Data Stewards are the Gardeners in the Data Landscape

Data Stewards are the Gardeners in the Data Landscape

- by Bob Seiner, Expert in Data Management

The role of data stewards can be brilliantly likened to gardeners in a rich and diverse landscape. Just as a gardener skillfully tends to a variety of plants, ensuring their harmonious growth and productivity, data stewards in an organization nurture and maintain the vast expanse of data. This analogy finds its true essence in the Non-Invasive Data Governance (NIDG) framework, where the stewardship of data extends to potentially every individual in the organization.

Within this framework, anyone who interacts with data in their role — whether they are defining, producing, or using data — becomes a data steward, entrusted with the responsibility of caring for this invaluable asset. This shift in perspective is crucial, emphasizing that data governance is not a remote, IT-centric task, but a shared, organization-wide commitment. Each individual’s interaction with data, no matter how seemingly minor, contributes to the overall health and utility of the organization’s data landscape.

In a typical garden, various plants require different levels of attention and care. Similarly, in the data landscape, different types of data — customer information, financial records, operational metrics — demand distinct stewardship approaches. A gardener knows that over-watering can be just as harmful as neglect; likewise, data stewards understand that over-governing can stifle innovation and agility, while under-governing can lead to chaos and risk.

The key to successful data governance, much like gardening, lies in balance and understanding. Data stewards, similar to gardeners, must possess a deep knowledge of the data types under their care. They need to understand how to nurture and protect data, ensuring its accuracy, privacy, and accessibility. This involves not just technical skills, but also an understanding of the business context in which the data exists.

Just as gardeners are recognized for their expertise in cultivating a thriving garden, data stewards should be acknowledged for their crucial role in governing data. In the NIDG model, stewardship is not a role assigned arbitrarily or a title given without merit. Instead, it’s a recognition of the natural relationship individuals have with data and the responsibilities they undertake in their daily interactions with it.

The philosophy of NIDG advocates a simple yet profound truth: the data will not govern itself. It needs stewards — just as a garden needs gardeners — who are invested in its well-being and growth. This investment is not just in terms of time or resources but in terms of accountability and ownership. Every action taken by a data steward, from correcting a small data entry error to implementing a new data policy, contributes to the overall health of the organization’s data ecosystem.

The following short notes are a few additional thoughts I have on the subject, driving the point home (where the garden is awaiting your stewardship):

