Data Stewards: The Unsung Heroes of Data-Driven Organizations

Data is the lifeblood of modern organizations. It powers critical decisions, drives process optimizations, and fuels innovative new products and services. As the volume and business criticality of data continues to grow exponentially, organizations are scrambling to put the right people, processes, and technologies in place to effectively govern and leverage their data assets.

Consider these eye-opening statistics on the state of data today:

  • The amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally is forecast to increase rapidly, reaching 64.2 zettabytes in 2020 and 180 zettabytes in 2025. (Source)
  • Poor data quality costs the US economy up to $3.1 trillion per year. (Source)
  • Organizations believe poor data quality to be responsible for an average of $15 million per year in losses. (Source)
  • By 2022, 90% of corporate strategies will explicitly mention data as a critical enterprise asset and analytics as an essential competency. (Source)

To reign in the chaos and realize the full potential of their data, many organizations are embracing the discipline of data governance. Data governance provides a framework of policies, processes, and standards for how data is captured, stored, processed, and used.

But while data governance provides the scaffolding, it‘s data stewardship that truly puts it into practice. Data stewards are the individuals on the ground who ensure an organization‘s data governance policies and standards are being adhered to.

What Exactly Is Data Stewardship?

At its essence, data stewardship is the practice of managing data assets throughout their lifecycle to ensure they can be used to drive business value. This involves a wide range of responsibilities, from defining data elements and quality standards to ensuring regulatory compliance and promoting data literacy.

Donna Burbank, Managing Director at Global Data Strategy, Ltd., provides a concise definition:

"Data stewardship is the formalization of accountability for the management of data resources. Data stewards are the individuals responsible for ensuring data is captured accurately, maintained consistently, and used appropriately."

Data stewardship is all about treating data as an asset. Just like financial assets or human capital, data has tremendous intrinsic value to the organization. But that value can only be fully realized if the data is effectively managed and leveraged.

Poor quality data, inconsistent definitions, and a lack of standards inevitably lead to poor decisions, ineffective processes, and missed opportunities. In fact, Gartner estimates that the average cost of poor data quality is $12.8 million per year for every organization.

That‘s where data stewards come in. They work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure an organization‘s data assets are being managed according to best practices and used to their full potential. They are the unsung heroes of the data-driven enterprise.

The Many Hats of a Data Steward

So what exactly does a data steward do? While the specifics can vary based on the organization and data domain, data stewards typically wear many hats:

Defining Data Standards & Business Rules

One of the core responsibilities of data stewards is defining the standards, policies, and business rules that govern how data is captured, stored, and used. This involves working with business stakeholders to understand data requirements, researching industry standards and best practices, and documenting clear guidelines in a data dictionary or business glossary.

For example, a customer data steward may define what attributes need to be captured for each customer record, standardize address formats, and document rules for updating and deleting records.

Ensuring Data Quality & Integrity

Data stewards are also responsible for ensuring the quality and integrity of their assigned data domain. This involves profiling data to uncover quality issues, defining quality thresholds and KPIs, implementing data validation rules, and putting processes in place to monitor quality over time.

Poor quality data costs organizations dearly in terms of wasted time, lost opportunities, and bad decisions. In fact, IBM estimates that bad data costs the US $3 trillion per year. By championing data quality, data stewards help ensure an organization‘s data is fit for purpose and can be trusted by the business.

Maintaining Metadata & Data Lineage

Another key responsibility for data stewards is documenting and maintaining metadata about the organization‘s data assets. Metadata provides the context and description that makes data understandable and usable by others.

Data stewards work to capture both business and technical metadata, from data definitions and business rules to data lineage and usage metrics. This metadata is typically stored in a central catalog and made available to data consumers through self-service tools.

Documenting this metadata is critical for data governance, as it provides visibility into what data exists, where it comes from, how it‘s being used, and how it has changed over time. Gartner predicts that by 2023, organizations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers on most business value metrics.

Enabling Data Access & Security

Data stewards also play a key role in enabling appropriate access to data assets while ensuring sensitive data is secured. They work with data owners to define access policies, implement role-based permissions, and put processes in place to grant and revoke access.

This is especially critical in light of privacy regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, and CCPA. Data stewards help ensure that personal data is classified, secured, and shared appropriately to avoid costly fines and reputational damage. Gartner predicts that by 2024, 75% of the global population will have their personal data covered by modern privacy regulations.

Promoting Data Literacy & Usage

Beyond managing data assets directly, data stewards are also responsible for promoting data literacy and usage across the organization. They act as evangelists for data-driven decision making and work to ensure business users have the skills and tools they need to effectively leverage data.

This can involve training users on available datasets and BI tools, sharing success stories of data-driven decisions, and partnering with business leaders on strategic data initiatives. By empowering more users to put data to work, data stewards help cultivate a strong data culture focused on extracting business value.

As Gwen Thomas, President of the Data Governance Institute, explains:

"Data stewards don‘t just keep data in line, they empower an organization to get the most out of its data. They ensure the data is not just well managed, but also well used."

Partnering With Data Owners & Custodians

While data stewards play an outsized role in operationalizing data governance, they don‘t do it alone. Effective data stewardship requires close partnership with other data management roles, especially data owners and data custodians.

