The importance of information stewardship

Information-intensive businesses call for net execs to oversee data management.

Taking charge of and managing information across a network represents one of the most critical strategic challenges facing corporate IT executives. In today's information-overloaded business environment, long-term competitiveness can depend on it.

Taking charge of and managing information across a network represents one of the most critical strategic challenges facing corporate IT executives. In today's information-overloaded business environment, long-term competitiveness can depend on it.

CIOs and other high-level network executives are in the pivotal position to assume this powerful role -- one that Nemertes Research dubs "information stewardship". They make for perfect information stewards because of their holistic and big-picture view of business and IT operations.

Defining information stewardship

Information stewardship pervades a business. The steward oversees information throughout its life cycle, regardless of how it's used, who owns it, where it resides and more. Stewardship means data-quality management, data security, auditable compliance with privacy and disclosure guidelines, information life-cycle management (ILM), and business-continuity planning and disaster recovery, according to Nemertes.

A framework for information stewardship

Experts suggest several components for success:
Holistic view by CIO or other top network executive of business and IT operations.
Sustained executive buy-in and active support for the strategy.
Alignment with business processes as opposed to traditional silo approach.
Elaborate approach to change-management that includes administration, professional education and training with ongoing follow-up, methodology or common framework to execute the work and common enterprise system.
An understanding of information- ownership issues. The information steward champions the strategy but does not own the information.

High-level network executives and CIOs are familiar with all these components on a detailed basis, says Jim Barnett, a CIO with Tatum Partners, an Atlanta group that provides interim and part-time CIO, CTO and CFO services nationwide. "Now the challenge becomes creating an integrated approach across the board to all of those things that have to do with management of data," he says.

ILM is about confidentiality, availability and integrity of information, says Julia Allen, senior member of the technical staff at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute in Pittsburgh. She suggests network executives approach information stewardship with key questions and then structure actions around the responses to these questions: What needs to be protected, and why? What needs to be prevented? How do we manage the residual risk? For example, Allen says, "If you're thinking about business continuity or disaster recovery, and you [operate in a hurricane zone], you ask yourself in preparation for [such] a natural disaster, 'What do I need to protect? What actions do I need to prevent against - in this case a natural disaster - and what actions do I need to take?'"

Information stewardship isn't easy, in part because it takes a new approach to management. For example, the people in this role must support business processes rather than the more traditional specific geographical or business unit, says Barry Murphy, a Forrester Research analyst. That's a tough sell because it puts managers in the position to take ownership of a function within an organization - even for processes that occur in someone else's domain, adds Alex Cullen, another Forrester analyst. That means taking responsibility for something many people feel they don't control.

Steps to take

In putting together a framework for successful information stewardship, the CIO or other top network executive needs to make clear to the business how information and business processes mesh together. This executive then champions the strategy but doesn't own the information - that's an important distinction, Cullen says.

While taking a leadership role, the CIO also should put together a management or steering council with key business-unit leaders represented, Allen says. But she cautions that not every C-level executive at midsize and large companies should make information stewardship a top priority. "Key is deciding where information management needs to fit on the list of [that company's] priorities," she says.

And software alone doesn't solve the information management dilemma, says Jim Reps, vice president of emergency management solutions with CH2M Hill, a Denver global project-delivery company. "A solid approach includes looking at the people, processes and products in an organization before starting to develop a solution architecture."

Marks is a freelance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at sjmarksco@aol.com.

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