Why won’t the data stewards talk to each other?

In nearly every conversation I have about data governance, someone will mention that they aren’t seeing the adoption and traction they expected after implementing a Data Governance Framework. Their complaint usually sounds like, “we’ve got all these people identified as data owners or data stewards – but none of them will talk to each other”.

Data Governance is a business issue, which means it focuses on people and processes. Identifying the right people to participate in a data governance group is only half the battle. They have to be confident in working together towards a common objective (i.e. better quality data). 

Unfortunately, the legacy of functional autonomy means that they often operate in silos. Communication tends to be transactional (e.g. I need you to do x) and not collegiate (e.g. how can we fix x together). Silo behaviour can be particularly evident in the data stewards group, influencing how the data owners behave in their group. The data stewards are often the root cause of owners blocking or rejecting new requirements and opportunities for improvements.

The lack of collaborative problem-solving means that the drive for change and the collective wisdom of a law firm’s people are missing from its data initiatives. Consequently, no one can make progress with data-related projects and improvements.

Why do functional silos persist?

People around a table find it difficult to collectively discuss a way forward when individually they are focussed on the minutiae of past events, inactions or decisions. This makes them (even subconsciously) unwilling to participate in a collective where they don’t know or trust many other attendees. 

At the beginning of adopting data governance, the mindset of most data stewards (and data owners) is to be a blocker (a gatekeeper) rather than a shopkeeper. Data Owners lean towards giving precedence to functional priorities over the demands of another team or additional initiative, which is how they often perceive data governance. 

They are in this mindset because of a long history of discussing issues but never finding (or implementing) solutions. A particular individual may have experienced their (or their team’s) issue being deprioritised by the PMO or IT function. This mindset leads to a natural mistrust of efforts to solve long term problems and a lack of engagement by key data stewards.

Data Stewards can perceive that c-suite stakeholders don’t understand the impact of what they’re asking. Consequently, the data stewards ignore their leader’s buy-in to data governance. Since data owners often rely on the inputs of their stewards when participating in a discussion or making a decision, this amplifies the challenge.

The result is a stagnation of data governance activities and can cause an embryonic data governance function to lose the support of senior stakeholders. If their teams don’t see data governance’s strategic, tactical, or operational value, why should they support something that doesn’t benefit anyone?

When implementing a data governance roadmap, you ignore the significant influence that data stewards have on a firm at your peril.

The benefit of breaking down barriers for data stewards

Get engagement with data stewards right, and their collaborative efforts will make your data issues log items disappear faster and overall data quality will improve. Over a relatively short time (12-18 months), the solutions to data issues will move from operational (or tactical) to strategic conversations involving data owners.

With all data stewards at the table willing to make changes to improve things for the benefit of all functions, the data owners are less likely to be protectionist of their functional priorities. This enables CxOs to be involved in supporting strategic projects rather than refereeing disagreements over conflicting functional point solutions.

This approach requires less active support from the central data governance person and more devolved cross-functional activity. Data stewards (and data owners) will only reach back into the central DG function for guidance or support in escalating through the agreed mechanisms.

Address behavioural change as part of your data governance implementation

The more the data stewards are willing to collaborate, the more the data owners will be ready to work together. So establishing your data owners group needs to be complemented with creating a support mechanism for your data stewards.

This group harbours and fosters the mistrust of other functions and is suspicious of “central interference”. Without trust, people hoard information, interfering with other functions’ work and blocking the firm from moving forward.

You can use change management theory or discussions on team dynamics as your guide for bringing the stewards together. Either way, the key ingredient is trust – and trust takes time.

Build Trust

Two activities are fundamental to building trust when implementing your data governance framework:

  1. Articulate that a key role of data owners is to empower data stewards and actively support them to work cross-functionally.
  2. Create a data stewardship council supported by a training and engagement program which guides the stewards into trusting each other and ultimately volunteering to work together to solve problems without prompting.

Iron Carrot Data Steward Engagement Programmes

In all the law firms that Iron Carrot has worked with, we have achieved data steward mindset change using a guided framework of conversations incrementally more challenging and collaborative over several months. This is in addition to, and running alongside, the training and communications programme portion of your data governance roadmap.

The firm’s roadmap training and comms planning will have already identified a clear articulation of what the data stewards need to know differently, do differently, and use differently. That articulation gives a starting point to ask open questions of the stewards at each stage, making them feel that they are listened to throughout the process.

Individual discussions

Invest the time to meet with each steward 1-on-1 to identify particular conflicts, areas of worry, challenges. If any of these are already addressed on the roadmap, explain how they will participate. If they are new to you, keep a note of them (usually the start of your data quality issues log).

Functional discussions

Bring the stewards from the same team together to compare/contrast the outputs from the individual meetings. People will constantly add more problems to your list at this stage – but they can also give a good insight into what they expect from a ‘good’ data stewardship council meeting. Never assume that people in the same function already work together.

Role based (type of steward) discussions

Once the introductory council meeting and training are out of the way, you can start to schedule cross-functional sub-meetings for your different types of steward (e.g. functional, technical, domain, project, custodian, etc.). These meetings get them used to working with people outside their function.

Data stewardship council

These meetings are usually action-focused, so you need to carefully plan your early discussions so that they are easy asks. This allows the group to get to know each other and build trust. We suggest that you start collective decision making on meeting one about non-contentious stuff. I.e., there is more than one answer but the choice made has low or no impact on the data governance roadmap.

For example: “should the issues log be prioritised as High-Medium-Low or as MoSCoW?”

By starting with something that has a low impact on the overall outcome, everyone can contribute an opinion (or a pro or a con). The group can take a vote on which choice to make. The objective is to prioritise the issues, so any method would work as long as everyone agrees. Over time you can make the questions more and more substantive so that the real problems on the log get tackled.

How can Iron Carrot help you?

If you are starting to plan your data group implementation, book a call to learn more about how we can help you engage your data stewards and data owners.