Meet the New Boss

Chief data officers bring a new level of confidence in big data

Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

The appointment of Cathryne Clay Doss as chief data officer (CDO) at Capital One in 2003 did not start an avalanche of new C-level appointments. But it did initiate a trend that has grown during the 10 years since then. Today, CDOs are popping up in a variety of organizations across many industries.

For example, in August, Ogilvy and Mather became one of the first advertising agencies to appoint a CDO.1 The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was among the first federal agencies to create CDO positions across its many bureaus and offices.2 In September 2013, the City and County of San Francisco posted an opening for its first CDO position.3 And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced its eighth Annual MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality (CDOIQ) Symposium for 2014.4 Are we witnessing the dawn of the chief data officer era?


Why now?

Elevating the data role to a C level indicates an increased appreciation for the importance of data to organizations. That rise seems logical in the big data era, with its increasing volume, variety, and velocity of information—including everything from meter readings to social media posts. Surely someone should be in charge of all that data.

This enhanced understanding of data’s importance also brings increased scrutiny:

  • Where did the data originate?
  • How old is it?
  • Who has touched it?
  • Who has access to it?
  • Is the information worthy of the confidence of the organization?

Questions like these justify the need for a senior officer holding the reins.

Is regulatory scrutiny a driver for creating the CDO role? One person who thinks so is IBM Information Strategist Steven Adler, who offered some comments recently upon his return from a series of meetings with data management leaders worldwide. He cites the importance of the regulatory environment in North America, where the CDO role is taking off. He also mentions the lack of such scrutiny as one reason why the CDO concept hasn’t yet caught on in other regions such as the Nordic countries, despite data expertise and openness to change.

Based on his observations and conversations with data management and data governance leaders in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, Adler finds that the CDO role is largely a North American phenomenon today. While he is hearing a lot about CDOs in the US and Canada, organizations in other parts of the world have not yet had much to say about creating a new C-level role.

Are only very large organizations creating CDO roles? Although large enterprises may have accounted for the majority of organizations hiring CDOs a few years ago, Adler has found that recently “data governance is booming in tier 2 and tier 3 organizations.” These organizations are creating governance programs that are small, focused, and successful. And CDOs are emerging as logical leaders in organizations that have strong information governance initiatives.


What does a CDO do?

At an IBM event in New York in September 2013 to announce innovations in information integration and governance (IIG), remarks by Heather Wilson, CDO at American International Group (AIG), Inc. about her experience in her role were noteworthy.

“When you’re a chief data officer, the world revolves around you a lot,” Wilson said. “I mean that with sincerity…because you have marketing, you have operations, you have head of distribution, call center, you have the CEO. They’re constantly coming at you with their needs, and so you have tentacles everywhere.”5

In defining the CDO’s role, Anthony Goldbloom and Merav Bloch wrote in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network that a CDO should have three key responsibilities.6 The first is “identifying how data can be used to support the company’s most important priorities”—that is, looking at those priorities through a lens that continually asks if there is data available to help address the need. More often than not, the answer is “yes,” though other individuals without those data lenses might not see the opportunity.

The second responsibility, according to Goldbloom and Bloch, is “making sure the company is collecting the right data,” perhaps collaborating with other parts of the organization to ensure that instrumentation, collection, and storage are in place. Third, the CDO should be tasked with “ensuring the company is wired to make data-driven decisions”—a job that requires making sure the complete chain of activities, from data collection to visualization, is in place. Part of that process is the set of activities IBM calls IIG, which helps to build confidence in data by making sure it is understood, validated, protected, and integrated with the business.

In a 2013 blog post, Forrester Research analyst Gene Leganza took the position that the CDO is a worthwhile role for organizations to consider.7 As an analyst, he was getting frequent requests and input from clients rethinking their information management organizations, and sometimes that meant the consideration of creating a CDO role. But he found that no clear, winning model had yet emerged for where the role fits in organizations.


Where should the CDO sit?

There is no consensus yet on where in the organization chart the CDO should be placed, but there are two basic points of view. One places the CDO in the IT organization; the other puts the role on the business side. According to Adler, separating the role from IT is important, and perhaps the CDO should report to the chief operating officer (COO). He cites the value organizations are finding when they move people with back-office experience into the middle office. where they can share their expertise. In addition, he finds value in taking experienced business people who truly understand the impact of information on different aspects of the business and assigning them to key data roles.

In Miller’s opinion—she has been a CDO at two large financial institutions—what is important isn’t where the CDO sits. “Some of them sit in the business; some of them sit in IT. It doesn’t matter,” she said. But what does matter is the business focus. She said the role must be business driven.

Miller describes her role as one that requires both offense and defense. “I say defense because I’m sitting there with our federal regulators talking about controls and discipline that we need to put in place. And then I’m on the offense side because we have 100 data scientists who want access to all the data any time of day so that they can have different data sets merged together and start to have different hypotheses. I’m playing defense, and I’m playing offense as the chief data officer and trying to architect what is the right solution for AIG.”

Peter Aiken and Michael Gorman, who together bring 75 years of data management experience to the table, offer the perspective that the CDO should report to the business and should not be subordinate to IT. In addition to that organizational requirement, they define two other pillars that are critical to success: the CDO must be "dedicated solely to data asset leveraging" and "unconstrained by an IT project mind-set."8

Organizations will probably continue to make their own specific decisions about where to place CDOs within their own organizations. Wherever the role sits, it should continue to grow in importance as the merits of data worthy of confidence expand in organizations worldwide.

Are you a CDO, or does your organization have one? How is the role defined, and where does it reside in your organization? Let us know in the comments.

1Ogilvy and Mather appoints Todd Cullen as global chief data officer,” press release, August 2013.
2Federal Reserve to hire chief data officer,” By J. Nicholas Hoover, InformationWeek Government, March 2013.
3 City and County of San Francisco, current job openings, September 2013.
4 MIT CDOIQ Symposium, July 23–24, 2014 event announcement.
5 Building confidence in big data, IBM client panel discussion, September 2013.
6Your C-suite needs a chief data officer,” Anthony Goldbloom and Merav Bloch, Harvard Business Review blog network, October 2012.
7Chief data officers are a good idea—but how is that going to work?” Gene Leganza’s blog, Forrester, February 2013.
8 The Case for the Chief Data Officer, Recasting the C-suite to Leverage Your Most Valuable Asset, Peter Aiken and Michael Gorman, Morgan Kaufmann, May 2013.



Big data needs agile information and integration governance,” a Forrester Consulting thought leadership report commissioned by IBM, August 2013.

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