Monday, December 5, 2011

Data Ownership and Data Responsibility Should Go Hand in Hand

Chances are that all of us who have tried to advance a Data Governance initiative will have had the data ownership discussion and socialized the idea that IT shouldn't own the data. In the earlier years of my data governance efforts getting acceptance of this concept was most often the first stumbling block. Common remarks from both the business and IT fronts reflected long established culture and practices in which data was seen as an IT focus - they managed it, wrangled it, invested and got to the root cause of data problems, and they held the responsibility of fixing data problems. This resistance, although frustrating, at least had a common theme which allowed me (and I suspect others like me) to build up a toolkit of arguments, presentations, stories and case studies to help move stakeholders toward an understanding that data is best owned by the business and not the IT function.

I've written about the need to keep working away toward implementing data governance before in my post on Thinking Like a Vogon. Having a bag of tricks built up and finessed over time is, in my opinion, key to successfully importing data governance at an organization. It allows those of us charged with championing data governance to keep working toward advancing stakeholder understanding and buy-in over weeks, months and years. Recently I've noticed a trend which has the potential to poke a hole in this bag of tricks, reducing its effectiveness and necessitating a rethink of how I engage with stakeholders. These days I encounter less push back when I propose the idea that IT doesn't own the data. The concept that the business owns the data now often seems to be easily accepted, with some business users going as far as saying "of course we own the data!"

Acceptance! It's all easy from here, right? Maybe not. While there seems to be a lot more widespread agreement that business users own the data this doesn't always translate into the best outcomes for data governance and improved data quality. Statements from stakeholders along the lines of "we own the data, but IT let us down because they can't get the data quality right and they don't understand our data" ring alarm bells for me. That one step forward may just have been followed by two quick steps back. What's missing here is responsibility. Ownership without responsibility is hollow and reflects an understanding which still has quite some way to go to reach maturity. I liken this sort of statement to a father boasting about the achievements of his children before reaching for the phone to arrange a nanny to look after them whilst they are home from boarding school. Just like we can't expect school teachers and others to take sole responsibility for shaping our childrens' lives and helping them through their problem times, business users can not claim to be data owners and then take a passive role only getting involved in data issues long enough to point the finger of blame at IT.

So how can we this new phenomenon be dealt with? Sure, a part of what needs to be done is updating the message and tailoring the tools and communication methods we use to address this new position. But, it's more than that, as data governance professionals we need to look for ways of showing those in the business with this view "what's in it for them". We should look to find success stories - show where there was demonstrable benefit gained when another business user started to take an active interest in the health and well being of their data. Even better, we should spend time with those business users who have already embraced not just data ownership but data responsibility as well, helping to make them into champions for the cause and assisting them to sell the benefits to their colleagues. The broader IT function also has a role to play here. We need to ensure that IT doesn't reinforce the existing culture, and as such there needs to be a little gentle push back when the business shows signs of pushing all data responsibility to IT. This need not mean a flat out "no", nor an abdication of any and all responsibility, but rather taking these opportunities to engage with business users, working with them as enablers rather just than in isolation as technical troubleshooters blindly trying to solve problems often without enough context or knowledge. By working together - making changes on both sides - IT will boost data context familiarity and those on the business side will get involved more often and earlier. From a management perspective, look to change IT policies if they talk about IT owning and managing the data, and think about establishing data reference groups.

No matter what approaches we take, there is one very important thing that can not be forgotten. We must help business people in their new roles as data stewards. We can not leave them to feel their way along. Build documentation and tools to help and guide them, recognise new responsibilities by modifying Position Descriptions and the way these people are measured and rewarded for performance. Not only will this signal that the organisation is serious about data governance and data quality, but it will also guide and encourage the stewards to perform better.

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