Big Data Spurs New Role: the Chief Data Officer

Chief Data Officer

The C-suite is getting a new title on an office door: chief data officer. Inside sits the executive responsible for making enterprise data benefit the organization as an asset while assuring the quality of information being gathered and used.

What this means to the existing IT infrastructure and the people who support it depends on how the position is created, what support staff is provided and who the CDO reports to. It also depends on how the CDO role is defined, which is likely to change over time.

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“With all the excitement (and anxiety) surrounding Big Data and advanced analytics, it’s not surprising that many organizations are naming chief data officers to manage their data needs,” writes Thomas Redman, president of Navesink Consulting Group, in a Harvard Business Review blog post. “But I fear that too many organizations have sold the title short and are missing the opportunity to define a truly transformative role. You must be ready for a journey that, sooner or later, will touch every department, job, and person.”

Chief data officer isn’t an IT role, although in many companies the CDO reports to the CIO. That may not be optimal, says Richard Wang, director of the MIT Chief Data Officer Research Program.

CDO is a business role rather than a technical one, Wang says. It maps nicely to the transition of IT professionals from a group of technology experts with little business background to dual-trained problem solvers as comfortable dealing with business issues as getting code written.

Wang believes placing the CDO alongside the CIO and CTO on the org chart is a best practice, one that reduces almost inevitable conflict and assures CEO attention to data projects.

What They Do

The nature of the CDO’s job varies widely. They typically don’t have development staffs or actual control of data systems, Wang says. What they do have, according to an article he co-wrote for MIS Quarterly Executive, are eight key roles: coordinator, reporter, architect, ambassador, analyst, marketer, developer and experimenter.

Those terms aren’t entirely descriptive, but they highlight the broad range of projects CDOs and their teams can be involved with. Some involve legacy “old” data while others concern new or “big” data. Further, some are internally focused while others are directed outside the organization.

Wang says that at any particular time a CDO will be focused on only one of the eight disciplines, but may move from one to another as corporate priorities change. He recommends that the CDO have a relatively small support staff, capable of studying corporate data sources and architecture and helping create and implement better methods across the organization.

Wang believes it’s important for the CDO to have excellent people skills, as well as the requisite data background. They’ll often have to evangelize the importance of data governance and new applications. A close and non-threatening relationship with the CIO is also important, as otherwise the CDO can become mired in turf battles and technical squabbles that can hobble the data improvement program.

Growing With Big Data

While there have been CDOs in various companies since the 1980s, the role has really taken off as Big Data has captured the attention of organizations large and small. “In 2009, nobody had heard of Big Data,” observes Wang. The importance of the CDO role has grown right alongside its use.

“Even though we have a CIO, and the CIO would often like to do the job, they often run out of bandwidth.” Wang says. Indeed, the CIO’s top responsibility – making sure the CEO receives his email and core applications run as expected – leaves little time to ponder Big Data questions.

For that reason, as well as the deep data experience required to be effective, organizations are adding CDOs to their executive line-up.

The first step to becoming a CDO or a member of the CDO staff may be helping your organization decide that its needs to create the role in the first place. “A company only needs a chief data officer when it is ready to fully consider how it wishes to compete with data over the long term and start to build the organizational capabilities it will need to do so,” writes Navesink’s Redman in his HBR post.

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