Ownership of Vocabulary vs. Ownership of Data: A Fresh Look from the Business Messaging Perspective
A client recently posed the following questions to us: Should the business owner of a business term and the owner of related data be one and the same? Are the responsibilities inseparable? Should they, and can they, be distinguished? By 'term' the client meant business term and business definition.
The answer is of course they can be separated!
As proof, consider this. Let's suppose you are a strong or even moderate believer in data privacy. You think the consumer (or citizen) should own or control their personal data, not the organization with which they interact. To me, it's nonetheless pretty obvious that the organization does not need to, and in fact cannot, cede control of the names of concepts (terms) and their definitions to the consumer. The result would simply be anarchy. Clearly, the ownership of business vocabulary can be separate from ownership of data.
In cases that do not involve questions of data privacy, do the responsibilities need to be separate? I have listened to many presentations and read many articles about data governance (or data stewardship if you prefer), but I have never come across anyone saying that yes, they do.
It's possible of course that I've simply missed hearing it, or that the data governance coordinators weren't being entirely clear about the matter. I'm simply saying I've never come across a program where separation of the responsibilities is evident.
It's hardly surprising, of course, since most data governance initiatives are spawned by IT (in one way or another). But I think it's fundamentally wrong.
I view lack of separation as the root cause of a host of problems, not least of which is massive loss of productivity right across the organization. It's also a symptom of the underlying failure to understand and embrace what I've come to call the true Messaging Space of the business.
In any case, it's time to take a hard look at the respective responsibilities of vocabulary ownership vs. data ownership.
Ownership of Vocabulary. Ownership of business terms and definitions implies exercise of high-level authority.
Well-crafted business definitions should seldom change. When they do, however, broad implications for the business can result. For example, consider the potential implications of changing the definition of 'product'. Such change should be viewed as a matter of executive strategy and/or of deep subject matter expertise.
Changing business definitions is actually a matter of changing business policy. The impact can be far greater than just on data; all other forms of policy and corporate communications depend on the meaning they express. In other words, business vocabulary is the foundation of the entire Business Messaging Space.
Ownership of Data. Ownership of data implies performance of operational responsibility.
Adjustments to data specifications are often on-going. The (business) rules for consistency and correctness need continual adjustment and re-evaluation, especially as special cases, exceptions, and new channels arise. Code schemes need to be managed, and mapping regimens need to be regulated. Lack of proper attention can have overall impact (e.g., diminished precision in KPIs), though immediate results are usually localized (e.g., specific transactions in error).
Given that the responsibilities for vocabulary vs. data can and often should be distinct, who is the ideal business owner of a business term and the related definition? We offer the following criteria, more or less in the given order of priority.
- The business unit that creates the concept. Such business units are often responsible for governance or enabling functions, rather than line functions. The unit has frequently produced authoritative policy documents that can serve as key reference points. In financial investment, for example, a policy document addressing delegation of authority might introduce the concepts of 'allocated capital' and 'committed capital'. The business unit responsible for producing that policy document should be the owner of those terms.
- The business unit that has the broadest knowledge of the concept and use of the designated term. Business units often create concepts and terms for their own needs, even when those same concepts are more widely applicable across the organization. The owner should be the business unit that has the deepest understanding and widest view.
- The business unit most impacted if the meaning of the term changes.
- The business unit most upstream in the value chain (generally the one where data is first created under the term).
 Ronald G. Ross, "Rethinking Your Business Messaging Space: Knowledge Alignment," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 22, No. 9, (Sep. 2021). URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2021/c075.html
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 These are general guidelines. Much depends on how the organization is set up and of course, internal personalities and interests.
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