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Understanding the Role of a Chief Data Officer

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April 26 2018 |
4 minute read

Gartner predicts that by 2025 90% of large organizations will have a Chief Data Officer (CDO) in place. It also predicts that 50% of these Chief Data Officers will fail. But why? And how can you stop that from happening?

To answer this, it’s important to revisit the reasons why organizations are hiring Chief Data Officers in the first place – and this itself varies from company to company …

“The role of the Chief Data Officer is evolving fast. In one type of organization compliance and regulation may lie behind the creation of the role, whereas in another the Chief Data Officer is there as a response to business model disruption and the need to drive innovation.

– Emanuela Aureli, Spencer Stuart


I’m sure you’ll agree with this, but there is a constant that drives each Chief Data Officer hire. All organizations will have used and depended on data for a long time, but the arrival of a Chief Data Officer indicates an intent to be data-driven.

The board will have determined that data should have a new level of importance in the business, and they’re now proactively looking for it to underpin future direction and success.

This is a good thing. Perhaps the best of things to ensure future growth and profitability. But, it means the Chief Data Officer role comes with a great deal of responsibility, and expectation. And, if you’re able to manage these expectations—cause, let’s face it; becoming a data-led company is no three-month project—then you’re already increasing your chances of success.

But, what does success as a Chief Data Officer actually look like?

data-driven CDO

How to measure Chief Data Officer success ?

An important element in determining whether you succeed in your role as Chief Data Officer, or not, is deciding what, for your business, is a measure of success. It would be sensible to determine this after a short period of time in the role as it may also help you to build a picture of the size and scale of the challenges ahead of you.

But, once you have a better understanding of how the business operates, the strategy it’s working towards, and the end goal, your measure of success will inevitably be based around:

  • Establishing data management framework
    Putting in place good data management and data governance will help create the solid foundation needed to support your organization through its data journey.

  • Improving organizational efficiency
    Connecting data has the effect of bringing departments and processes together, which in turn will lead to a more streamlined way of running your business.
  • Tangible business outcomes
    What change in behavior can you measure as a result of your efforts—reduction in resources and time spent on various processes? It can be a good idea to document the challenges of the people in the business affected by the quality of the data, in the beginning of the process and again later, to be able to document the improvements they’ll (hopefully) feel along the way.

  • Establishing organizational agility
    You should be able to track a noticeable difference in the speed and time needed to get new products and services to market.

  • Increasing revenues
    Align your data strategy with your business objectives, and you should be able to measure the change in revenue as a result.

Anything you can do to break down your objectives into bite-size chunks will make it easier for you to demonstrate progress and value.

Challenges to Chief Data Officer success, and how to overcome them

I’ve already mentioned how managing expectation ranks highly when it comes to making a success of the Chief Data Officer role, but there are many other hurdles you must overcome.

The Chief Data Officer position comes with a glorious title, one that implies the grandeur of responsibility, control and authority—and yet, in reality, the Chief Data Officer is often limited by many of these things. And so, one of the greatest assets a Chief Data Officer can bring to the role is the ability to communicate well.

Being able to translate fairly complex data concepts and technology into the appropriate language for every level of the business, and being able to use communication to win hearts and minds, is vitally important to getting things done.

Chief Data Officers also need to be able to pitch at the right level, using the correct language and terms, because this achieves two key things:

1. It increases credibility.
2. It enables you to act as the conduit/translator between departments.

The latter means you can get more done quickly.

The CDO needs to be technically aware to avoid relying on others to understand the architecture that is being delivered to support your requirement. This understanding helps the CDO have more strategic conversations.

– Hany Choueiri, Chief Data Officer, Bank of England

A significant challenge the Chief Data Officer of any large organization faces is getting to grips with internal politics.

Your ability to quickly determine the different agendas of stakeholders whom you must involve in your various projects, and gain their buy-in, will test even the most enthusiastic Chief Data Officer —particularly as your only interest is in making things happen.

At some point, you may feel more like the Chief Negotiating Officer. That can’t be avoided, so expect it, and you won’t be too disappointed when it feels like you’re having to bend over backwards to get things agreed that seem obvious to you.

Political barriers may also arise because of an organisation’s existing culture. You could find a lack of appetite to change things coming from some areas of the business. The difficult task of altering the way individuals and the business views data can only be achieved through good communication.

Remember, there’s no division that exists within a business where you can’t add value by using data. You have a role to play—your role will add value—if you can communicate that to the right people in the right way.

More than just a Chief Data Officer

The position of the Chief Data Officer is one of the most challenging, complex and yet rewarding roles in business today. It takes someone who can connect the technical with the commercial, and vice versa, to succeed.

The role of theChief Data Officer requires someone able to balance relationships and communications well—to understand the nuances of how business operates as much as the technology being proposed.
By bringing technology together with business, you’ll gain greater credibility, which in turn gives you the authority to make necessary changes.

All eyes are on you. So, enjoy. Celebrate the successes and spread forth the wonder and value that data offers. But be warned: there’s nowhere to hide.


Master Data Management Blog by Stibo Systems logo

For two decades Michael Lonnon has helped businesses find solutions to a variety of challenges. Today, those challenges focus on how to extract value from data using data management solutions to drive digital transformation, innovation and growth.

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