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November 24, 2022updated 25 Nov 2022 10:41am

How to define an empowered chief data officer

To fully harness the power of analytics, organisations must democratise data knowledge across their businesses and implement organisation-wide data strategies. How is this changing the skillsets required of the modern chief data officer.

By now, most of us will be familiar with the tech industry adage that ‘data is more valuable than oil’. It is certainly proving the more reliable long-term resource for businesses of all stripes.

Whether being leveraged as a means of raising revenue by selling or sharing information with third parties, or as the main component of changing relationships with customers, delivering better service, and ultimately increasing returns on investment, its value is only growing.

Chief data officers (CDOs) are therefore at the forefront of implementing not just effective data strategy, but helping to define and deliver wider business success and value. The role is evolving at speed, with the democratisation of access to data knowledge across one’s organisation also rising in significance and urgency.

CDO skillset
To fully harness the power of analytics, organisations must democratise data knowledge across their businesses and implement organisation-wide data strategies. (Photo by Profit_Image/Shutterstock)

Increasingly, an organisation can only optimise efficiency, boost productivity levels, deliver better service to customers and other stakeholders, and improve revenue streams if staff have the requisite training and access to knowledge that modern data strategy requires. “Return on data: Tying data strategy to business value”, a report published by Tech Monitor in partnership with Alteryx, found that one of the most distinctive features of companies defined as data value leaders is that they have an ‘organisation-wide data strategy’ in place, with that strategy most typically led by a CDO or equivalent.

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A significant proportion of data and analytics leaders interviewed for the report complained of only being invited to participate in projects after they have launched and provide retrospective reporting. While the majority of data value leaders said that data and analytics experts were consulted from the early stages of projects and initiatives, among respondents not defined as data leaders, the majority reported that data and analytics experts were typically asked to help analyse projects only after they are already underway or complete.

Such involvement across business and early integration into projects also requires a broader skillset from the CDO. According to Alteryx CDO Alan Jacobson, the role and skillset of the modern chief data officer has changed significantly over the last five years as a result, with an expectation that anyone hired to fill the role should be something of an all-rounder.

“The CDO is ultimately responsible for introducing new technologies into a business,” Jacobson says. “And as such, they are expected to be au fait with the latest developments in AI, machine learning, cloud technologies, IoT, and APIs.

“They will also now be expected to build and organise teams of data professionals across all aspects of the business, who not only understand their organisation’s culture, but have the know-how to analyse data in a way which adequately addresses concerns and identifies opportunities.”

On top of this, the modern CDO is also responsible for establishing and maintaining a coherent data governance policy on behalf of the business. CDOs should therefore be competent in handling legal, compliance and risk queries, and to work closely with colleagues and regulators should any problems with data storage and dissemination arise.

The role of democratisation

Smart leveraging of data is, of course, important for organisations who want to maximise their service offerings and get to the needs of their customer base. But smart leveraging, according to Jacobson, is as much to do with democratising data knowledge as it is to do with developing expertise. For an organisation to function effectively, employees across all departments should have a certain level of data knowledge so that businesses can avoid the problem of compartmentalisation and important information is not just held by a privileged few. CDOs must reach out – and be accessible – across the enterprise.

“Automation is vital to the democratisation of knowledge,” Jacobson says. “It has been a real game changer over the last decade in particular and is only going to grow in importance as time goes on. In fact, we’re already starting to see this major divide happening between businesses who we identify as ‘data leaders’ and businesses who haven’t yet implemented this policy of democratisation.

“Even from an individual standpoint, if you’re a marketing professional who has developed skills and data knowledge because of the company you work for, versus a marketing professional who hasn’t, over time your value as an employee is going to be at a premium. CDOs are key to developing this knowledge base within their workforce and ensuring that their organisations are filled with people who can bring quality to the table.”

How CDOs facilitate democratisation

In “Return on data: Tying data strategy to business value”, 25% of data value leaders reported that ‘data and analytics experts work alongside peers in cross-functional teams. Of respondents who did not come from a ‘data value leader’ background, however, only 8% said that such a strategy was in place.

Jacobson points to another discrepancy revealed by the report, with 54% of ‘data value leaders’ reporting having implemented an organisation-wide data strategy, in contrast to just 7% of other businesses. Hiring and empowering a good CDO can address this gap, he says, demonstrating value from the first by putting in place a robust plan for automation and ultimately, through that, for data democratisation. People are ready to participate, but they need a leader who can empower them to take that next step.

“In order for people already in the workforce not to be left behind, it is vital that they learn these skills quickly,” Jacobson says. “Alteryx is taught in over 800 universities and there are people coming into the world now as finance majors with skills beyond your typical spreadsheet. That’s the future.

“So people already in the workforce in a sense are playing catch-up, and it’s up to their CDO to guide them and ensure they get the training they need. 28 years ago, BusinessWeek published the first article on data science in business. Just as people have learned how to leverage the internet in business over the last 30 years, knowledge workers will need to upskill and leverage analytics in their career journeys. And the need to master these skills to succeed is coming sooner rather than later.”

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