How can you make your chief data officer a success?

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Despite the proliferation of CDOs in the last year, Gartner has estimated that as little as 50% could actually be hailed as a success by the end of the decade, and there are a variety of obstacles they must overcome.

One initial challenge, for instance, is that the role will be new in most organisations and most new CDOs will have to learn on the job. Accompanying this, they will be faced with the difficult task of building an information strategy with appropriate metrics that tie the activities of their team to measurable business outcomes.

Gartner’s research VP Mario Faria explains: "With the explosion of datasets everywhere, an important task is determining which information can add business value, drive efficiency or improve risk management. The CDO's role will raise expectations of better results from an enterprise information management strategy, with stakeholders wanting a clear idea of the exact mechanics of making success a reality."

Faria also believes that the confluence of high expectations and limited knowledge around information management by business users will inevitably make it difficult for CDOs to secure the budget and commitment from the organisation they will need in order to make their plans a success.

Faria adds: "This raises a political aspect to the role — building trust and relationships in the organisation will be important to achieving success."

Gartner suggests that many CDOs are already reporting high levels of change resistance, particularly from the IT department, over the control of information assets and their governance. Indeed, to be successful, CDOs will have to work closely with the CIO to lead change and overcome this resistance.

Boris Huard, managing director at Experian Data Quality, has had discussions with some of the UK’s CDOs and senior data officers from leading organisations, and this was a common sticking point. “As many of the CDOs highlighted, it may not be straightforward to bring the role into your organisation unless your business is already data-driven because it will most likely require a culture shift.”

Summarising the challenges that need to be addressed, Dr Rado Kotorov, chief innovation officer at Information Builders, says: “Success depends on a lot of different things. Firstly, you must consider the mindset. The CDO has to be an agent of change and establish that data is a business asset and not a cost. He has to change culture and business processes. Second, he has to break the organisational silos that fragment the data assets. Third, he has to make sure that data assets are used productively, i.e. do they affect the bottom line – is money made from the data?” 

CDO actions

So with the failure rate for CDOs expected to be so high in the coming years, how can you ensure that your appointment is a success?

Gartner has six recommendations for new CDOs to help them overcome common challenges:

  • Create an enterprise information management strategy based on the organisation's business strategy and predominant value discipline.
  • Work tirelessly to build trust with various business stakeholders, especially the CIO.
  • Educate senior leaders and peers about the role that data and information play in overall business success.
  • Establish baselines on information governance and data monetisation from which progress can be measured.
  • Tie quantifiable information metrics to quantifiable business key performance indicators to demonstrate tangible success.
  • Adopt formal information asset measures and share them with the organisation.

Faria notes: "It's important to account for the soft skills needed in the CDO role, whether you are applying or hiring for the position. The success of a CDO will, to a large extent, depend on his or her ability to lead the change as well as gain the enthusiasm, support and resources of business leaders and other key business units."

In addition to winning hearts and minds, Rick Spickelmier, chief technical officer at Birst, also believes that CDOs need to ensure that employees are able to actually make use of the data once they have it. Therefore, a training/education element is vital.

“Not everyone is a data scientist or statistician, and so there might be education and support requirements across teams to make it easier to work with all this data in the first place,” says Spickelmier.

“This means looking at the data sources and metrics that can currently be created, but also at how and why those sources are being used. Are they the only data sets that were previously available? Are they the ones that have always been used, as that is how things were done in the past? How can things be improved, either by getting more granular with the data, or by linking it up with other sources to improve the results?

“This leads into helping teams understand their roles within the business process, and where their decisions have an effect on performance overall. For example, marketing teams might want to see their performance in the context of sales closed and leads converted. Looking at ‘lead to cash’ is a very different approach compared to ‘leads generated’ or ‘leads accepted by sales’. The CDO can start fostering those conversations and collaboration across teams. The overall business impact can then be increased.”

CDOs roadmap

For new CDOs, the first 100 days represent a critical period, when they must establish themselves and create perceptions that others will associate with their subsequent actions. Debra Logan, vice president and Gartner Fellow, believes that preparing and communicating, a clearly phased plan is vital: “You may be the first CDO in your company, and you’ll need to work hard to give the role credibility while coaching business leaders on how data can support their goals.”

In its report, “The Chief Data Officer’s First 100 Days”, Gartner has broken down the main objectives that a CDO should focus on into the following 100 day roadmap.

chief data officer

Each phase includes the following target outcomes, actions and resources:

Prepare. CDOs should arrange meetings with the team and leaders before they join, ideally providing a summary of their experience. Demonstrating that they understand how things work around here is crucial.

Assess. CDOs should use face-to-face meetings to build a strong understanding of the business and develop a rapport with key stakeholders. Half of this time should be dedicated to explaining the role of the CDO to them, and how it will help them meet their business-critical objectives. Pay close attention to chronic pain points and previous failures and get a sense for how the CIO and IT organisation are regarded in the business.

Plan. CDOs must then turn what they have learned into a blueprint for action. Share this vision with the stakeholders and provide an assessment of how the organisation currently fares compared to the vision, and how the gap will be closed. Describe these objectives as business KPIs that are important to the goals set by managers.

Act. Firstly, CDOs should meet with their operation teams to define their scope of operation, consider performance metrics, and ask what can be done to help them succeed. Secondly, CDOs should conduct a senior management status meeting and draw up a quarterly schedule for subsequent meetings. The agenda for these should cover:

  • What were the targets for the period.
  • What was achieved.
  • What the value was.
  • What value the executive team would like delivered in the next period.

The executive team will determine how to integrate the CDOs needs into their strategy and must set the parameters for success, which will provide the objectives and structure for future meetings.

Measure. CDOs must successfully communicate the business value of the project teams’ efforts, with progress articulated in regular reports, with focus on the information most relevant to business and finance leaders.

Spickelmier concludes: “The role of data within companies is changing – more decisions are being made based on available data and how it is analysed, rather than on gut feel and past experience. This puts more emphasis on how the data is gathered, how it is made available, and how it is used within the business.

“CDOs give organisations a central figure who is responsible for the use of data within the business. They can sit under the CIO and be part of the IT department, or they can be under the COO or CMO. Regardless of who they report to, this role helps ensure that data is getting used in the correct way.”

About Neil Davey

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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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