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The chief data officer: Tomorrow’s corporate rock stars

Manager, Strategy & Operations – IBM Research – Almaden Lab, IBM

It’s pretty clear by now: data is the new natural resource. I spent the last two days at IBM’s Chief Data Officer (CDO) Strategy Summit, along with 120 participants, most of which were CDOs, de-facto CDOs and future CDOs. No industry was unrepresented in this space: healthcare, pharmaceuticals, banking, insurance, telecommunications, cities, government entities and even ad agencies were all present.   

From rock star to reality

A major telecommunications CDO cited Erich Schmidt in saying that “from the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes every two days…and the pace is accelerating.” Reminding us of the sea change that has happened to external data waiting to be tapped. “It’s about time, finally industry gets around to support our passion,” proclaimed an Insurance CDO, voicing the general mood shared by many of those in attendance.

CDO.jpgThe CDOs are not lacking in aspirations: they want to see data have the biggest possible impact on their organizations and they envision revenue streams, new efficiencies, deep customer insight and competitive advantage, all a result from the disruptive ways they will leverage their organizations’ internal data as well as externally available data. “The challenge is change,” a quote from John Zachman, was projected on the last slide of a general session under the name “Imperatives for the successful CDO.”

We can certainly see why this new role is rock star material. But what about the reality of the role today? It appears that there are many similar challenges CDOs are currently facing. They all have to deal with data quality and data governance to build a basic foundation. To leverage data at an enterprise level, data needs to be shared across silos and shadow-data, residing in excel spreadsheets, passed around through email must be centralized and exposed. Passing this organizational hurdle requires strong partnership with the different parts of the business as well as solid sponsorship from the top. The latter will require some early data wins—something that is clearly on every CDO’s mind. This also means CDOs are asking people to change their habits and behaviors, which is never an easy feat.

There are no silver bullets

No data conference is complete without the three, four, five or six Vs popping up, and we surely had those, but a general feeling was that this is not about technology. Yes, new technology has emerged, but CDOs are not delusional about any silver bullets. They want to have a strong technology partnership with the CIO or an external provider, but realize they will be the ones who need to take care of business value and organizational change to reap the benefits.

So what does this all mean from my perspective? Well, as part of IBM Research – Almaden, a lab entirely focused on science and technology for data, these are very exciting times. The foundation is being built for data to be leveraged—without this, nothing is really possible. Now we need to help CDOs envision the future business benefits from data, where opportunity is endless. Technology will need to be pushed forward to deal with new sources of data, and to be cognizant about the context of that data.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but now the real fun starts: pushing real organizational change. That is what corporate rock stars are really made of.