Hidden treasures: Identifying who should become business data stewards

In a previous article I described the importance of business data stewards and the role they play in data governance.

They are the front-line experts who possess deep knowledge within specific data domains – clinical, financial, claims, operations, etc. – which, in turn, makes them invaluable as advisors to the data owners/decision-makers who set policy. Leadership can't be expected to know everything about everything, hence like the President's staff, they address and close the knowledge gaps essential to drive better informed decisions.

Clearly, being a business data steward is an enormous responsibility because much is riding on the information they provide. Decision makers throughout the enterprise rely upon recommendations made by data stewards for timely, accurate and consistent information. Simply put, it's important to select the right people with the right skills. To help you cast a net internally for people with candidate potential, the following are qualities I've found most common in the best business data steward role.

Subject matter expertise

This, of course, is key. You want a domain expert who fully understands their specialty data area, or knows where to look to find answers if they don't know them intrinsically.

One way to identify that person is to look at whom every department employee seeks out when questions or problems arise. Usually it's someone who has worked a fairly long period of time for the organization and has seen systems, processes and procedures come and go. That individual knows what works and what doesn't, and has likely maneuvered successfully around the system when necessary to serve the greater good. Even if he or she won't admit to it outright.

That person may not be a manager or other formal leader, incidentally. In a clinical area it may be a long-time nurse who prefers helping patients but has mastered the nuances of entering data in the electronic medical records (EMR). For patient demographic data the data steward candidate could be the in-house expert managing the admission, discharge and transfer (ADT) system. Or in finance, that person is the tech-savvy, mid-level employee who knows how to use the enterprise resource planning (ERP) and general ledger technology to access the right information quickly.

If you're not immediately aware of an employee having such characteristics, leverage the One Minute Manager technique of heading down to that department and asking around. It shouldn't take long to discover who the go-to person is for domain knowledge. You may want to make that employee your go-to resource as well.

Analytical capabilities

Your business data stewards are going to need to know more than where to find information, however. They also must display the capacity to act decisively to determine the cause of data quality issues and identify options for remediation.

Thus, a second critical quality is a love of performing root cause analysis to get to the underlying problem. One of the most common data quality issues stems from "optional" fields in source applications. Often the information that is important to stakeholders is contained in fields that are not required to complete a clinical workflow, as the clinicians are clearly more focused on patient care and they should not be forced to comply with an onerous data entry process.

A business data steward must have not only the ability to understand which specific fields are not being completed in the workflow, but also the business process knowledge to recommend workflow changes to capture the required information after patient care has been rendered.

Collaboration skills

This is often where it gets tricky. It is not uncommon to find business data stewards who meet the first two criteria but are also opinionated and have a difficult time working with others. After all, they built their reputation on their expertise, not their people skills.

This is the human equivalent of data silos – individuals working in their own domain areas with little concern for what is going on outside of them. But just as the healthcare industry is feverishly working to break down those technical data silos and create interoperability, organizations must do the same with the people who are working within them in order for value-based care to advance.

Consider that most clinical quality improvement initiatives must rely on more than the clinical data in the electronic health record. To make a real difference, they must also incorporate data from financial, claims, patient satisfaction, purchasing and/or other areas in order to deliver the complete picture required for real change. After all, you don't want to change the components used in knee replacement surgery without understanding first the financial, operational and patient satisfaction implications.

Business data stewards from these disparate areas must have the ability and willingness to work with one another rather than being focused on protecting their fiefdoms. The better they cooperate with their peers in other areas to streamline workflows and build key performance indicators that make sense across the enterprise, the better the data governance the healthcare organization will be able to achieve.

Becoming great

As author Jim Collins says in the book Good to Great, it's important not only to get the right people on the bus but to ensure they're in the right seats. Taking care to unearth the hidden treasures in your organization who will make great business data stewards will help you improve not only your data governance efforts but the quality of your organization as a whole.

What did I miss? Are there other qualities you've found that are important in determining who makes a good business data steward? Let me know in the comments below.

John Walton, a Solutions Manager for CTG Health Solutions' Technology Services practice, is responsible for developing Enterprise Information Management (EIM) strategies. He has more than 30 years of IT experience spanning multiple disciplines and industries, including 20-plus years of healthcare experience primarily in data warehousing, business intelligence and data governance. He can be reached at john.walton@ctg.com.

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