Data owners are the business leaders who have ultimate accountability for a data domain. They‘re responsible for making strategic decisions about their data assets and ensuring data initiatives deliver measurable business value. The data owner for customer data may be the VP of Sales while the data owner for product data may be the VP of Engineering.

Data custodians, on the other hand, are the IT or data engineering professionals responsible for the technical management of data assets. They design and implement the databases, data pipelines, and data integration processes that keep data flowing.

Data stewards act as the bridge between data owners and data custodians. They translate high-level business requirements into technical specifications and ensure that data assets are being delivered and used in alignment with strategic priorities. Through this collaboration, data is managed holistically as a strategic business asset.

Skills of a Successful Data Steward

Given the multifaceted nature of the role, data stewards need a unique blend of technical, business, and interpersonal skills to be effective. Some of the most important competencies include:

Skill Description
Subject Matter Expertise Deep knowledge of the business domain and data subject area
Data Modeling & Management Understanding of logical & physical data modeling, metadata management, master data management
Data Quality & Governance Knowledge of data profiling techniques, data quality dimensions, data governance frameworks
Business Intelligence & Analytics Familiarity with common BI tools, dashboards, data visualization best practices
Communication & Collaboration Ability to communicate data concepts to both technical and business audiences, forge consensus, and drive change
Problem Solving & Analytical Thinking Aptitude for breaking down complex issues, seeing patterns, and devising elegant solutions
Project & Change Management Experience driving initiatives from concept to completion while navigating organizational change

Lora Cecere, Founder and CEO of Supply Chain Insights, emphasizes the importance of strong communication and change management skills:

"Data stewards need to be master communicators and change agents. They need to be able to paint a compelling vision for how data can transform the business and then rally stakeholders to make it happen. It‘s as much about people as it is about the data itself."

Implementing Data Stewardship: Best Practices

Instituting data stewardship is not a one-time event but an ongoing program that requires organizational commitment, well-defined processes, and enabling technologies. Some key best practices include:

Secure Executive Sponsorship

Effective data stewardship requires visible executive support to ensure sufficient resources and organizational buy-in. Executive sponsors act as champions for data stewardship and help remove barriers to adoption.

Define Clear Roles & Responsibilities

Take the time to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of data stewards and related roles like data owners and custodians. Use a RACI matrix to document who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for key data management processes.

Implement Foundational Data Governance

Data stewardship should be part of a broader data governance program that includes well-documented policies, standards, and procedures. Use industry frameworks like DAMA DMBOK or DCAM to guide your data governance implementation.

Invest in Enabling Technologies

Automate data stewardship tasks wherever possible through modern technologies. Data profiling tools, data quality software, metadata management platforms, and data catalogs can all help data stewards scale their efforts.

Foster a Data-Driven Culture

Ultimately, data stewardship is about instilling a culture of data-driven decision making. Encourage everyone to see themselves as data stewards in some capacity. Celebrate data successes and learn from failures. Put data at the heart of every business conversation.

Data Stewardship in Action: Case Studies

Many organizations are already seeing the benefits of a formal data stewardship program. Here are a few notable examples:

Cisco

Cisco, the worldwide leader in networking equipment, established a data stewardship program as part of its broader data governance initiative. Data stewards are embedded in each business unit to ensure data is being managed and used effectively.

Since implementing data stewardship, Cisco has significantly improved data quality, reduced time spent reconciling data, and empowered more business users to leverage data for decisions. Data stewards have also played a key role in ensuring compliance with GDPR and other privacy regulations.

Cigna

Cigna, a leading health services company, relies on data stewards to ensure critical data assets are fit for purpose. Data stewards work closely with business stakeholders to define key performance metrics, resolve data quality issues, and enable self-service analytics.

By improving data quality and making data more accessible, Cigna‘s data stewards have helped the company optimize operations, improve customer satisfaction, and deliver more personalized healthcare recommendations. Ultimately, these efforts have contributed to better health outcomes for Cigna‘s customers.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the US, has a mature data stewardship program that is tightly integrated with its overall data governance efforts. Data stewards are responsible for ensuring the accuracy, completeness, and consistency of data across the enterprise.

Data stewards have been instrumental in helping Wells Fargo adapt to new regulations like BCBS 239 and CCAR. By ensuring data quality and lineage, they have reduced the time and effort required for compliance reporting. Data stewards have also played a key role in enabling advanced analytics initiatives that have improved fraud detection and customer experience.

A Call to Action

As these case studies illustrate, data stewardship is not just a nice-to-have but a business imperative in the digital age. With the volume and velocity of data growing exponentially, organizations can‘t afford to leave data management to chance. They need dedicated professionals working day-in and day-out to ensure data assets are being carefully curated and fully leveraged.

If your organization hasn‘t already, now is the time to invest in data stewardship. Start by securing executive sponsorship, defining key roles and responsibilities, and implementing enabling technologies. Most importantly, make data stewardship a core part of your organizational culture. Encourage everyone to see themselves as data stewards and celebrate those who put data at the heart of every decision.

Data has the power to transform your business—but only if it is properly managed and relentlessly applied. Data stewards are the key to unlocking that potential. Give them the tools, skills, and mandate they need to be successful, and there will be no limit to what you can achieve with data.