Data Stewardship Best Practices

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data stewardship best practices

As we continue to do business in a digitally connected world, more data-driven organizations are prioritizing data stewardship and following best practices to improve data quality and management. Data stewards maintain and protect data assets that need special care, not just for cybersecurity but for better business insights and more informed decision-making.

In his presentation at a recent Data Governance & Information Quality Conference, Jimm Johnson, the senior Data Governance manager at HireRight, discussed key data stewardship best practices he’s turned to during his 25-plus years of experience in multiple industries and areas of IT, including Data Governance “long before Data Governance became an actual thing.”

Read on for some of Johnson’s tried-and-tested techniques on how to get started, ensure success, and build a sense of community for effective data stewardship

Understand Data Stewardship Roles and Responsibilities 

At its core, data stewardship involves “taking care of data on behalf of someone” and being held formally accountable for it, said Johnson. In his organization, he prefers straightforward titles for different types of stewards: “Analytics stewards” focus on business intelligence reports and dashboards, “application stewards” work within IT systems, and “data stewards” take a broader enterprise-level approach to data management. Each plays a key role in an organization’s Data Governance program.

Regardless of which titles you choose, be sure to define in detail what your data stewards do:

“You can assign any titles you want to your stewards,” said Johnson. “If you want to come up with a theme – a Star Wars theme, or Disney, or whatever – that’s fine, that might engender interest, but just be very, very clear about their responsibilities and the processes you want them to follow.”

Exploring data stewardship as a new type of business function, Johnson highlighted four labels you can use to help everyone in the organization understand steward roles and responsibilities:

  • Knowledge keepers: Data stewards serve as subject matter experts, maintaining and sharing insider “tribal” knowledge of institutional data processes. They help to represent teams and business units in collaborative workflows and may also coach or train others.
  • Friendly gatekeepers: Data stewards should know a lot about the rules and standards governing data maintenance. They may research how to match departmental needs to enterprise standards or how to classify and protect different data assets.
  • Quality inspectors: Data stewards should apply these rules and match them to decisions that will keep the company compliant and up to standard. That may involve flagging and remediating problems with data or measuring and improving data quality.
  • Change agents: This is where data stewards will contribute to the process of change that benefits a company or enterprise. When there is a need for new initiatives and evaluations, data stewardship pros can assist others, embrace data literacy, and cultivate the buy-in that’s needed to advance projects to an active stage.

Identify Important Traits and Skills of Data Stewards 

Business leaders must understand what makes data stewards successful in order to find the ideal candidates for the role. Johnson outlined some of the characteristics best suited for stewards.

Coming from both business and IT: Many times, data stewards do best when they have a background in both technology and line-of-business department work. Johnson referred to them as “purple people” – having skills and experience spanning these two different job positions. Data stewards should be multiskilled, as well as “bilingual” and “bicultural” when it comes to the very different worlds of, say, product development and cloud management

Acting as bridges: Data stewards should be able to translate both simple and complex information and communicate it in written or oral form. Johnson recommended that they also have a good sense of objectivity, distinguishing fact from fiction, and be able to envision what challenges and issues a company might face in the future.

Excited by data: Thinking globally and participating in an influence culture, data stewards should get immersed in the ideas surrounding good Data Governance and better data handling. “When you’re talking to somebody, and they get really excited about data and their eyes light up, and they’re all energized and stuff, it’s a good sign – they might be fit for a steward role,” Johnson said.

Data stewards are change agents, Johnson reminded the audience, which ultimately benefits the employers who rely on them to develop stewardship best practices for data policies and processes.

“Data stewards want to embrace change and be part of that change disruption in your organization. If you keep going status quo, you are more than likely not going to reach the outcomes you want. So, you’ve got to change something, and your steward is going to be part of that change process.”

Help Data Stewards Achieve Success

Once you’ve found capable data stewards within your organization, you must actively position them for success. “Create a super-transparent list of as many data problems as you’re working on – the issues, the questions, etc.,” recommended Johnson. Next, ensure your data stewards have access to tools that not only provide organization for frameworks but also display their value to stakeholders. Organizations can support data stewards by taking the following measures:

  • Fostering awareness of data challenges: Stewards can use a data quality tracker to sort, assess, categorize, and triage different types of tasks or requirements and then share the results with stakeholders.
  • Classifying data with sensitivity labels: Labeling data confidential or public can help data stewards assess the data assets and work with them in the ways mentioned above. 
  • Cultivating regulatory transparency: First, the company should list applicable state, federal, and international regulatory regimens, such as for California’s Consumer Privacy Act, the federal HIPAA standard, and the European Union’s GDPR. Then, data stewards can help the business make compliance transparent with data reporting tools. 
  • Showcasing program value: Using labels like people, processes, data, and technology, data stewards can form reports that show the value of actions and drive buy-in when it’s needed the most.

Most importantly, foster a sense of community that brings data stewards together, celebrates their successes, and documents their stories to acknowledge their accomplishments and establish their credibility within the enterprise.

“Share data steward successes at your council meetings – maybe do videos and once a year release them through internal teams,” suggested Johnson. “Give data stewards the kudos that they deserve and make that very public facing within your company, so that people are aware of all that work they’re doing.”

Building the connective tissue between people and departments will help achieve a supportive corporate culture, allowing data stewards to properly manage data assets and ensure they are secure, trustworthy, and put to good use within the organization.

Want to learn more about DATAVERSITY’s upcoming events, including DGIQ in June? Check out our current lineup of online and face-to-face conferences here.

Here is the video of the Data Governance & Information Quality Conference presentation:

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