The Role of the CDO: gatekeeper or innovator?

In recent years, the hype of big data has fuelled board and executive level awareness of the value to be gained from data driven opportunities, a big step from when data did not even appear on the corporate agenda. This awareness has unavoidably resulted in increased scrutiny of data quality, accuracy, transparency and privacy, as well as necessitating further compliance and regulatory reporting. Thus, we see the rise of the Chief Data Officer (CDO).

But does anybody know exactly what a CDO does? It’s a frequently asked question, and one that continues to be shaped as companies become increasingly data driven.

When it comes to defining the role of Chief Data Officer (CDO), Usama Fayyad, the world’s first CDO at Yahoo stated, “it’s not just about internal decisions from data; it’s what can we provide the customers in terms of data.”

Fayyad initially suggested the CDO title light heartedly to ex-Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, but the definition and creation of this role was crucial to Yahoo and now many other companies around the globe. As Fayyad indicated, this role was essential to push organisations beyond simply capturing and storing data, to driving significant business value from data through analytics.

In businesses today, the level of investment in data technologies and platforms makes it clear that data is widely recognised as an asset and a means for achieving competitive advantage. The CDO role is essential to win-back on this investment by driving business outcomes from big data.

The world’s most successful CDOs use data and analytics to fuel business value. By proliferating analytics throughout an organisation, a CDO can use insight gained from data to develop strategic advantage as well as preserve a competitive edge.

This means forming a balance between the roles and responsibilities of Gatekeeper and Innovator. As gatekeeper, the CDO is focused on the important task of managing to a data strategy, fine tuning and implementing a data governance process, and making sure regulatory compliance is stuck to. Additionally, security is a top concern.

Tom Davenport, professor in IT and management at Babson College puts it like this: “Defence is a tricky area to inhabit as CDO, because if you succeed and prevent breaches and privacy problems and security issues, no one necessarily gives you any credit for it or even knows if your work was successful. And if you fail, it is obviously very visible and bad for your career.” CDOs must supplement defence with offence – productionising analytic processes, adding insights to enable business actions and creating digitalised data products.

To enable innovation and company transformation, the onus will be on the CDO to define and execute an organisational data vision, and map out a future that drives business value. To do so, the CDO strategy will need to:

  • Direct data into the hands of business analysts as quickly as possible: in seconds not minutes, hours not days, and days not weeks or months.
  • Push iterative learning –test-and-learn; fail fast, learn faster – “quick wins” that build organisational credibility, alignment, and momentum, as well as demonstrate true business value.

Ultimately, CDOs must be defensive about data and comply with all of the regulations, governance and security requirements – however, this delivers no value to the business. It is in fact the creation of data driven insights for the company, monetisation of data and analytics that creates value and a real competitive edge.

Author: Brian McKenna


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