Data stewardship and the benefits of employee retention

Like most Americans (who hold an average of 11 jobs over the duration of their careers), I’ve worked for a variety of companies. Some were employee-friendly, while others, to put it kindly, thought of employees as a means to an end.  I was thinking about all those jobs today as we found out that SAS ranked No. 2 on the 2013 FORTUNE list of Best Companies to Work For in the US.

SAS has a long tradition of being employee-centric. Whether it’s a fully stocked break room or the wealth of on-campus services, it’s a terrific work environment. Naturally, there’s a method to the madness.  Happy employees stay longer, minimizing employee turnover while retaining irreplaceable knowledge. It’s a different culture than any I’ve ever experienced, but the results are impressive.

Employee retention can be a key factor in the data management world. As data environments become more complex, the knowledge of how the pieces fit together is becoming a career-defining attribute. Those employees who know how the data is aggregated and maintained are increasingly valuable in the workplace.

Recently, these individuals have been getting their fair share of attention. On Data Stewards Day, the industry celebrates the “best and brightest – the experts who not only manage your company’s data, but keep your business running behind the scenes.” People can nominate their co-workers for a “Stewie” award, and while the submissions reflect a variety of backgrounds, there is one common theme: Stewie nominees are generally established employees whose “organizational memory” allows them to solve complex data challenges.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. Data stewards are often the go-to professionals for both simple and complex data-related questions. Data stewards can tell you how a customer or product is defined in a particular data source. And why a certain field differs from system to system. And how to reconcile those views. These employees have aggregated immense knowledge of the data within an organization and how it has been mishandled in the past.

Organizational memory is one of the most valuable resources a data steward can have. No matter how much documentation you have on a dataset, nothing replaces the human memory. A long-serving data steward fought the battles to establish a data source, and they likely know the best way to maximize that information. They know the upsides and the downfalls of previous data management programs, and they can steer the ship away from disaster in the future.

Years ago, the concept of data stewardship was just starting to emerge, and it’s good that these data champions are getting their recognition. Organizations should do more than just acknowledge those employees.  They should focus on cultivating and retaining these valuable resources. Additional resources (human, financial and otherwise) focused on data management can yield a significant ROI. Perhaps the big data crunch will lead to more investment in this critical role, and here’s hoping that big data stewardship is on the horizon.

By the way, if you’re a data steward reading this, feel free to “clip and save” this for the next employee review. It may not lead to the job of your dreams, but maybe you’ll get some free snacks here and there.

tags: data governance, data management, data steward, data stewardship, sas

2 Comments

  1. Scott Batchelor Scott Batchelor
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Daniel, I love that data is seen as a critical part of an organization's success...and that data stewards are getting their due. Curious if you feel data stewards will become as common in the organization as a database administrator, IT manager or a sales operations position.

    • Daniel Teachey Daniel Teachey
      Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Interesting question. While we're starting to see more people with "data steward" or "data governance specialist" title, what's more likely (in the short term) is that current employees - DBAs, data analysts, IT staff - pick up the data stewardship mantle. Longer term, with big data beginning to get more attention and resources, it's conceivable that data stewards by name and function will start to appear.

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