Though Caroline Carruthers describes herself as a data cheerleader and a problem-solver at heart, the group director for data at Lowell Group said that the most satisfying problems that she has solved in her career are related to people.
“While I’ve been really lucky and had some really interesting technical challenges and big organisational problems to solve, the ones where I am happiest are where I have taken someone who potentially was a bit of a square peg in a round hole and helped them make a difference,” she said.
She remembered an especially gratifying moment when she learnt that someone she had helped had received a promotion. That person was struggling and had been on performance risk but, through coaching, mentoring and Carruthers’ understanding the person’s ambition, she helped to turn the situation around.
“A lot of the data stuff is about trying to keep it simple.”
Carruthers said that there is a key difference between people and data that needs to be understood. “A lot of the data stuff is about trying to keep it simple and bring it back down to the basics. There’s no bit of data that is ever going to be as complex as a person,” she said.
Even the complex challenges within the data industry are surmountable thanks to the collaborative nature of the data professionals that Carruthers has worked with. For her, that is the best thing about working in the industry. “Working with my peers, there is a high degree of sharing and collaboration to try and solve the collective issues we are all facing,” she said.
“Data doesn’t sit in a silo. It cuts right across organisations.”
With experience from transport to local government Carruthers said she can recognise the instances where certain sectors are excelling in terms of data that other sectors can learn from them. She gave the example of the banking sector being very good at data governance. However, she also said that data doesn’t sit in a silo and cuts right across organisations.
Due to the nascent nature of the industry, it is crucial that collaboration and information-sharing takes place. Carruthers said she thinks many chief data officers are in the unfortunate position of still having to explain what they do. To address this, there needs to be a common and consistent message to help people to understand the benefits of having a CDO.
“What we need to get right is the understanding of what a CDO can do for the organisation, what that brings and how to capitalise on it,” she said. Carruthers added that, to eliminate the situation of data scientists complaining about the time it takes to clean the data and set up the whole formation to succeed, there needs to be a focus on more governance and information management or, as she said, “the front-end stuff.”
Carruthers has so many passionate ideas and pieces of advice about the role of the CDO that she teamed up with Peter Jackson, CDO at Southern Water, to write the “Chief Data Officer’s Playbook”. Carruthers and Jackson were sharing a stage on a panel at a conference and found that they were finishing each other’s sentences. Over drinks at the after-party, Jackson suggested they write a book and Carruthers agreed that it was a good idea. Exactly a year later, the book was launched.
The feedback has been amazing, she says. One comment that has stuck in her mind came from a data professional with 15 years’ experience. “He said, ‘I have just got my first chief data officer job and I am using your book as the text book on how to do this.’ That was just fantastic. That was the kind of thing we wrote the book for,” she said.
Having read the first chapter, I noticed that the book often made use of analogies to illustrate concepts in simple terms. Her favourite analogy was, in her view, one of the simplest, which described the difference between a chief data officer and a chief information officer.
“The CIO looks after the bucket. The CDO is responsible for the water.”
“The CIO looks after the bucket, makes sure it is secure, that there are no holes in the bucket, it’s in the right place, and is the right size. The CDO is responsible for the water, the quality, that it is the right volume, does it go to the right place, does it come from the right source,” she said.
As for her own position at Lowell Group, which specialises in debt recovery, data analytics and customer insight, where she has been for a little under a year, Carruthers is positive about the changes she has and will bring about.
“I’m still their first-generation CDO here, so I’m still capitalising on data and the value we can build on, but it’s going really well,” she said.