Have you ever sat in a meeting with your Board or executive team when a really obvious question was asked that nobody truly had an answer for? Do you recall an uncomfortable silence followed by a senior leader providing a half-baked response (whilst two other senior leaders frantically messaged their teams)?
If you do (and you are not in the minority!) - ask yourself this: who should have had the answer? Who owns data in your organisation?
Data should drive ALL business-critical decisions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted (and is still disrupting) most industries. For some, it has led to a complete standstill for few months, and an urgent need to re-finance and cut costs. For others, it has meant a boost in sales and unprecedented growth.
Regardless of where your business stands in between these two extremes, you can say that it has taught us all how important it is to have accurate, readily available data that informs critical business decisions. Often, this is data which describes productivity per location, per sector, per type of product, per team, per employee, or it simply indicates the actual number of products sold, customers engaged, or employees in the company.
Let’s run with the latter example. If you ask HR how many employees there are, you will get a figure including everyone who has a contract with the company, permanent staff as well as contractors, but also staff who are on unpaid leave, special leave, sabbatical, secondment, etc.
If you ask Finance, you will get a number that reflects staff on the payroll. Therefore, the answers to the same question from HR and Finance will be different – but both can be considered ‘correct’. But which answer should you use to drive your business?
Governance and trust: data roles.
Data and analytics assets exist everywhere across an enterprise and vary in nature – and not all data and information is equal. Gartner suggests establishing a trust-based governance model that:
supports a distributed ecosystem of data and analytics assets
acknowledges the different lineage and curation of these assets, and
assists business leaders in making contextually relevant decisions with greater confidence.
The last point above is key - it all comes down to context. If we consider our earlier example, the scenario might be that the CEO is asking how many employees the company has because they need to decide how many they will furlough. Providing this kind of answer is only possible if the ‘People’ data in this company has a single owner who has a framework in place to steward the relevant data sets and deliver context-specific, relevant answers to organisational questions.
Which brings us to data governance roles. There are various approaches to the delineation of responsibilities around data but one of the simplest (and therefore my favourite), is the distinction between Data Owner, Data Steward and Data Custodian. You can read vast amounts of material on each of these roles from either Gartner or DAMA, but, succinctly, this is what they mean to me:
A Data Owner is the person accountable for the specific and logical groups of data assets (in our example, all data sets that constitute ‘People’ data), whether generated by the company or 3rd party (e.g., postcode database). The Data Owner can be a member of the executive team or a senior manager with delegated authority and a vested interest in ensuring data is managed appropriately.
A Data Steward is responsible for maintaining specialist knowledge about their data area, putting into place acceptable use of this data, maintaining necessary records about the data (metadata) and is consulted for operational advice regarding any changes about the acquisition, transformation, storage and consumption of this data (where consumption includes both human and system usage). They implement data strategy enterprise-wide for their data area and are also responsible for performing any transformations required for their data assets.
A Data Custodian is responsible for a set of data. Data Custodians are essentially data administrators who focus on the ‘how’, rather than the ‘why’ of data management. Data Custodians must communicate and collaborate with the Data Steward regarding any technical activities that impact the data within the Data Steward’s scope.
Here’s how that looks in practice:
Data governance ensures that the right people are assigned the right data responsibilities. It is mostly about strategy, roles, organisation and policies, whilst data stewardship is all about the execution and operationalisation of said policies for the benefit of the whole business, making sure that the data is accurate, in control, and easy to discover and process by the relevant parties.
NB: It is very important we do not mix Data Stewardship in any way with the business function within which the Data Steward happens to sit. The role they perform is company-wide.
In our previous example, the Data Steward for the ‘People’ data may well sit in the HR department, but they are responsible for the single source of truth for a total number of employees, staff demographics, contact details, licences/ qualifications and their validity, etc. Similarly, the Data Steward for the ‘Customer’ data could easily sit in the Commercial department, but their remit is to manage a complete and accurate set of customer data for the whole of the business.
“So what?”, you say. Why should you care about all of this?
It all comes down to a single source of truth. When your Executive asks a question, you want to make sure there is a single party responsible for getting to the answer, using a managed, quality-checked data source or sources. You want to prevent different parties going off on a tangent trying to answer the same question in silos, using locally produced data sets that are not quality checked, resulting in different answers, delivered in different formats with a range of differing assumptions.
What is good is to start asking this question today (not next week, or the week after). The longer you let the business evolve without a clear answer to who the data owners are, the longer you will lack clarity about your business, its performance, and clear lines of accountability.
So see your data for the asset that it is: go ahead, be brave, ask the question. And if you need a hand, the Ascent team is here to help you every step of the way!