Chief data officer is such a new job title that its holders can struggle to understand what the job requires. That’s made even harder by the lack of standardisation around what responsibilities the role should have or even where in the organisation it sits. For every board-level CDO, you can find one answering to the chief financial officer or, worst of all, the chief technology officer.
Over dinner with the advisory board for DataIQ Leaders recently, some of the commonalities began to emerge across an evening of conversation. These are not the specifications which you will find in job descriptions and recruitment briefs. But they are important principles which will ensure CDO becomes a permanent fixture, rather than a transitional role that quickly gets absorbed into another function (take note, chief digital officers…)
1. Be the proof
All organisations struggle with measurement. Management information has long been aligned with financial results and regulatory reporting. As it morphed into business intelligence, it took on a much bigger scope, providing key performance indicators across a wide range of activities being undertaken. BI can show the business that it is doing what has been asked of it.
But it needs to go further. If a critical decision is to be made about where to invest, it is only right that accurate metrics should be embedded right from the start. CDOs need to argue for data points which are accurate, reliable, sustainable and can be independently verified. No number should be the sole possession of any one individual or function - it should become central to the data and analytics resources. The goal is to become the “ministry of truth”, as one DataIQ Leader termed it.
By owning the proof of how decisions turn out, CDOs gain a twofold benefit. Firstly, they become core to the decision-making process and strategic influencers. Secondly, they provide direct evidence of the value of data and analytics, thereby making their own positions more defensible.
2. Be the challenger
Markets are being disrupted by start-ups and entrants from parallel sectors. For incumbents, one of the hardest things to do is challenge the existing business model or dominant mode of thinking. This is where data and analytics has its strongest opportunity - but also its most difficult challenge.
It is fundamental to analytical practice that fresh insights are highly desirable, whether they are a previously unnoticed customer behaviour pattern or an area where processes could be improved.
Challengers first of all find those insights and get excited by them. They then have to take the difficult step of making a business case, even if it runs counter to what the organisation currently does. That may be about entering new markets, launching new services or sunsetting existing ones.
The upside for CDOs is that they have proofs (see above) and can model scenarios for these shifts. The downside is that these are highly political calls. Not every (or even any) proposals will get adopted, which can be corrosive on confidence, enthusiasm and personal equity. Yet if CDOs are not bold in their thinking, their jobs will revert to business-as-usual BI, data modelling and the like.
3. Be the outcome
Owning an outcome is not the same as being the proof. It is not just being able to point to a number that shows success or failure. It is about taking the credit (and rewards) which are typically aligned with other big-hitting decision-makers, such as marketing.
At the moment, few CDOs have clear outcomes that they are measured and remunerated against. That needs to change so that performing their job yields a demonstrable benefit, both to the organisation and personally. As part of how CDO stays sustainable as a position and also attracts a growing number of candidates into the role, it has to live or die according to its own definition of success, not some other function’s.