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CDO - you got the job, now how do you avoid getting fired?

(Image credit: Future)

The role of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) is evolving and gaining traction within the industry - 70 per cent of companies have now appointed one, up from 12 per cent in 2012. The role’s success is crucial for business growth, and it is clear that CDOs must develop their role away from a defensive data strategy and embrace their roles as agents of change.

Though the CDO is evolving, many CDOs are in fact failing. Indeed, a recent Gartner study predicts 50 per cent of CDOs will fail due to various internal and external factors. Since most external factors can’t be controlled, it’s vital that CDOs are aware of the internal pain points that are stunting success.

Don’t waste time governing data

As CDO, you might be spending too much time governing data instead of liberating it. Data is often locked away in silos, so these walls must be broken down to allow it to be exploited to its full capacity. However, legacy core systems are often friction points in data liberation, with IT budgets and personnel usually limited as well. These operational data silos need to be broken down and democratised to facilitate actionable insights across the business.

But data silos are a reflection of the organisation that created them, and such an organisation might still be operating under siloed organisational structures, despite creating a unified data space. Organisations need nimble and flexible data architectures to liberate data that will otherwise be locked within legacy technologies and organisational processes.

To liberate data, you need to question the system that is in place and ensure the business has moved to digital; away from time-sapping, manual-based processes. A culture of collaboration also needs to be created between employees – one that brings teams together and encourages them to understand the value of data across the company and for each other. Legacy systems must also be removed as they limit the way a business can respond to change.

Make the case for a bigger budget

The CDO is a relatively new role, and as such it has frequently proved difficult for CDOs to get anything more than moderate budgets and limited resources when they report into an existing business unit such as IT. Businesses consistently fail to place the CDO role high enough in the organisation with its own dedicated budget, which impacts investment in tools and tech, as well as people.

If organisations are serious about improving the value of data assets, budgets and resources must be upped so that data is treated as a serious enterprise asset and the CDO as a position of responsibility for information management.

Get the balance right between data science and DataOps

Without mastered, well-governed and secure data, little can be done to generate real value. However, this is an area of innovation that will consistently prove difficult for CDOs. The balance between empowering your data and analytics teams to be responsive and adaptable to the needs of internal customers as well as users is a tricky one.

In a modern business, production is no longer the most crucial part of the data environment. There is an increasing need for fast access to secure, governed data outside of production; where the work of the non-IT part of the business is focused. To deliver, IT must provide data quickly and efficiently to the rest of the business or across organisational borders to partners. This means CDOs should focus on embracing collaborative processes and workflows to support this new enterprise operation technique. DataOps is therefore a key area of development, where the mix of people, process and technology enables a more agile use of data.

Ensure you have selected the right areas to focus efforts on

With the data revolution underway at businesses worldwide, many are accelerating towards advances in machine learning, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence. Consequently, it’s easy for the CDO to get pulled in numerous directions and fail to show business benefits across all; with boards becoming frustrated at a perceived lack of focus.

It’s important therefore to focus on integrating digital into all aspects of the business, from channels and processes as well as data, to the operating model, incentives and even culture. McKinsey reports that 90 per cent of top performers have fully integrated digital initiatives in their strategic planning process. This requires the CDO to collaborate closely with the CEO, CIO and CFO and be an active participant in the shaping of the strategy.

To really establish credibility in this area, CDOs must provide detailed analyses of market trends and developments in technology and customer behaviour, for both inside and outside the sector. You should also go beyond providing analysis and establish a bolder vision for the company’s long-term growth. Statistics show 65 per cent of companies that are ‘digital leaders’ have a high tolerance for bold initiatives, which suggests that creating a specific, ambitious strategy is a good approach to make real change.

Establish a clear hierarchy of collaboration

The CDO is a disruptive change management role, and many companies find it hard to adapt to such change. Added to this, creating a new ‘chief’ role inevitably brings political dynamics, and tension can develop between CIOs and CTOs, as well as with CDOs competing with Chief Digital Officers for supremacy.

Digital disruption cannot occur without conflict, but the way you manage it is key. Ensure you are articulating measurable goals closely associated with business innovation and customer engagement and are able to provide board level reporting each quarter.

Keep in mind the remits of your role - CDOs should work with other business leaders to identify strategic data sources and create value from this data, driving industry and business model transformations. Whenever the systems used that acquire, store and process data are the responsibility of other leaders (often the CIO or chief digital officer), conflict can arise. Be clear that your role is not intruding on theirs, but rather than collaboration is key here.

CDO is a new role, and as such faces inevitable backlash from some quarters. There is uncertainty around what the optimal role and responsibilities should be, what the mandate is, and how best to ensure impactful CDO function. Indeed, for many organisations, the difficulty of the CDO role is also compounded by decades of legacy systems, processes and operating models, as well as skill sets that cannot be changed at pace.

Data-driven change does not occur overnight, and there is no single recipe for success. Such transformation requires a sustained approach demanding commitment and adaptability. Consequently, a company needs to assess its own capabilities, culture and capacity, and make changes across the organisation to support the CDO.

Gary Richardson, MD for Emerging Technology, 6point6

Gary Richardson is MD for Emerging Technology at 6point6. He has over 17 years of consulting experience, and leads a team in the development of AI and Machine Learning solutions.