What is Data Custodianship?

What is Data Custodianship?

Data Governance is full of jargon and terminology. And the interesting thing about it is that it is all subjective. Different people use different terms, well, differently within Data Governance. This is usually because of the culture within a particular organisation. The way the various terms are applied within organisations can vary their meaning. And that’s ok – but you should also be wary of it.

It’s important to make sure you fully understand the meaning of the terminologies within the context of the organisation that you are working with so that there are no crossed wires. Don’t make assumptions about the meanings of particular terms – and if you are ever in doubt, then ask.

Now, the reason I am telling you this is it’s a very important thing to understand when we’re discussing data custodianship and what that is and means – especially if you are googling terms and looking for their meanings online. So, if you come across someone who also uses this term then ask them what and who they mean so you can be sure that you are on the same page and can have meaningful and useful conversations.

So, what do I mean by the term ‘data custodian’? 

Well, when I talk about data custodian’s I talk about IT. This makes it fundamentally different from other roles we’ve discussed in previous articles – like data owners and data stewards – because they’re all about the business. The businesspeople who have to step up, take roles and play a part in managing and understanding the quality of their business data. But that doesn’t mean that IT is off the hook – they have a very important role to play, and that is where the data custodian role comes into play.

Very simply, they’re responsible for maintaining data on your systems in accordance with the businesses requirements. Now, that sounds quite simple but quite often in an organisation before data governance has been introduced, the business may have the wrong impression that IT own the data because it is on their systems – and they may even expect IT to make decisions on how to move data from one system to another or perhaps how to transform it as it is loaded to a new system. But I don’t believe this is the role of IT.

IT can certainly advise on all these tasks, because they have the technical expertise that, as business users, we don’t have but it shouldn’t be up to IT to make these decisions by themselves.

This can sometimes be a hard concept to grasp, especially if you’ve never implemented data governance within your organisation before, as people don’t traditionally think of the business owning the data and they’re also not very good at articulating their requirements to IT, which leaves IT having to do the best they can with what they’ve got.

This often leads to IT being blamed for things, which I think can be unfair, when they’re just doing the best they can with very poor requirements from the business.

So, in short, being a data custodian is all about maintaining data and systems, moving data between systems, aggregating and transforming data in accordance with the business requirements.

The benefits of identifying IT as your data custodians.

When I work with IT departments my clients are always really pleased about this, because it helps IT get clear requirements from the business stakeholders and agreed people to go and talk to about making decisions about the handling of data.

So, if they have a data owner within the business the data custodian (IT) can talk to them and ask them what they want, rather than second guessing and asking the only person in the business they know of that might happen to know something about the data set.

This is a really good way of starting to break down some silos and starting to get the business to understand what happens to the data when it is on systems. This isn’t anything new either. IT have previously done all this stuff, it’s just that they’ve done it without the input from the business that they should have had.

Having a data governance framework in place and identifying IT as the data custodians is a really good way of starting to improve the communication between departments and making consistent, holistic decisions about the data.

One last thing

The final point on data custodianship, which I feel is important to mention, is that generally when we assign data governance roles (i.e. data owner, data steward), we always try to have a named person. However, this is not the case with a data custodian, in fact, the opposite is true.

I would say the whole of your IT department are your data custodians, because within your IT department you will have many different areas of expertise or disciplines. No single person will know absolutely everything about that system – but collectively they have the know-how.

Don’t forget if you have any questions you’d like covered in future videos or blogs please email me – questions@nicolaaskham.com.

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