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Rise of the data force: The emergence of the chief data officer

21st Jan 2015
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After its people, data is arguably an organisation’s most valuable asset. According to recent figures, some 90%  of all the data in the world has been created in the last two years. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to us given the data driven world we now live in, but what is promising is that companies are increasingly switching on to its strategic and commercial value. By taking a considered and tactical approach to utilising the data resources at your disposal it is possible to improve your interactions with your customers beyond measure, improving the way you connect with people in the process. And the latest evidence suggests that this is a fact that a growing number of organisations are starting to recognise.  

At Experian Data Quality we recently completed some research into a new breed of data professionals that are helping businesses to recognise the strategic value of data - the ‘Dawn of the Chief Data Officer’ (CDO). While the findings acknowledge that this role is still in its infancy in the UK, it is encouraging that there is an increasing demand for it by colleagues - namely chief information officers (CIO) – as a key role for the future. In fact, the survey found that 92% of those asked felt a CDO is best placed to define data strategy and be the guardian of data quality within an organisation. Previously, this was an area that many CIOs felt they had to own, alongside tech, but this was by default rather than design.

In addition, 61% of CIOs wanted to see a CDO hired within the next 12 months. Rather than wanting another IT person to come in and absorb the pressure created by increased data, CIOs told us that they are in need of a dedicated data specialist who can build an effective and long-term data strategy. 47% cited the sheer volume of data as a key barrier, preventing them from exploiting data assets further. Such is the demand that they believe the CDO will become an established board level role by 2020. The key reasons for wanting a CDO are to capitalise on big data opportunities (44%), to provide a consistent approach to de-risk data driven projects (41%) and to cope with increasing regulation (38%).

I was privileged enough to discuss the research findings with some of the UK’s CDOs and senior data officers from organisations such as BNP Paribas, Ebay, Sky and Dunnhummby, to name a few, who all agreed that when managed properly, data of the highest quality can not only enhance the customer experience and differentiate an organisation from its competitors; it can also reduce unnecessary costs.

Now it may seem obvious but ensuring the data is of optimal quality should be an on-going priority for all data-driven businesses. CIOs believe that they could increase their profits by an average of 15% if their data was of the highest quality. Interestingly, we found that on average CIOs cite savings from investing in data quality tools to be less than £1million however, comparatively CDOs stated this to be in excess of £5million.

As we would expect, most CDOs appear to be more mature when it comes to data management than CIOs. One CDO I spoke with noted that, “We have a mature data management strategy, however there is always scope for improvement. As we continue to work with data we are constantly finding new ways to use it.”

CDO as enabler

In our discussions an interesting observation was that every division within an organisation can derive value by using data. To achieve data of the highest quality and maximise returns there must be support for the CDO role and clarity on what exactly data can achieve throughout the whole organisation. 

CDOs focus on data governance, monitoring, processes and lifecycle, not IT. They are the business enablers who look to drive their businesses forward with a data strategy that will filter down and align all stakeholders while extracting value for customers, creating competitive advantages in the process and ultimately impacting the financial performance of the organisation.

Another CDO added: “The CDO should be regarded as an enabler… Ultimately the management of data should be a corporate wide responsibility with the CDO spearheading its enablement.”

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. However, it's worth it if your organisation is committed to revolutionising its business operations with a better use of data that will enable in depth understanding of your markets, your clients and your products. 

Matthew Keylock of Dunnhummby summarised the role’s demands by saying: “The CDO should be accountable for overall data management within an organisation, but teams that utilise data to derive insight to shape their strategies should take ownership of the data, whether that’s by nominating a data steward or every individual focusing on data. The CDO should help provide a framework and support for these individuals to get the most out of their data resource.”

With data volumes only set to increase exponentially, how each business chooses to tackle the challenge will differ from place to place. However, many CDOs and CIOs agree, it is a decision many companies should act on now if they want their data to be even more of a strategic asset in the future. Gartner predicts that by 2015, 25% of large organisations will have appointed a CDO, which suggests that bringing a specialist data lead in-house may well yet become the norm in an increasingly data-driven world. I’m confident we will start to see the benefit of this shift, as the way organisations are able to engage with people evolves and improves as a result.  

Boris Huard is managing director at Experian Data Quality.

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