Data Owners and Data Stewards – What is the difference?

Data Owners and Data Stewards – What is the difference?

My last article about how you identify your data owners stimulated a lot of interest, but also a lot of questions. One question in particular, I have been asked many times over the years (in fact, I got an email asking the very same question while I was actually drafting this article) is the topic of this article:

What is the difference between Data Owners and Data Stewards?

This topic does cause a lot of confusion. If you do some research online you will find many articles that discuss Data Ownership and Data Stewardship as well as Data Governance. This could easily lead you to believe that there are two or even three separate data management disciplines being discussed. To clarify the situation – Data Ownership and Data Stewardship are important components of Data Governance (although not the only components).

I believe quite strongly (and may have mentioned it once or twice before) that there is no such thing as a standard Data Governance framework. But I do believe that there are three key things you have to include in your Data Governance framework for it to be successful:

Data Governance Framework

The three things as you can see from the image are policy, processes, and roles and responsibilities and they form a key part of my methodology.   It is the last category, roles and responsibilities, which covers both Data Owners and Data Stewards

To understand the differences we should look at what each of these roles does. Let’s start with the more senior of the two: Data Owners. If you’ve been following my blogs for any time, you will also know that they don’t have to be called Data Owners (if you face resistance using this role title, you should call them an appropriate name that works for your organisation).  You can read more about this here.  But for this article, we will stick with the more common role titles.

Data Owners are senior stakeholders within your organisation who are accountable for the quality of one or more data sets. That sounds nice and simple, but covers activities such as making sure there are definitions in place, action is taken on data quality issues and Data Quality Reporting is in place.

To be suitable to be a Data Owner, they have to be suitably senior in your organisation. They need to have the authority to make changes and also have either the budget or resources available to them to undertake data cleansing activities. If they don’t have that authority and resources available, they won’t make an effective Data Owner.

Now, you may be reading that thinking, “if they’re that senior, do they really understand the detail of the data and do they have time to do all the things listed?”  That’s a fair point and why I use the role of Data Stewards. I ask Data Owners to appoint one or more Data Stewards to assist them in their responsibilities.

For many years, I wrote separate role descriptions, where I diligently listed everything that both the Data Owners and Data Stewards have to do.  To be honest, the activities were largely the same, I just changed the language from saying “accountable for” in the Data Owner description to “responsible for” for Data Stewards.

A few years ago I realised that there was a far simpler way: I now just write the detail for the Data Owner role and include words to indicate that a Data Owner may appoint one or more Data Stewards to assist them to undertake these responsibilities on a day to day basis.

How does it work in practice?

If you were talking about writing a data definition, you would say that a Data Owner is accountable for that definition. In practice, you would expect the Data Steward to be responsible for drafting that definition and presenting it to the Data Owner for them to approve.

Or if you were looking at a data quality issue, I would expect a Data Owner to be responsible for investigating and agreeing remedial actions. In practice, the Data Steward would do the research and propose appropriate remedial actions to the Data Owner to approve.

Another related question I am often asked is:

Do you need both Data Owners and Data Stewards?

There is no standard answer to that question as it depends on the size of your organisation. For large organisations, you probably do need both roles. If you don’t have a lot of staff, you may not.

I’ve worked with two organisations who both had approximately 200 staff. When we worked out who the most appropriate Data Owners would be and asked them to nominate their Data Stewards, we were close to half the employees of the organisation being either a Data Owner or Data Steward, which clearly is not useful.  The solution was different for each company:

In one organisation, we changed the level of seniority of the Data Owners to the next level down. They still had authority, but also had the time and expertise to understand the subject matter in more detail. In that company, the role of Data Steward was not used.

In the other organisation, the right thing was to keep the Data Owners suitably senior (i.e. the Finance Director was the Data Owner of Finance Data), but instead of having multiple Data Stewards per Data Owner, each Data Owner nominated one Data Steward to act as deputy and help them with their Data Governance responsibilities.

You may not need both roles,  it depends on the size of your organisation. You need to work out whether you need both (and what you call them) to make data governance successful in your organisation.

To summarise, Data Owners and Data Steward are not the same role, but they are involved in the same activities. The Data Owner is accountable for the activities and the Data Steward is responsible for those activities on a day to day basis.

Identifying appropriate roles and responsibilities is only one of many things on my data governance checklist. You can download the free version of this checklist to help you design and implement a data governance framework successfully here.

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