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say it with moxy

We Don't Need Data Owners

The interwebs have been all a chatter about how sucky it is to find a data owners. That’s because the function and roles are misaligned. Time to call some bullshit on the concept of data owners. Let’s first figure out what data owners were supposed to do, then decide what we need them to do and finally assess the right role for that.

The concept of data owners has been around for as long as data governance. It was the peanut butter to the jelly that is data stewardship. By design data owners were supposed to help make the big decisions, be a communication channel to their peers and above, be the organizational structure for data stewards, and finally help data governance by aligning to the strategic vision of the organization. Three of these four are poorly aligned to the way we have to govern data in modern organizations. The reality is that data ownership as it’s been broadly conceived and implemented does not work. Our organizations need for data governance is increasing, especially when you consider the impending impact of AI. The time is now to make a pivot to redress what “ownership” of the data really means to your organization.

Decisions or CYA you be the judge.

When data governance was first conceived the role of data owners were the primary decision makers. Back then it was (slightly) more conceivable because our data was smaller, organizations more straightforward hierarchies and fewer matrixes and our data less complex. As time went on the decision-making part of data owners shifting from active decisions making to CYA (cover yo ass). Data stewards were actually making the decisions but in most enterprises data stewards didn’t have that autonomy. So, they told the data owner “what was what” and then the “official” decision was rendered. When you did have a data owner (which wasn’t always guaranteed) this process slowed down the decision making dramatically. Often it was a lot of back and forth, sometimes the data steward had to “prove it” to the data owner, wasting precious days (or weeks) of the data stewards time to try to figure out how to present data to an “owner”.

Communication or Status Updates? #donotwastemytime

Another often touted “value” to the concept of data owners was the need to communicate to them and their peers. It was expected that the data owner (usually a director or above) would share information with their peers and upwards. If that happened it was rare, and eventually became less and less successful. Partly because the way a data steward would present information to a data owner is not the way a data owner would present it to their peers. Which meant that the understanding on the part of the data owner had to be high, and the time had to be available for the data owner to re-write the content. Over time these meetings became just status updates. Meetings for status updates are as old as the hills. It is a holdover from when memos were handed out on paper and the only way to get information to travel fast was to talk directly to people. Friends, this is why God and Al Gore invented email. If you’re just giving a status update to an upper management human don’t do it in a meeting. Communication should be managed as an everyday task of your data governance function. Create a communication plan and work that plan. Transparency is critically important to the success of any data governance capability.

Data Stewards report to Data Owners. Right?

No. Moving on. Kidding, sort of. Back in the day it was part of the structure to have a data steward report in through the organizational structure of a data owner. It created a better alignment for decisions and CYA. When data was simple that was a heck of a lot easier. But in today’s modern organizations when concepts like customer or product are the result of shared responsibility across many different departments there is no simple alignment of the data steward to data owner. If it happens, great, but I can’t remember the last time I worked with an organization that had one way of thinking about and acquiring data on their customers (for example). It just doesn’t happen that much anymore. And, honestly, I think it’s an outdated requirement in a world filled with matrixed organizations.

Align to the strategic vision of the organization. Now you’ve got something.

Perhaps the biggest value of the traditional data owner role was their responsibility to guide data governance through strategic shifts in the organization. Yes, theoretically your executive stakeholders can do this, but data owners were supposed to be closer to data governance and better aligned. They were supposed to give us more timely information allowing us to pivot faster. This is still important; I actually think it is of utmost importance in our modern enterprises. Data governance needs a way to anticipate critical changes and account for them in their day-to-day management of data assets. Without that data governance will become outdated and lose its relationship with the people using the data. Sound familiar? But our old way of thinking of data ownership was over-designed for this one key area.

What we really need: Strategic Data Advisors

Here’s what we really need from this concept of “ownership”.

1. Buy-in. We need them to understand that data governance is important and that we are doing the right things for the right reasons.

2. Advocacy. We need them to advocate for data governance. To do that we have to give them very specific actions in a way that they can utilize them without having to rewrite or re-design. Be clear about what kind of time commitment you will need from them. Just asking for advocacy (or buy-in for that matter) and leaving an open-ended time commitment is a fast way to disappointment.

3. You need their guidance to better understand what is happening at the strategic levels of the organization. Plan for this by asking your strategic data advisors (SDA) how to best align AND execute.

We DO NOT need data owners to grant access to systems. That’s a job for InfoSec, personnel managers, and data stewards (together). We don’t need them to provide operational or contextual information, that’s the job of data steward and subject matter experts. We no longer need data owners to be organizationally aligned to the data stewards, but it is important to ensure that data stewards have been empowered to make decisions. Make sure you create a decision log so everyone knows what decisions were made with what information and have a back-up plan for big decisions or ones with a high degree of visibility (these should be the exception not the rule).

Make some changes to the “data owner” hamster wheel. Stop trying to convince a too-busy upper manager that they must be a data owner. Assess what data ownership is for your organization, take what works and leave the rest.


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