Do We Have to Call Them Data Owners?

Do We Have to Call Them Data Owners?

I spend a lot of time helping people become successful Data Governance practitioners, so it is not surprising that I get asked lots of questions about Data Governance. A very common one is about naming the Data Governance roles. Many people worry about whether it is necessary to use standard or best practice role titles when implementing Data Governance.  By this I mean titles such as Data Owner or Data Steward.

Before I dive into my thoughts on this issue, I’d like to remind you of a quote from Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”

You don’t have to have studied Romeo and Juliet or even seen the play to know the saying “a rose by any other name…” As with many Shakespearean quotes, this one gets used in our everyday lives, and this particular quote resonates with me whenever I get asked the question about role titles. I often find myself involved in such discussions when I start working with new clients.

If you are implementing a Data Governance Framework and have done any “Google” research, you probably have come across a numbers of role titles that you may want to include: Data Owners, Data Stewards, Data Custodians, Data Champions, Information Owners, Data Librarians, Data Producers, Data Consumers, and a host of others, I’m sure.

Personally, I favour a fairly straight-forward set up with Data Owners, Data Stewards, Data Consumers, and Data Producers as the primary roles. However, throughout the numerous Data Governance initiatives that I’ve been involved in, I’ve learned not to be precious about it.

Through my own personal experience and from watching others, I know how emotive job or role titles can be.  You don’t have to be egotistical to desire the “right” label; it’s human nature to desire recognition for the work we do.

Of course, when we are implementing Data Governance, we are not recruiting and appointing new staff into new roles.  We are identifying the correct existing people to take on some data governance responsibilities.  Remember, however, that even additional responsibilities which do not ostensibly change a job title need to have a descriptive name that fits with company culture. You might be the Finance Director, but you can also say that you are the Data Owner for Finance data.  It is then easy for other people to understand your additional responsibilities.

Role titles are neat things. They enable you to deliver a message about what you are responsible for, succinctly and quickly, so it is no wonder that people like and use them. But what happens if you have the wrong titles? Well, that depends on the culture of the organization, and the individuals concerned. At best, it could lead to confusion and make implementing and embedding your data governance framework more challenging.  At worst, I’ve seen it delay the implementation of the data governance initiative as people waste time in endless debates over what the roles should be called.

What I’ve learned through experience is quite simple: the name is important to a degree (don’t insist on one set of titles if they really aren’t going to work in your organization), but it is critical to define what that role is responsible for and what you need the role holders to be doing in order to make your data governance initiative a success.

My advice is to start with the list of things you need done and work out how best to group those responsibilities together in a way that fits your organizational structure. Try some of the “usual suspects” out and test their reactions. If they like Data Steward – go with it; if they don’t, try something else. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t called a Data Steward as long as they act like one.

As with all things Data Governance, pragmatism is vital: so in my view, “that which we call a Data Steward by any other name could work just as well…”

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