Taking the plunge with a chief data officer

Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

In recent weeks I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several individuals in one of the hottest new roles on today’s organization charts: chief data officer (CDO). Because the role is new, CDOs are blazing their own trails—collaborating with top executives within their organizations to define responsibilities, set priorities, identify staffing requirements, build out teams and move ahead with projects that deliver value to the business.

One of those CDOs, Mario Faria, was recognized as the very first CDO in Latin America. He has recently moved to a second CDO role, this time in the US. I chatted with him about how he evolved from previous roles as systems analyst, product manager, account manager, consultant (including one year here at IBM) and professor of digital marketing to become a chief data officer. He described that move as a “leap of faith.”

Faria himself had never heard of a CDO, but the CEO of BoaVista Servicos had learned about it from Richard Wang, director of the Chief Data Officer Research Program at MIT and he felt that a CDO would bring value to his organization. Faria didn’t consider himself an expert in data or data modeling, but he did understand a lot about how to use data and derive value from it. He decided to take a plunge into the role.

Now in his second CDO role, at San Francisco-based ServiceSource, Faria has also become an evangelist for the position and its value to organizations. I asked him some questions about the CDO role and received input that is worth sharing.

Where should the CDO fit into the organization? 

Although he has seen CDOs reporting to the CIO, CFO or CMO, and he says there is there is no right or wrong, Faria himself has reported only to a CEO. “I’m glad that my organization recognizes that data is not technology.”

Should the CDO direct a team? 

Although organizational models vary, Faria believe it’s important for the CDO to have budget and staff. The CDO shouldn’t be an individual contributor, he says.

Should the CDO drive information governance

“Data governance is my responsibility,” Faria says. He works with other executives like the chief risk officer, chief compliance officer and chief security officer to provide leadership on data governance issues. He believes it is also important to involve stakeholders in departments like marketing, sales and product management to achieve change and to deliver value.

What are some of the key challenges for CDOs? 

One, he says, is culture—getting the organization to accept the changes that come with the addition of a CDO. Another is a skills gap: finding individuals with the right combination of people skills, communication skills, process skills and an understanding of both business and technology (essential!).

What are some of the priorities for a CDO? 

Building a data strategy is always a top priority, as the strategy will dictate changes like structural modifications to the organization. Other priorities vary according to business needs. “Every company has data problems,” he says, but they’re not all the same.

This CDO is dedicated to making data a strategic asset for the business and to driving departments across the enterprise to make better use of data. Regardless of title, that sounds to me like a function that could deliver benefits to almost any organization.

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