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Data governance sets clear standards for data processing while improving the quality and consistency of company data. Though the best data governance programs include software or cloud services for support, much of the responsibility falls to people-oriented processes and policies.

At the center of both data governance tools and processes sits the data steward. Data stewards are subject matter experts who take responsibility for routine data management. Though they often work on the business side of data, data stewards work closely with IT to ensure data quality across the organization.

With data governance becoming an increasingly hot topic, the data steward role is growing in importance. Here’s what you need to know about becoming a data steward.

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What is a data steward?

Data stewards are subject matter experts who take responsibility for routine data management as it relates to their area of the business. These stewards are on the frontlines of preserving data quality. They report to data owners on the ongoing use of data, especially on big projects and company initiatives.

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One concerning impediment to their success, as highlighted in a 2022 Zaloni survey of data professionals, is a lack of clear responsibilities. So while this guide highlights the general roles and responsibilities involved in data stewardship, each enterprise should ensure specific responsibilities are identified and made clear to their own data stewards.

What do data stewards do?

Data stewards serve a pivotal role in data governance initiatives. They’re the ones that help to translate policy into practice. Their role includes a variety of functions, from instigating and recording data standards to serving as an expert advisor on individual projects to identifying issues with data quality to ensuring data accountability through reporting.

One key function data stewards can provide is advocacy. We sometimes take for granted that companies want to use data to advance how they serve customers, or that they know how to do this. A data steward can effectively evangelize the kinds of data available and point to how it can be used by a particular team within a larger enterprise. Data best practices and ethical use are core responsibilities of data stewards.

What skills and experience do I need?

Subject matter expertise

The most important attribute for a data steward isn’t familiarity with Alation or other leading tools. No, the most important qualification is subject matter expertise.

Years ago, Gartner analyst Svetlana Sicular stressed something similar in the burgeoning world of Big Data when talent was at a premium: “Organizations already have people who know their own data better than mystical data scientists … Learning Hadoop is easier than learning the company’s business.”

Tools are relatively easy to learn. Deep familiarity with one’s business, however, is hard and absolutely crucial to data management success. Expert business knowledge enables data stewards to more effectively lead efforts that make data accessible when and how the organization needs it.

Ability to communicate with business and technical audiences

Business acumen combined with data literacy allows the data steward to take a more authoritative role in shepherding the collection, transformation, use, storage and disposal of data. This becomes critical when someone needs to step in to oversee the classification of data. Of course, this is easier if the data steward has some familiarity with data science and engineering, so they can better represent the business to IT on their own terms.

Strong collaboration skills and ethics

Data stewards must be highly collaborative in their approach to problem-solving. Given their central role in data governance initiatives, they need to serve as the bridge between IT and lines of business, and just as often between different lines of business that may want to approach data differently. Since data governance rules can seem arcane or business-unfriendly, the data steward must also possess strong communication skills so their colleagues understand what they need to do and how they can help the data steward.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Data Scientist (TechRepublic Premium)

Finally, because the data steward is ultimately responsible for ensuring data quality, they need to be trusted by both the business and the IT side of operations. When people across an organization want to use data for a new machine learning application or some other function, they need to have trust in the integrity and availability of the data. This is easier if the data steward is viewed as a respected ally rather than a combative obstacle.

Steps for becoming a data steward

Though there are informal training programs available, the only real qualification is a willingness to try coupled with the aforementioned qualities. Data stewards can arise from either side of their dual role: Safeguarding data and making it more useful within an organization. As such, we might see a data steward evolve from the regulatory compliance side of the business, but we might also see them emerge from a line of business that has made particularly innovative use of company data.

Data steward employment forecast

We may comfortably call the role in question a “data steward,” but employers have not yet settled on standardized nomenclature, at least, not when advertising for jobs. A look at Glassdoor reveals there are plenty of jobs that sound like “data steward,” yet come under other titles such as “data governance operations specialist” or “data governance lead.”

As for the trajectory of data steward jobs, that’s hard to pinpoint. What isn’t difficult to determine, however, is the overall growth of data governance. According to Mordor Intelligence, the data governance market was worth $1.81 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow to $5.28 billion by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate of 20.83% during the forecast period. More broadly, data management registered $73.1 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach more than $150.6 billion by 2027, according to Expert Market Research.

It’s clear that enterprise data will continue to grow in volume, variety and velocity, making the role of data steward — someone who can help enterprises put data to good use — increasingly critical.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB but the views expressed herein are mine.

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