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Technology / Data

A Role in Progress: The Future of the Chief Data Officer

It’s not just the advent of GDPR and similar data protection regulations fuelling the rise of the chief data officer (CDO). In the digital economy, data is widely acknowledged to be the new value creator. Having a clear data strategy and a well-managed, secure data estate to base decisions on is more than a competitive advantage – it’s key to survival, writes Neil Sholay, Vice President of Digital Innovation at Oracle

Organisations have woken up to the fact that data practice deserves a place on the board. A recent survey by New Vantage Partners found that the number of CDOs is rising steadily. Only 12 percent of companies had a CDO in 2012, and in 2019 now stands at 68 percent.

Neil Sholay, Vice President of Digital Innovation at Oracle

However, while the Chief Data Officer role is increasingly popular it is still very much one in progress.

There is little consistency in CDO responsibilities, and they can often find themselves stymied by internal opposition and resistance to change.

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To make the most of the CDO’s expertise and ability to make digital transformation a reality, organisations must provide the necessary support, culture, and tools.

The Role of the Chief Data Officer

As one of the few members of the board with access to data across all areas of the business, CDOs now have the unique opportunity to take a role at the helm of the organisation. Entrusted with full oversight over all connected data and processes, the CDO can devise strategy and steer investment decisions towards technology that improves data practice and delivers efficiency, productivity and improved decision-making.

However, there’s little consistency in CDO responsibilities. Some are focused on simply inventorying the organisation’s data assets. Others are more focused on data quality and master data management. A more recent priority has been data ethics. While every CDO focuses on creating a stronger data culture, only a few can say they’re actually responsible for producing measurable outcomes or quantifying the value of data assets.

Organisations will define roles to best suit their needs at the time. But a lack of common responsibilities is putting a cap on the CDO’s agency and influence. If their role changes with every job move, how can a CDO build up the necessary skill set and experience to become truly effective? More importantly, how will they earn the confidence and understanding of other board members if their responsibilities are fluid and hard to articulate?

Setting an Example

We’re still in the early days of the CDO, so there’s every reason to be optimistic. To better understand the potential future of the CDO, it’s worth considering how the position of the chief financial officer has evolved over time. CFOs were initially established as financial gatekeepers, ensuring proper controls were maintained over the organisation’s lifeblood: money.

Since that time, the CFO role has shifted towards weighing in on or leading big picture strategy, and advising and partnering with the CEO on daily decision-making. Indeed, modern CFOs are often considered ‘CEOs-in-waiting’ because of their wide span of insight, influence, and authority. As data culture and practice grow in importance within organisations, there is certainly potential for the role of the CDO to go the same way.

A Helping Hand

Success in today’s digital economy requires companies to bring together all of their sources of information and extract even deeper value. Clean, consolidated data can serve as a single source of truth, allowing business leaders to agree priorities and coordinate approaches to be as agile as possible.

However, individual executives may lack the motivation, skills, and resources to create the data culture required to master their respective information domains. Another valid concern is the uniform governance of data assets. CDOs are needed as the single leadership voice to help the other lines of business achieve this kind of integration and collaboration.

CDOs will need help to do this of course. They should be empowered to do all they can to make the best use of all business information; both by having a platform from which they can easily access and understand it, and by making sure they have enough time in their day to make full use of it.

Read this: Government Data Policy: Still a Shambles, PAC Report Reveals

Through the use of cloud-based enterprise resource planning and automation, businesses can utilise intelligent data management capabilities to handle routine duties, such as data classification and deletion. Not only does automation improve reliability by removing the risk of human error, it minimises juggling time and ensures the largest chunk of the CDO’s time is dedicated to improving data practice across their enterprise.

Investing in automation alone, however, does not guarantee a business-oriented mindset. For this, organisations need to also focus on shifting the corporate culture. Organisations need their CDOs to be pushing themselves and their teams where it matters, focusing as much as possible on the bigger picture and going above and beyond in their mission to perfect their business strategy. This is when the true value of technology – and the role of the CDO – will be realised.

Just as modern CFOs integrate all aspects of financial management to create a strategic view of their organisation’s future, CDOs have the clear opportunity to integrate all aspects of how their companies gather, integrate, and create value from data. Most CEOs can rely on their CFOs to articulate the financial strategy of their organisations. When CEOs can rely on their CDOs to articulate the organisation’s data strategy, it will be a clear sign that the role has reached its potential.

See also: The UK’s Top 10 Data Leaders


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CBR Staff Writer

CBR Online legacy content.