Designated data stewards a waste of space

It's everyone's job, says James Kobielus

Everyone agrees that data is a precious resource. Everyone also agrees that organisations should keep this resource clean, current and fit for business. Some in the data management industry have stressed the need for a new officer, the data steward, who manages data in keeping with a broad business perspective and an eye towards organisation-wide quality and standardisation.

Data stewardship is an important business function, but there’s no clear industry consensus about the need for a distinct data steward role. The core problem is that the role has no clear boundaries. Depending on who you ask, a data steward may be simply a data-quality specialist or an all-powerful data governance, business intelligence and compliance czar. In most cases, the data steward role overlaps considerably with established positions, such as business analyst, database administrator, data modeller, data manager, data security manager and storage manager.

Data steward, as a stand-alone job category, would have a tough time justifying its continued existence in periods of corporate austerity. Considering the extent to which data stewards handle functions performed elsewhere in the IT organisation, they would be acutely vulnerable to the budgetary axe. What’s the point of continuing to fund such a position when its core responsibilities can be easily distributed to other personnel?

On the other hand, data stewardship is too critical a business function to let die. It’s everybody’s job — on both the IT and business sides of the house. And it requires a governance environment in which an organisation’s users, analysts, DBAs and other personnel collectively monitor and maintain the quality, consistency, standardisation and relevance of operational data. At the heart of that governance environment should be a corporate framework of policies, best practices and collaboration tools for managing data across the life cycle.

Collaboration is vital to distributed data stewardship. For each important corporate data resource, organisations need to provide collaborative environments within which all stakeholders — including users, data owners, DBAs and developers — can work through the myriad issues concerning how information is modelled, classified, collected, profiled, cleansed, transformed, consolidated and reported. Using administrative workflows, discussion forums and other tools, IT and business personnel should be able to propose, discuss, define and monitor the full set of stewardship policies implemented within their master data management (MDM) environment.

Few vendors have addressed the need for a comprehensive collaboration environment to support distributed data stewardship. At most, vendors provide tool sets to help different job categories carry out diverse stewardship-related functions, such as data profiling and cleansing, data modelling and mapping. However, vendors are beginning to address the need to provide an environment in which these roles can come together to meet common MDM requirements.

Reporting vendor Actuate recently upgraded its flagship product to provide an Asynchronous JavaScript + XML-enabled ad hoc report development environment that lets users and IT departments collaborate on report definitions and evolve report designs.

Actuate’s new Collaborative Reporting Architecture lets IT developers, business analysts and users fine-tune development of web reports, through iterative design-level interactions in which each group uses report design tools appropriate to its skill sets. By enabling sharing of report designs via a common metadata store, the Actuate 9 platform helps ensure that all stakeholders’ reporting requirements are considered — a function that a data steward otherwise might perform.

Over the next several years, expect to see vendors provide collaboration features to facilitate distributed stewardship across the full range of life-cycle data management functions. To the extent that organisations continue to designate specific individuals as data stewards, these people will be increasingly responsible for coordinating the multi-stakeholder collaborations necessary for policy-driven MDM.

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