Chief data officers leading the digital revolution

Chief data officers leading the digital revolution

Using data to inform business decisions has led to a new role — the chief data officer. Here, John Salt, Co-founder of OnlyDataJobs, shares the three skills needed to succeed in the chief data officer role and explores the attributes that future candidates will have.

The rise of the chief data officer role demonstrates the increasing need to champion the value of data assets, in order to create a data-first, digital business. Historically, the first CDO was appointed in 2002 by Capital One, and Yahoo! joined them in 2005 with the appointment of their own. However now, only 21% of companies currently have a CDO and, according to research undertaken by Gartner, more than 80% assumed the role in the last two years.

Take the FTSE100 companies, for example, where only 37% have a CDO – higher than the 21% shown across all organisations in the UK, but still not enough. To be able to continue thriving, this role needs to be created and filled to implement data-driven change in strategy, working practices and the offering of the business.

There is a key difference between the role of a chief data officer and one of a chief information officer (CIO). To explain this, Carolina Carruthers, Director at Carruthers and Jackson and former Chief Data Officer of Network Rail uses the bucket analogy:

“The chief information officer is responsible for the bucket. They’re responsible for making sure that the bucket is the right size, that there are no holes in it, that it’s safe, and that it’s in the right place. The chief data officer is responsible for the fluid that goes in the bucket, comes out of the bucket, that it goes to the right place, that it’s the right quality and the right fluid to start with. Neither the bucket nor the water work without each other.”

The role of the CDO is multifaceted and liable to change in line with key trends happening now and in the future. The critical skill needed is within data – you can’t drive change at an organisational level without a background and significant experience in data science. But this also goes beyond; data interpretation is one of the core roles of the CDO and being able to read these statistics to create actionable insights is one of the biggest skills the chief data officer needs.

Data governance is a very important part of the CDO’s role, including putting measures in to protect stored and transmitted data and creating strategic data access policies, both internally and externally. These policies will help to avoid data breaches, something that is sadly all too common with the rise of increasingly adaptable technology — according to an Atlas VPN report, over 5.9 billion online accounts were affected by data breaches throughout 2021.

All of this must be done in line with regulations, one of the biggest in the last years being the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), brought in to enhance an individual’s control and rights over their personal data. While this is primarily EU-based, the UK still retains the law in an identical form.

The Information Commissions Office (ICO) recommends the creation of a data protection officer (CPO), who would fall inside the remit of the CDO, but as of yet, only 13% of the FTSE 100 list have this role filled – meaning that most CDOs have to take on this aspect themselves as part of their day-to-day operations.

Another key attribute that CDOs need is the understanding of how all this information flows, and how it can be utilised throughout the organisation. This usually calls for different technologies to be used to democratise and operationalise data, as well as to improve security.

This also means ensuring that those who need the data – including both executive teams and front-line staff – have adequate access, as well as being adequately trained so that they can use the data to gain business insights. This empowers the workforce to use data to justify their gut instinct – by having the power to freely explore the data, the organisation can gain an advantage over their competition.

While the above skills are integral to the role, being the chief change agent within the company for creating a data-driven environment also demands soft skills: consulting experience, the power of persuasion, first-class communication skills and the foresight to see how change affects all. These points are imperative, as Gartner notes that many CDOs have faced resistance in creating a data-driven culture – usually due to data showing that the old and known way, might not be the best way.

Should a CDO be internally promoted, or be brought in? It seems that with the onus being on being a change agent within the company, having a fresh perspective trumps a CDO working their way up through the ranks. According to NewVantage Partners’ survey, 51% of executives at Fortune 1000 firms think that a successful CDO must be brought in externally to bring in a fresh perspective, compared to only 14% of respondents holding the opposite view: that a successful CDO should be a company veteran, who understands the history and culture of the organisation.

It’s clear that data and analytics are only going to become more influential throughout organisations in the years to come, so the role of the CDO is also going to become more pivotal throughout the change to data-driven processes. In most companies, there is significant potential for improving strategy and vision with data, and with the right

technical and communication skills, CDOs will be able to redefine their strategy and analytics to bring impactful success throughout the business.

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