Starting with a clean slate: The new chief data officer

Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

In many respects, a new chief data officer (CDO) is in an enviable position. Rather than following in the footsteps of a predecessor who may have had a different view of the role and its priorities, the new CDO is often the first CDO—free from comparisons with a respected predecessor, free from hardened expectations, free to define the role in a way that suits the needs of the organization as well as the expertise he or she brings to the table.

Of course, that freedom comes with a different set of challenges, beginning with A) a role that is not understood by others in the organization, B) a shortage of good practices already in place and C) sometimes a C-suite populated with new colleagues who may find their own positions threatened by the new arrival. It’s important to get off to a strong start: building alliances, aligning with top priorities of the business, building a strong team and organizing for an early and highly visible win that can open doors for future initiatives.

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Building alliances is important for new executives in most roles, and it is especially important in a role that isn’t yet well understood. It comes as no surprise that the CDO needs to develop a healthy relationship with the CIO, since it is important for those two to clarify for themselves and for the rest of the organization, just what the difference is between a chief information officer and a chief data officer. The chief information security officer (CISO) is another natural ally, since the CDO and the CISO share the goal of protecting enterprise data. The chief marketing officer (CMO) may be less obvious as an important ally, but that relationship is growing in importance as the marketing department in many organizations is becoming the chief consumer of data and analytics, especially as marketers look to new data sources (whether those are unstructured documents within the organization or social media feeds from beyond the enterprise) to provide valuable new insights into customers. 

When it comes to CDO priorities, one set that is easy to articulate comes from Derek Strauss, CDO at TD Ameritrade. He translates the business goals into four related data goals he calls the “Four A’s”:

  • Accuracy
  • Accessibility
  • Actionability
  • Advanced analytics. 

Other CDOs will have different goals, but it’s certainly helpful to have goals that are easy to articulate and share with other executives and departments.

In fact, those “A’s” bring to mind some of the key criteria we associate with confidence in data: quality, integrity, completeness, currency, lineage, security and governance. When the CDO does a good job of managing the four A’s, and tending to these other data attributes, confidence in the data tends to increase across the organization and the CDO’s ability to win support for new initiatives grows as well.

One of the best ways to win support is to score a highly visible success. That’s why selection of priority projects is so important. Experienced CDOs report that projects like making previously unavailable data accessible to marketers for targeted campaigns can make a big difference in gaining the support of the relevant executive (in this example, the CMO) and then of other departments across the organization.

Although CDOs across different organizations have different sets of responsibilities, one that is fairly consistent is responsibility for information governance. So the new CDO who is developing strategies during those crucial first 90 days on the job needs to make sure some planning cycles are devoted to governance: determining what governance means to the organization, how business and IT can gain a shared understanding of business terms, what compliance rules need to be addressed, how all data will be secured, where there is sensitive data that needs special protection, who is responsible and accountable for different types of data and how data quality should be measured, increased and maintained. Fortunately, while the CDO role is new, information governance has been around long enough to have well documented best practices to help the CDO get started.

Starting with that clean slate, the CDO has a big job to do, which, done well, will deliver big benefits to the organization in terms of reduced costs and risk as well as increased opportunity. The number of CDOs across multiple industries and geographical regions is growing each month. Cheers to all the new CDOs! May they succeed in their roles! 

Learn more about this exciting role in the new ebook "Insights for the new chief data officer"—available for download today.