  • The Gardening Metaphor for Data Stewardship – Imagine data as a garden – diverse, dynamic, and requiring constant attention. In this garden, the data stewards are the gardeners, tasked with nurturing and maintaining the health and vitality of the data. Their role is crucial, for, in the world of data, “the data will not govern itself.” Just as a garden left untended will become overgrown and chaotic, data left ungoverned can become unwieldy, inaccurate, and potentially harmful to an organization.
  • The Nurturing Role of Data Stewards – In the NIDG model, data stewards are not appointed or identified; they are recognized for their inherent relationship with the data. This recognition aligns perfectly with the gardening analogy. Gardeners do not become so by assignment alone; they are recognized for their skills, knowledge, and their natural tendency to nurture plants. Similarly, data stewards are recognized for their natural roles in the data lifecycle – they are the definers, producers, and users of data, intrinsically involved in its care and maintenance.
  • The Non-Invasive Approach to Data Governance – NIDG takes a holistic and integrated approach to data governance, akin to the permaculture in gardening. It does not seek to disrupt the natural flow of things but rather works within the existing organizational ecosystem. This approach ensures that data governance is not seen as an external imposition but as an integral part of everyday operations. In practice, this means that data governance is woven into the fabric of the organization. Everyone who interacts with data in any capacity is a potential data steward, much like anyone who works in a garden – from the person planting seeds to the one pruning branches – contributes to the garden’s overall health.
  • Formal Accountability is the Key to Effective Stewardship – A critical aspect of NIDG is the formal accountability of data stewards. Just as a gardener is accountable for the health of the plants, data stewards are accountable for the quality, integrity, and usefulness of the data they handle. This accountability is vital – it ensures that data is not just managed but managed well. It involves establishing clear guidelines, responsibilities, and processes to ensure that everyone who interacts with data does so in a way that benefits the overall data ecosystem.
  • Recognizing and Empowering Data Stewards – In the NIDG framework, recognizing and empowering data stewards is akin to equipping gardeners with the right tools and knowledge. Organizations must identify individuals’ inherent data-related roles and provide them with the resources, support, and recognition they need to perform their stewardship effectively. This empowerment also involves training and development. Just as gardeners must learn about different plants, soil types, and gardening techniques, data stewards need to understand various aspects of data management, including data quality, privacy, security, and compliance.
  • The Continuous Care of Data – Data stewardship, like gardening, is an ongoing process. It requires regular attention, nurturing, and adjustment to changing conditions. Data stewards must continuously monitor data quality, update information, and respond to new data sources or changing business needs. This continuous care ensures that the data landscape remains healthy and productive. It involves regular ‘weeding’ (removing outdated or irrelevant data), ‘watering’ (updating and refreshing data), and ‘fertilizing’ (enhancing data with new sources or insights).
  • The Collaborative Nature of Data Stewardship – Just as gardening often involves a community of gardeners working together, effective data stewardship is inherently collaborative. It requires coordination and communication among all data stewards to ensure a cohesive approach to data management. This collaboration is vital in breaking down data silos, sharing best practices, and developing a unified data strategy.
  • Challenges in Data Stewardship – Despite its importance, data stewardship is not without its challenges. These challenges can range from lack of awareness or understanding of the role of data stewards to inadequate resources or support from the organization. Overcoming these challenges requires a resolute effort from all levels of the organization – from executive leadership endorsing and supporting data governance initiatives to individual departments and teams recognizing and valuing the role of data stewards.

Considering data stewards as gardeners of the data landscape offers an insightful and accessible framework for understanding their role within a Non-Invasive Data Governance (NIDG) program. This metaphor extends beyond mere oversight; it encapsulates a nurturing and developmental approach to managing one of the organization’s most vital resources: its data.

Just as gardeners cultivate a diverse array of plants, ensuring each one receives the care it needs to flourish, data stewards tend to various data elements, understanding their unique characteristics and requirements. This nurturing approach ensures that the entire data ecosystem, much like a well-tended garden, remains vibrant, healthy, and productive.

Emphasizing that everyone in an organization who interacts with data in roles such as defining, producing, or using data, and is held formally accountable for these interactions, becomes a steward of data, the NIDG approach democratizes data governance. It fosters a culture where data stewardship is not confined to a selected few but is a collective responsibility, shared by all who contribute to the data lifecycle. This broad involvement ensures a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to maintaining data quality, integrity, and security.

The outcomes of such a stewardship are akin to the benefits of a well-maintained garden. A well-governed data landscape, tended by its stewards, can yield a rich harvest of benefits for the organization. These include enhanced decision-making capabilities, bolstered by accurate and timely data; improved operational efficiency through streamlined data processes; heightened compliance with regulations and standards; and a competitive advantage in a data-driven marketplace.

The concept of data stewards as gardeners highlights the importance of ongoing care and attention. Just as a garden requires regular maintenance and cannot thrive on sporadic effort, the data landscape needs continuous cultivation. Data stewards play a vital role in this ongoing process, ensuring that the data ecosystem adapts to evolving organizational needs, technological advancements, and regulatory changes.

Envisioning data stewards as gardeners in the data landscape under the NIDG model provides a rich and relatable understanding of their crucial role. This analogy not only illuminates the spirit of their responsibilities but also underscores the importance of their work. In the flourishing world of data, these stewards, or gardeners, are fundamental in nurturing a dynamic, resilient, and bountiful data ecosystem, which in turn supports the growth and success of the entire organization. The effectiveness of data governance, much like the health of a garden, depends significantly on the dedication, skill, and care of those who tend to it.