Chief Data Officer Role Continues to Evolve

Joe Stanganelli

Updated · Aug 24, 2016

Chief data officers (CDOs) are playing a strategic role in many — though not all — organizations, thanks to the importance of analytics, Big Data and data science in the enterprise.

For CDOs to be considered strategic, they must operate within the business area of an organization rather than the technology area, said Mark Krzysko, deputy director of Acquisition Resources and Analysis (a CDO-like role) at the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The one thing we've learned and the one thing we have to do is ensure we have leadership commitment,” he said, during a session tellingly titled The Business of CDOs is Business at the recent MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality (CDOIQ) Symposium. “The other aspect is, we have to be sure we deliver. The … tools in data stewardship are critical [to these goals].”

“[A] Chief Data Officer [has] to start using data as a strategic asset,” said Mark Ramsey, GlaxoSmithKline's chief data officer and senior vice president of Research. “Data scientists are going to be real core to our business going forward [because] it is about trying to support the [organization] to make better decisions.”

Close Relationship with CIO

GlaxoSmithKline CIO Daniel LeBeau was “part of the decision-making group that decided that data science was really an important area” for the company, said Lynda Applegate, a Harvard Business School professor who moderated a panel titled Dynamics between the CDO and the CIO: The Case of a Major Pharmaceutical Company.

Read about CDOs' popularity with financial services firms: Banking on Chief Data Officers

“What has changed [on] the process end of it [is that] we were putting more emphasis on the process and using data … to fill the process, whereas today processes are there to fill the data,” LeBeau told panel attendees.

Ramsey said that with LeBeau's blessing, he and his staff are able to act like a startup – but “with the support and protection of the larger organization.”This support and protection, however, only comes with adding to the job of CDO the role of interdepartmental expediter.

Data Quality vs. Data Speed

“That does create some interesting situations because our team is trying to move fast — the whole ‘fail fast, learn fast, repeat' [process] — but we're also trying to do that within a large organization,” Ramsey said. “So a lot of times I'm calling Daniel because the normal process set-up just isn't moving fast enough for how we want to move.”

“The main friction is to find the right balance between speed and quality, and it's very, very, very difficult,” noted LeBeau. “If you want to create [high-quality data], you cannot go fast — and if there is a piece of tension, it is finding the right balance between cleaning the data and accepting them as they are.”

Because data crosses so many different areas of an organization, CDOs work closely with other C-level executives, not just CIOs.

“The CIO generally worries [about the organization] from the security side; I have to help them from the access side [because] access is a really big problem,” said Krzysko. “No longer can the business sit on the sidelines and hope everything works from that perspective.”

Chief Data Officer and Data Security

Security, therefore, is a necessary incidental concern to the CDO, so that all interested parties in the business can approve of the manner in which data is accessed and handled.

“My new best friend is the chief information security officer (CISO) because I shared with him [my needs],” said GlaxoSmithKline's Ramsey. “GSK is a very risk-averse organization, but one of the things that I've tried to help them understand [is that] sometimes you think you're being risk averse but [in actuality] you're [being] extremely risk-taking.”

Ramsey said he was able to demonstrate that his accessibility needs for the organization's data coincided with his CISO's security needs because “when you have the data fragmented all over the organization, … somebody [can] come inside” and compromise important data without others necessarily knowing about it.

Chief Data Officers No Longer on Defensive

This balancing of interests where data is concerned, combined with balancing the interests of diverse parties and stakeholders across the organization has brought about a renaissance for data science and, by extension, the CDO role.

“The change that I've seen over the past few years in pretty much every industry is the move away from … defensive CDO roles and a lot more into the offensive,” said John Bottega, senior advisor to the Chief Data Officer Forum and principal of Data Management Advisory Services LLC, in a panel session titled Perspectives on Evolution of the CDO Role. “I think in the past couple of years, there [have been] a lot more chief data officers who have started focusing on…monetizing the data [because] it's really just ‘How do you leverage the data out of your own data?' You don't have to sell it to another firm, but how do you drive strategic value … within the organization?”

Ramsey, who also sat on Bottega's panel, agreed with the latter's observations. Moreover, Ramsey pointed out that he and his CDO brethren now have a degree of leverage within their organizations that would be enviable to data science executives of the past specifically because CDOs are now empowered to be on the offense and actively help their organizations.

“I've seen the role evolve [significantly] from its senior authority role within the organization,” said Ramsey. “[In] my [past] experience, [CDO] wasn't even a corporate title at the time. I was a vice president. The word didn't even seem to exist in HR terms.”

Still, for all of these advances, changes in focus and new applications, the CDO job continues to lack some of the influence and prestige of, say, the CFO and the CIO.

“It still has a way to go in terms of seniority. I always kid and say that the CDO sits at the kids' table in the C-suite, and I think that's still pretty much the case,” said Ramsey. “Now it is a major role, so I think that's fabulous. I think that's a big step.”

Joe Stanganelli, principal of Beacon Hill Law, is a Boston-based attorney, corporate communications and data privacy consultant, writer, speaker and bridge player. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.

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