need for quality data. Aside from compliance and governance agendas, having first-class data (and the ability to unlock it) significantly helps all aspects of your organization's business - helping to effectively gauge and manage risk, avoid redundant work loads, increase customer satisfaction (on the front and back ends) and provide for better business intelligence and decision making support. Conversely, poor data quality will have injurious consequences across all enterprise operations - negatively impacting the most critical customer service obligations (such as billing and remittance processing), skewing decisions and fulfillment obligations, and creating a host of other tactical problems. Numerous hidden business costs such as revenue leakage and higher capital expenditures may all be maladies that stem from lack of data integrity. While there are tools that can help with and augment your formal methodology, capable data stewardship requires the symbiotic merging and integration of the automated (technology) with the manual (people). For many organizations, data problems remain secreted or hidden until issues are uncovered that result from a formidable event of costly business impact, such as an external audit, fraudulent activity, subpoena or valued customer satisfaction issue. A prolific variety of complex legacy data (which may go through many iterations of manual reconciliation on its way up to senior management's eyes) lingering in cloaked and "siloed" structures will always be poised to wreak havoc when least expected. Today, with the advent of widespread Internet and e-commerce applications, the data problems of an enterprise can be exposed to the entire consumer world. If you have bad data on your customers (e.g., not recognizing them across accounts), they will know - often long before you catch on. The time to establish a formal data stewardship program is now!

When implementing a formal stewardship program or policy for your organization, it will be important to appoint the right person as the lead steward and assign the steward an appropriate title. This person will understand and approach duties from the perspective that data quality is a collaborative business and IT matter as he/she champions high-quality data across all multinational systems - from repositories to reports. The most effective stewards will be familiar with core business values and practices but should also be able to understand data models, tech-speak and data storage topics from a high and low level. (A systems analyst background with relevant industry understanding and outstanding communication skills will be ideally suited to bridge this sometimes giant gap between technology and the business.) A strong leader and a people person, the lead steward will educate and expand many people's horizons about proper data governance and the consequences of unreliable data on business objectives; the steward will make others accountable for continuous improvements in the caliber of data. Lead stewards should be visible senior-level people who are respected and well liked in the organization, with the ability to motivate and envision change from a high level. They should be empowered by senior management and steering committees to directly address issues and manage standards-based implementations from both a business and technology-centric view, brandishing their "data police badge" when staff members resist data standards and the added responsibility or loss of control that come with such regulations. A VP-level title of data steward is not out of the question.

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