The Talents of a True Data Steward

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A data stewardship program includes a governance structure and a set of responsibilities that enables managing data as an enterprise asset. The soldiers in this program are the data stewards from the business areas, each of whom is responsible for a set of data. That responsibility includes providing definitions, establishing quality expectations and ensuring compliance, and establishing business rules for acquisitions, maintenance and use. While these are business roles, until a data stewardship program is established, they are not commonly performed in a systematic manner. To perform these roles effectively, the data steward needs to have appropriate technical, interpersonal and positional skills.

Technical Skills

The most critical technical skill for the data steward is having a solid understanding of the business area she represents, the data used within that area and the business processes that impact that data and its use. This is critical because, ultimately, the data steward makes decisions impacting these areas.

The data steward has data quality responsibilities as well. This requires comprehension of quality improvement concepts including data profiling (to understand the existing data and its quality), root cause analysis (to understand the reasons for quality deficiencies) and continuous quality improvement (to determine preventive and corrective actions and monitor the results).

In addition, because the data steward often impacts the way data is recorded and stored, she should have a basic knowledge of data modeling and database management systems. This does not mean that she must know how to create a data model or design a physical database, but she should understand the overall process and the type of information that is needed for the data modeler and database administrator to do their jobs.

Interpersonal Skills

While the data steward may have ultimate authority over the data for which she is responsible, she cannot act as a dictator. The data steward must be a team player and have excellent people skills. At times, she will need to be forceful, and other times she must be extremely diplomatic. While she will often be involved in negotiating positions to arrive at meaningful decisions, she needs to recognize areas for which compromises are appropriate and areas for which mandates are necessary. Because the data steward often needs to gain consensus among people with different opinions, she should be a skilled facilitator.

A data steward often needs to think outside the box to arrive at an approach that is both appropriate and sellable. Based on the existing environment and organizational maturity, there are times that the data steward will need to promote a less-than-optimal solution. Such a solution should be a step forward for positioning the organization toward adoption of the optimal solution at a later date.

Once decisions are reached, the data steward needs to effectively communicate these and may need to include explanations about the reasons for the selected approach. Written and oral communication skills must be applied on an ongoing basis to educate people on the data within the steward's sphere of influence. This education includes not only the meaning; it includes information about the expected and actual data quality, appropriate uses of the data and restrictions on data usage.

Positional Skills

The data steward's effectiveness depends on her respect within the business units she represents. This means that regardless of her formal position within the organization, she must earn recognition and authority to speak on behalf of that business area. Without such authority, decisions concerning the data are meaningless because they are likely to be ignored by people in both the business area and IT.

The data steward must also have an enterprise perspective and political awareness. Even though she represents a specific area, the data steward must also consider broader implications and work with other data stewards. This will ensure that decisions concerning definitions, business rules, quality expectations and data use also consider the full lifecycle of the data.

Filling the Role

A common concern is that some data-related skills are foreign to the business area and that retaining and growing this skill set will be difficult. Often, the role is filled by business analysts who have subject matter expertise but to whom data management as a discipline is foreign. Data stewards should exist within multiple business units. And, a data stewardship team that is facilitated by a representative from the data management group should include ongoing education of data stewards within its charter to ensure that they acquire and maintain the necessary skills.

Data stewards are at the heart of any successful enterprise information management program. These people ultimately make the decisions that enable data to be managed as an enterprise asset. The need for a unique combination of technical, interpersonal and positional skills makes it difficult to staff and retain data stewards within the business areas. A data stewardship team provides a forum for strengthening the needed skills, promoting interaction among the data stewards and maintaining visibility of their importance to the organization.

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