Post: The Challenging Role of the Chief Data Officer

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The Challenging Role of the Chief Data Officer

It emerged in the beginning of this century, a title that was reportedly a joke to begin with, but a role that has since become essential to organizations. The flood of data – an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes created every day – has made the role of the Chief Data Officer critical to business.

The role was initially a reactive one – securing data and minimizing risk. But as businesses strive to make better use of their data assets, it has evolved towards delivering business success, covering issues like information strategy, business analytics and data science. Studies have shown that organizations with a CDO are more likely to develop a clear digital strategy, and businesses with CDOs are outperforming rivals in market share and data-driven innovation.

For example, one of the first CDOs, Usama Fayyad, described in a recent interview how he implemented this at Yahoo by “…putting in the right machine-learning system, data systems, data management regimes, and some of the big data technology, we were able to generate, without much work, $800 million of additional revenue….”

And this role is no longer restricted to business. Cities, states and government agencies all have chief data officers. They share some of the same goals as their counterparts in private industry – efficient sharing of data assets, security and governance. However, governmental CDOs have the additional burden of making data available to the public. In fact, the OPEN Government Data Act, signed into law earlier this year, now requires federal agencies to appoint a CDO.

No Easy Road to CDO Success

Perhaps because of its rapid growth, there is no precise set of requirements for the CDO role. The majority of CDOs hold business degrees, but the increase in AI and machine learning in business is shifting the balance toward individuals with technology backgrounds.

Responsibilities are likewise vague, extending to anything data-related: that could be security, governance, master data management, data quality, even organizational data literacy. A CDO needs to be able to make data sources available across the organization, adhere to increasingly stringent compliance rules, secure company data, and work as a “data evangelist” to monetize data assets.

Many of those goals require engaging in political battles with various departments and pushing for cultural change to break down silos between systems. Not many succeed. For CDOs, success depends on the level of influence they have with decision-makers. This can be a challenge, depending on where the CDO fits in the executive hierarchy. Depending on the organization, CDOs may report to different executives, muddying the waters of accountability and influence. A 2016 Gartner survey found the average time on the job for a CDO was a mere 2.4 years – hardly enough time to make an impact on an organization’s data holdings.

Whether the topic is architecture, languages, frameworks, there’s very little consensus in the world of tech. However, one point everyone can align on is that data resources are going to grow – exponentially. For future CDOs to be successful, organizations will have to recognize their value as agents of change, and invest further in the role. Good starting points include granting them more authority, creating a career path to the role, and giving them the data tools they’ll need to effect change.

Chief data officers discuss their role in these videos:

San Francisco’s first chief data officer, Joy Bonaguro, describes her team’s work.

Chief data officer at Southern Water, Peter Jackson, on the CDO role and its challenges.

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