The difference between a data owner and a data steward

Season 1 Episode 3

In this episode, CJ Anderson begins at the beginning by talking about the differences between a data owner and a data steward.

She explains the differences between ownership and stewardship, why you need both roles to have a successful data governance framework, how you define them and where you might find them in the Firm.

Get the “Data Owners Accountabilities Checklist” from Resources: Iron Carrot


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Episode Transcript

Welcome to the law firm Data Governance Podcast, the Data Governance Companion for law firm Leaders who want to know more about implementing and improving data governance.

Each week I’ll help you with your law firm’s data governance initiative by sharing something I’ve learned in my 20-plus years of working with information and data in law firms.

In this episode, I’ll begin at the beginning by talking about the differences between a data owner and a data steward.

I’ll explain the key differences between ownership and stewardship: Why you need both roles to have a successful framework. How you define these roles and where you might find the people to fill these roles within your firm.

Let’s start by exploring the differences between ownership and stewardship. Data governance is the framework that enables conversations between the right people to improve the firms strategic data management. Data owners and data stewards are two of the essential people roles to have those conversations. You need to define and implement them, or your data governance framework isn’t going to work. I should say that the terms data owner and data steward are just standard labels for these concepts.

You can and should call them whatever works for your firm. We’ve heard them called data governor and data operational stewards, all kinds of different things. So what is a data owner?

A data owner is a person who makes decisions about the data, and these decisions can include requests to change data usage and make data quality improvements and decisions about who’s involved in managing that data. They also make decisions about solving issues, challenges, problems, whatever your firm calls them, that require resources to solve, and by resources I mean money, time or people. These are all accountabilities and the decisions of a data owner are tactical in nature.

When you design and implement your data governance framework, your stakeholders will agree on your data owners specific accountabilities and again, they might not even be called data owners in your firm, they could be called data governors or data managers, but whatever that label is, it should be the best fit for the person accountable for data decisions.

So what then, is a data steward? Well, a data steward knows what their data is supposed to represent, what it means, and what business rules are associated with that data.

They usually the first to hear about issues with their data and make recommendations to the data owner, whatever they’re called, after investigating a problem, challenge, or issue and identifying the solution. These are all responsibilities and the data stewards decisions are operational. So how do you go about defining these roles?

Most firms find that the role of a data owner and data steward, whatever they call them, changes and involves in step with the firms data maturity.

So it helps if you look to your data governance road map to guide you what are the goals and objectives your firm needs to meet to get to its data governance vision.

Once you know that, you can start to think about what your data owners need to be accountable for, and what your data owners need to be responsible for. In my experience, it’s easier to start by focusing on defining the accountabilities of the data owners. Once that’s in place, the data stewards responsibilities are easy to identify.

Some common questions have come up in every firm that I’ve worked with, but there’s no such thing as a standard answer.

The answers to these questions are different for every firm because they all have their own data governance objectives.

But I wanted to share these standard questions to help guide your thinking about the kinds of accountabilities that go into the detail of a data owners role.

When you think about business processes, will the data stewards have accountability for these processes and your critical data elements, or not?

Will they be drafters or reviewers, approvers or implementers for your standards and policies, or a combination of all four, or none?

What’s the breadth of their scope? How far do you need that accountability to stretch? Is it for a single piece of data, for a single system, for a whole functions data, or for a particular piece of data that’s used cross-functionally or something else? Or a combination of everything?

What should their role be in defining, monitoring or improving data quality? How involved in defining and monitoring your data KPIs would you like them to be?

Where is their accountability in that process? There’s a role for them too possibly in what we call ‘Executive Ownership’ sometimes.

What will their role be in educating and driving the understanding of data and its correct usage and management across your firm? Will they be guiding, will they have an accountability? What does that look like? Does ownership include accountability for master data or reference data? Or some other category of data that you feel is important to you? Will they act as advocates and sponsors, be Change Champions in effect, for any data management data process, data usage changes, that you need to implement as a result of your data governance programme.

Are they solely to be accountable for definitions in the glossary, the definitions within their scope, within their function?

Where the boundaries to that accountability? You’re going to want them to talk to each other, So what do you expect them to share, with their peers, their teams, their managers?

Will they be accountable for post communication actions and interventions in any way? And where do issues get fixed for your issue resolution processes? You’re not going to go out and hire a bunch of new people to fill these roles, you’re going to find these owners somewhere within your firm already.

A data owner is a senior representative of a data owning business function and can make decisions about the firms data on behalf of that function. You need to go out and find the people that are already doing it to a greater or lesser extent.

Some people have this level of data accountability built into the job titles already. You can often find data owners in organisational roles like ‘Head of HR Operations’ or ‘Head of Marketing Operations’. Can you shortcut your thinking about accountabilities and responsibilities by just reviewing their role profiles?

That will tell you what the firm already expects of someone with some kind of data accountability, since the data stewards are the operational folks with the day-to-day responsibility for the firm’s data, these people are the functional experts on using that data in a specific business area or system. Because of their organisational role, these Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can reach out to the other SMEs within their function to gather information to help make decisions. They can also make recommendations on data issue solutions to those data owners for them to take the ultimate decision.

The data owners that you find are often data steward’s line managers, and they’ve already got delegated responsibility for some of the data owners accountabilities within their job descriptions. In my experience you need both of these roles defined and people appointed to them for your data governance initiative to be successful.

That’s a lot to cover in a short time. So if you remember nothing else from this episode, try to remember these three things:

One, data owners are tactical, they make decisions about data and they utilise resources to solve data issues.

Two, data stewards are operational and focus on understanding data and business rules on a day-to-day basis, they escalate to data owners where they need to.

Three, make getting started easy by checking the job descriptions and role titles that your firm already has. This will help you find owners and stewards and set out some accountabilities and responsibilities that have already been identified.

You can get a checklist of things to think about when defining a data owners role for your law firm from the resources page of

In the next episode, we’ll begin at the beginning by discussing why you need both a data glossary and a data dictionary.