Revolt against the Chief Data Officer


Criticisms against the role of the CDO chief data officerThere seem to be an increase in the creation and appointment of Chief Data Officers. Personally I think many organisations are abusing the title and the role to overcome other problems on their executive level. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

A short while ago, I received a notice about a blog post on the Wall Street Journal, which reported from the Annual MIT Chief Data Officer Forum that “Chief Data Officers Blaze Unchartered Corporate Frontier“. Being interested in data and information, and being particularly fascinated by the additional value that data and information can contribute to organisations, I was highly excited to find out what new grounds they were breaking…

I couldn’t open it fast enough to read what these trail blazing CDOs were doing!

The blog started by stating that according to MIT’s CDO Research Program, the roles of these CDOs in practice are quite diverse, but there is a common theme around the alignment with the strategic business direction. They were leading emerging data practices led by accountable and sustainable executives. So far, nothing new, not for me anyway. That is what I expect of any executive in charge of data and/or information.

One CDO highlighted the importance of his peer relationships with the CIO, CTO and head of application development, which he reckoned was necessary to implement an enterprise data and analytics program across the entire business and IT eco-system. The next CDO was highlighted because of the leadership and governance role across the organisation to nurture and enhance the leverage of the organisation’s data assets, in order to drive value for their customers.

Now, I regularly consult to organisations on their BI Strategy, and often motivate that the CIO should take the role as sponsor for the enterprise BI program, seeing the CIO is, after all, the custodian of all data and information in the organisation. I normally advocate that the data governance function should eventually and slowly be spun out underneath this function as the organisation matures in its utilisation and consumption of information.

So you can understand, by this time I was wondering when I was going to get to the trail blazing bit…

The blog carried on, quoting terms used to describe the CDO’s role: ambassador, coordinator, reporter, diplomat. The CDO forms the conduit among business, technology and operations. The next paragraph had the CDO manage data as an enterprise asset that cross all the lines of business and all the corporate functions. Organisations expect the CDO to have a vision of the power of data within the organisation. The author stated that the impact of the role will ultimately be measured by its effectiveness in transforming the organisation through the use of data.

At this stage, I was starting to wonder where I filed my notes on the CIO’s job description and role, because it all sounded too familiar. But fortunately I scanned ahead in the blog and saw the magic term “big data”. OK, so this must be where the trail gets hot!

So by now, the CDO had become responsible for the democratisation of big data, by ensuring transparency and access to data and for the cultural transformation to embed data in people’s thinking. And on this high note, the blog concluded that CDOs are the 21st century pathfinders forging the information and enterprise data frontier.

At this stage I was of course totally swept up by the antics of these new frontiersmen, but I couldn’t help to secretly wonder; now what did they do with the CIOs who were bravely and diligently doing all this stuff all along? Well, that is, in the organisations where said CIOs were doing what they were supposed to have been doing, anyway. Did these new brave warriors on the frontier just wipe them all out? Or have they just swept past them at 21st century warp speed, or what?

Now, I don’t mean any discredit to these CDOs’ achievements – on the contrary, I think they are doing amazing things! As should be done in an information-minded organisation. But if I look closely at what these guys were doing, and if I look at what I expect to be in a CIO’s job description, all they were doing (successfully, again I applaud) was what I would expect any contemporary CIO to be doing.

So my take on the whole CDO thing is this.

  • Firstly, in too many organisations, you still find people with the job title of CIO doing technical things, like looking after product licenses, vendor relationships, infrastructure, application development, etc. Now that is NOT “information”.  That is “technical”. That is the domain and the job of the Chief Technical Officer. So what are organisations doing? Instead of re-aligning the CIO’s job, or correcting the job title and description, they are merely creating a new post to manage the data and information (hopefully properly this time), while the existing CIO carries on doing “T” things.
  • Secondly, and this is a more subtle issue – if I were to be appointed on the executive as the CDO, I would have a psychological and cultural problem with that. On the maturity scale of data -> information -> knowledge / intelligence -> insight (or whichever variation you are used to), I would want myself and my organisation to be moving up that maturity ladder, not back down to the basics. Sure, we often have to start addressing informational problems at the basic data level, but I would want the end goal to be aimed somewhat higher than that. I wouldn’t want my organisation to be aiming downwards.

Personally, I like Chief Insight Officer, and then we don’t even have to change the CIO sign on the door, nor the email signature, but I’m digressing…

I know there may be some really large organisations that may be so advanced in their information and insight management that their CIO doesn’t get to handle the data issues, nor the appropriate governances. This is also apparent from the Governance Officers, be they chiefs or not, that are being appointed all over the place. In these cases, sure, maybe you need a CDO to handle enterprise data management. But that job, although highly complex and politically laden, and requiring a lot of discipline as well as data management and people savvy, is definitely not trail blazing. It’s about establishing the rules, getting the troops in order and doing things right. It’s about getting the fort shipshape so that the “I” people can go out and safely blaze the new trails.

Now, as we have experienced with big data, and many other terms used incorrectly in our unregulated industry, we can shout and scream against the misuse, overloading or abuse of such a term, but once it is out there, and they have job descriptions and even conferences named after it, there is no way it is going to get changed. It’s easier getting a street renamed after some revolutionary. But I still watch and encourage the progress of the “real” CIOs steadily cutting the trails to one day reach the Xanadu of full-blown information management.

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