CDOs: They Are Not Who You Think They Are

Cdos They Are Not Who You Think They Are

Google the word “CDO” today and your search will mostly results return articles about the “Chief Digital Officer”. However, if you came to this blog, you’re probably looking for guidance on the other title this acronym refers to: “The Chief Data Officer”…

Press outlets from the Wall Street Journal to Wired to InformationWeek to Forbes have covered the rise and the fall of the Chief Data Officer for a few years now. The guidance has been confusing and the articles have made it sound like organizations looking to make their newly hired “Data Executive” successful are struggling at best.

In the meantime, the event schedule for CDOs has never been busier. I recently accompanied two of my customers to events they were both presenting at, on the same day, in the same city! To some extent, the CDO title seems to enjoy the same popularity that Data Scientists enjoyed in the early days.

If you are looking for the latest data though, I’d advise looking at Gartner research. They appear to have an immense body of research on this topic.

Last time I checked, they found that there were about 950 CDOs in the world already. Their latest planning assumptions include:

  • By 2017, 50% of all companies in regulated industries will have a CDO.
  • Through 2019, 90% of large organizations will have hired a chief data officer (CDO); of these, only 50% will be hailed a success.
  • By 2020, less than 20% of CDOs will report to the CIO.

So how about we dig into what these CDOs are supposed to be working on?

What does a Chief Data Officer (CDO) DO?!

Earlier last year, I had the opportunity to give an interview on the CDO role. I was surprised by the shape the interview was taking. Most of the debate was centered around topics like “the right title” for the job (should it be “Chief Data Officer” or “Chief Analytics Officer” or maybe “VP of Analytics”) or the “governance” charter of the CDO.

Now, I have not been invited back by the channel so I’m guessing my response was maybe too controversial. However my point was that, before defining what a CDO does, we should really talk about what they don’t do. So here is my attempt:

  • A CDO is NOT a Compliance Agent. If you are hiring someone to enforce rules and laws around how employees should NOT use data to innovate, I think you’ll find few CDOs can succeed.
  • A CDO is NOT a Corporate Culture Officer. Data is part of a company culture. A great CDO must, of course, have political savvy and the ability to define and impact the culture of its organization. However, if the CEO doesn’t believe in Data, if HR processes don’t align to your company’s beliefs when it comes to the value of Data, your CDO will fail.
  • A CDO is NOT an IT expert. Many have argued that the CDO is the new CIO. That might be true at your company if your CIO’s organization is particularly focused on turning data into a competitive asset. Still, CIOs also bear the responsibility of running technical operations, outsourced technical services…etc. Those are responsibilities that have nothing to do with the role of the CDO.
  • A CDO is NOT a finance expert. Many may suggest that the CDO should work for the CFO. This really depends again on your organization’s org chart and talent. However, expecting that your CDO will know the ins-and-outs of financial practices and regulations is ambitious at best. The research shows that CDOs will ultimately not end up reporting to the CIO. But that does not mean they should report to the CFO.

Register Now! HBR Author Tom Davenport and NationWide CDO explain how CDOs succeed in this video

So, what is the perfect CDO?!

If by now you’re frustrated to hear about all the things the CDO is NOT, I can understand. But, for having worked with a great number of them and having watched some succeed and some fail, I can tell you that the CDO is its own animal. It’s a bona fide title, just like the CFO, COO or the CMO. In my humble opinion, I think they do best when they work for the CEO because every CEO that’s not analytically driven will have a hard time gearing its company to success these days.

Finally, I’d invite to comment and contribute to this post by criticizing my below diagram. I took inspiration from the work that Drew Conway put into the Data Scientist Job Description here.

The above is my own creation and I would welcome any feedback. How should you read it? Put simply:

  • The CDO is at the intersection of Innovation, Compliance and Data Expertise. When all he/she does is compliance, it’s danger. They will find resistance at first and employees will question the value the CDO office adds to the company’s bottom line.
  • The CDO is not just about innovation and data expertise. Your Data and Analytics Team should carry that charter. Now, you may decide to have your CDO manage the Data Team, but that really depends on your internal talent (the Data Team’s and the CDO’s included).

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