The Evolution Of The Chief Data Officer

D/SRUPTION asks the experts what it takes to be a Chief Data Officer

Data has never been so important in business. With increasing amounts of information being collected and processed by organisations, the oversight of data science has been rapidly elevated to more senior positions in corporate structures.

The relatively new role of the Chief Data Officer or CDO (not to be confused with another rising CDO term, the Chief Digital Officer) signals the move of data from a back office function to a core company asset. However, as data gets ever bigger, and underpins more points in the value chain, can the role of CDO live up to its promise? We asked some expert practitioners in different fields of data for their perspectives.

The origins of the Chief Data Officer

According to Cindi Howson, Chief Data Strategy Officer at ThoughtSpot, a search and AI analytics company, most CDOs can trace their career origins back to either IT or business. This gives individuals of both backgrounds very different outlooks on data strategy.

“CDOs have emerged from one of two camps: IT or business,” she says. “CDOs that have risen through the ranks of a technology organisation recognise the value of data and see how it can be applied to improve the business. One of their biggest challenges is in building trust and credibility with business leaders, while pushing risk averse technologists outside their comfort zones.”

“Meanwhile, CDOs who come from the business side of an organisation have been frustrated with how slow IT may have been to respond to requests for self service analytics, new types of data such as the IoT, and the evolution to AI. They are willing to take more risks and innovate faster because they know that the business livelihood depends upon it. Their biggest challenge is learning just enough of the technology—and there is a lot of it, which changes rapidly—to be respected by IT and to make the right decisions.”

For all CDOs, regardless of background, the overarching aim is to create a business culture that is driven by data. How this is achieved may vary according to individual or organisation, but the end goal is the same: capture data, understand it, keep it safe, and use it to make the business better. As Howson notes, the best CDOs can be understood as change agents, who demonstrate what it is possible to achieve by harnessing the power of data and analytics.

Why CDO?

It is now undisputed that companies need to use technology to their advantage in order to maintain current success and pursue growth. However, there are many different kinds of technological roles in business, including the likes of the Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer, and Head of Innovation – so what’s so special about the CDO?

According to John O’Keeffe, VP of EMEA at Looker, a provider of big data analytics and business intelligence, the Chief Data Officer in particular is a role currently in high demand.

“A recent Forrester study found that over half (51 per cent) of organisations had appointed a CDO, with another 18 per cent planning to do so,” he says. “Two thirds of the CDOs were appointed in just the past two years, indicating a significant rise in the requirement for data leaders.”

“With CIOs, CTOs and CSOs increasingly stretched in their roles as part of the wider digital transformation and security challenges, the CDO will be tasked with defining a business’s global data strategy. Data is now being used across all business functions – which has made the CDO role wider in reach and responsibility. It is therefore more crucial to multiple departments, as well as overall company success.”

The CDO’s task of overseeing data operations across the entire business, then, can help to ensure a holistic and unified data strategy.

Putting the do in CDO

One way that CDOs can approach their task is to create data collection platforms. These enable them to collect and manage data from different departments, databases and systems around the entire organisation. Structured, good quality data is central to obtaining valuable business insights, so the function of these data collection platforms is key.

As Somer Conley, Client Partner at Marlin Hawk, a leadership advisory firm, states:

“Companies have been deploying digital and technological transformation programmes over the past few decades, but many have only recently realised that it’s time to focus on the data at the heart of that transformation. As a result we’ve seen the Chief Data Officer role evolve from one which is concerned largely with governance, to one that is heavily centered around the actual engineering and creation of data collection platforms across the organisation.”

As previously mentioned, how exactly a CDO might want to go about this task can vary according to individual and organisation. This, when combined with the sheer variety of kinds of data a business might collect, ensures that there is still some debate about what exactly the role of the CDO involves.

“Naturally,” says Conley, “there are many differing opinions on what actually constitutes a CDO’s role and function. In some companies data science sits under the remit of product or business leaders, and then data engineering, machine learning, and architecture falls under the CTO. Sometimes the CDO includes data engineering and architecture as well as data science and analytics.”

“Increasingly,” she adds, “we’ve seen companies choose to go with CDAO (Chief Data & Analytics Officer) rather than CDO when hiring, in order to emphasise that the role is not restricted to governance.”

The P word

Whenever any business does anything with data, there inevitably follows an important discussion around privacy. With a wealth of data being collected, stored and processed for business purposes, keeping it safe is paramount – and something that many companies have demonstrably failed to do.

For Sharad Patel, Head of Data Privacy, EMEA, at PA Consulting, data breaches and new regulation have recently helped to shape the priorities of CDOs when it comes to privacy.

“We’ve seen a huge shift in the CDO role driven by major data breaches and new regulations such as GDPR,” he says. “There is also heightened awareness from customers around the use of their data.”

“CDOs are now more interested in identifying and baselining the lineage and provenance of data to ensure they understand the end to end journey of the data they hold, including the collection mechanism and how it’s shared with third parties. This has helped them meet regulatory requirements and inform how they prevent and respond to breaches. We’re also seeing CDOs discussing the spirit behind regulation requirements, putting themselves into the shoes of their end users to consider what they expect.”

Privacy best practice

As Patel notes, along with a general commitment to take privacy more seriously, CDOs are also pursuing concrete action by constructing their data systems with privacy in mind. CDOs are now working more closely with privacy teams – such as Data Protection Officers and Chief Information Security Officers – to balance the use of data for commercial gain against the need to promote customer trust.

“Innovative new technologies such as anonymisation and pseudonymisation are being used by CDOs to extract more value from the data they hold,” he says, “which minimises the impact of data breaches when they occur. They’re designing and implementing stronger governance processes around the use of personal data, which wasn’t always necessarily the case before.”

CDOs are also promoting privacy as a principle of business to their teams and within the wider organisation. This has helped to improve the perception of the role of the CDO within business.

“We’re seeing CDOs invest much more in staff training and awareness, so they know how to prevent and respond to data breaches,” says Patel. “Many CDOs run war-gaming scenarios to test these processes, and continually review and update their procedures and training.”

Getting the bosses on board

Training and awareness aside, the true measure of success for a greater respect of privacy is whether or not it translates into company culture and senior management. For Patel, getting senior leaders on board can be tricky, but the benefits are definitely worth it.

“While this requires some initial heavy lifting, the benefits soon become clear. The CDO’s actions provide insight into which tasks use personal data, why, and who is responsible for them. This overview uncovers new opportunities in the business, such as what can be done better and smarter in the future.”

Finding new business opportunities, preventing data breaches, and improving consumer trust – it’s all in a day’s work for the Chief Data Officer. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder they find themselves in such high demand…


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