When you consider how chief data officers currently view their position within the business world, what do you imagine - optimism, confidence, a real sense of purpose? Given the high profile of the CDO and the identification of the role with organisational transformations to become data-driven, you would assume holders of the post feel they are riding high.
Contrast this with what Michael Brennan, head of market engagement at data science consultancy Profusion, was told by his head of data science colleague on returning from this year’s Gartner CDO Summit. “The feedback from a series of conversations was the same - a mood of frustration, confusion, disempowerment and a lack of clarity. The mood was quite opposite to what they had expected,” he told DataIQ in an interview. This was despite delegates being “at the top of their game and getting the job we would all like to have.”
His interest piqued by this apparent paradox, Brennan set about extensive desk research to understand how the role of CDO was being defined and executed, then qualitative interviews with leading industry figures to hear their experience from the front line. Published in the report, “The chief data officer - today, tomorrow, always?” it gives an important balancing point of view to those who see the datafication of business as either a done deal or in some way inevitable.
“Companies need to digitalise before they can become datafied.”
A number of important factors emerged from this research which point to a need for the majority of organisations to start with digitisation (making all their data machine readable), before progressing to digitalisation (using digital technologies to transform the business) and thence to datafication (making the organisation data-driven). There are important consequences of adopting this pathway for the nature of the role that the CDO gets to play.
“My perception in the marketplace is that CDO 1.0 gets paid more for their data expertise in analytics, engineering, data architecture. They are very technically-oriented, not strategic, and their soft skills are secondary,” said Brennan. “CDO 2.0 and 3.0 are C-level roles which are strategically-focused and taking ownership as the company datafies itself.”
This may be one reason for the report’s finding that just 2% of UK businesses have adopted a C-suite CDO, with most operating below this level. Appointing a technically-oriented practitioner will not enable strategic transformation. Conversely, some strategic CDOs noted that they are still being asked to perform basic technical tasks which prevents them from driving forward change in their companies.
What Brennan did discover is that, “the US has a more flexible, proactive approach where they are scaling for value and appointing digital officers and even chief analytics and information officers.”
Getting the definition of the CDO right - and especially where they sit in the organisation - matters because of the failure of previously-ascendant roles, especially the chief marketing officer, to breakthrough into the boardroom. If a high-profile, heavily-resourced and politically-powerful role like CMO can fall short of boardroom power, then what chance has the newly-arrived CDO got to fare better?
“It can be too big an ask of the CDO to also be a leader.”
Not that organisations can simply resist the pressure for datafication. The report identifies four major drivers currently: GDPR, open banking, austerity and Brexit. All in their different ways require a response, either by better management of data assets, improvements to productivity by becoming data-driven, or increased competitor activity as a result of data portability.
Yet Brennan warns that, “it can be too big an ask of the CDO to also be a leader. Somebody with expertise in data and analytics can be a disaster in leadership because they often exist in a bubble and don’t engage with the wider business.”
While this is changing, not least because of the arrival of a generation of managers that is very technology-minded and data-native, it will still take time for them to build the confidence and credibility which is fundamental to success at C-level. “Some people are already defeated in the face of the massive challenges,” he warned.
As if creating the right data organisation and appointing a CDO to lead it were not daunting enough, Brennan is already scoping out the territory for his next report on the API revolution. “That is really challenging to conventional business thinking,” he noted.
For now, one of his recommendations is not to get too fixated by what the early adopters are doing. In line with the CBI’s recent call for UK plc to adopt tried-and-tested technologies, Brennan urges companies to ensure they are digitalising first before attempting datafication. He said: “What we have now is marketing in the digital age, not digital marketing. If you can’t transform into a digital business, you are set up to fail.”