Data stewardship is the collection of practices that ensure an organization’s data is accessible, usable, safe, and trusted. It includes overseeing every aspect of the data lifecycle: creating, preparing, using, storing, archiving, and deleting data, in accordance with an organization’s established data governance principles for promoting data quality and integrity.
Data stewardship encompasses:
- Knowing what data an organization possesses
- Understanding where that data is located
- Ensuring that the data is accessible, usable, safe, and trusted
- Safeguarding the transparency and accuracy of data lineage
- Enforcing rules and regulations on how data can be used
- Helping the organization make most of its data for competitive advantage
- Driving toward a data-driven culture
- Being an advocate for trusted data
Data stewardship comes under the umbrella of data governance. But whereas data governance establishes high-level policies for protecting data against loss, corruption, theft, or misuse, data stewardship focuses on making sure those policies are actually followed.
Data stewards are the persons with responsibility for data stewardship. Some people are assigned “data steward” as a formal title. Others assume the role in addition to their regular jobs. Either way, the role is indispensable, as data stewards are basically “data ambassadors” between the data team and the user community, with the ultimate goal of empowering users with trusted data.
Why is Data Stewardship Important?
Data is swiftly overtaking physical assets in terms of value to organizations. Keeping data safe, private, consistent, and of high quality is as important to enterprises today as maintaining factory machinery was in the industrial age. Without trusted data, organizations end up with messy and unreliable heaps of information sitting in multiple databases, platforms, and even individual spreadsheets.
When users don’t trust the data, they aren’t confident about leveraging it to make business decisions or to drive operations. In worst-case scenarios, data of substandard or inconsistent quality can steer organizations in the wrong strategic direction, with disastrous business results. Data stewards prevent this from happening. By establishing consistent data definitions, maintaining business and technical rules, and monitoring and auditing the reliability of the data, they ensure high levels of data quality, integrity, availability, trustworthiness, and privacy protection.
Managing data lineage is an especially important part of data stewardship. Data lineage is the lifecycle of a piece of data: where it originates, what happens to it, what is done to it, and where it moves over time. With visibility into data lineage, including the accompanying business context, data stewards can trace any errors or problems when using data—say, for analytics—back to their root causes.
Because data stewardship is so important, data stewards occupy positions of trust. In fact, for data stewardship to succeed, both technical staff and business professionals must have the utmost confidence in the their organization’s data stewards. Such people form a bridge between data professionals and the community of people who use the data. Because of this, data stewards must have both a big-picture view of how the organization works as well as a strong grasp of the down-to-earth details of how data is created, managed, manipulated, stored, and—most importantly—how it’s used.
It’s also important to note that there are two sides to data stewardship. One is defensive: to guard against the regulatory and reputational risks that come with owning data. To that end, data stewards are champions for information governance within their organizations. They evangelize the reasons for protecting data, and deliver education, training, and mentorship to the workforce.
At the same time, data stewards are the key drivers of the use of data for strategic advantage, and they promote improvements to the business process that create and consume data. For this reason, data stewards must be experts in the business units they serve. They constantly work to inspire users to make the most out of the data—consistently, accurately, and safely—to make smarter business decisions each day. Over time, with strong data stewards in place, employees perform better in their jobs. They make fewer errors. They contact the right customers for upselling and cross-selling. They prioritize the right business initiatives. And they do all this while following data governance policies and processes.