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The CDO's changing role

On the surface, the role of the chief data officer is to serve as the company’s change agent via managing and monetizing data. But the role is changing. Here are four examples of what it might become and how CDOs must respond.

Once, the corporate responsibilities of a chief data officer revolved around managing data in the data center, whether that data was stored on premises, in the cloud, or both. But that role is changing. CDOs wrangle data that is distributed, democratized, commercialized, shared, streamed up to the cloud, and left running wild at the edge. Plus, the CDO’s relationship with CIOs just turned complicated. Here's a look at how all these influences are changing CDOs’ responsibilities to the company and impacting their careers.

CDOs have not been idle. With awareness of evolutionary data technologies and analytical models, they have expended effort in balancing among on-premises data centers, hybrid clouds, and multiclouds. They've worked to democratize data, build self-service data services, and establish on-the-fly database-as-a-service accounts for business users, all while ensuring compliance with increasingly punishing regulations. Before lunch, even.

But technologically, and in terms of internal politics, things are changing: Dashboards, data sharing and collaboration tools, and machine learning and AI are being put to work on tasks that are well over most humans’ heads. Who makes the decisions about which to use?

The CDO role is becoming more common, at least in big companies. In 2017, a PricewaterhouseCoopers study showed that 19 percent of the world's largest 2,500 public companies have a CDO.

The CDO is dead. Long live the CDO

“CIOs will make the chief digital officer obsolete within five years,” Forrester predicts in a 2017 report.

It’s a declaration that’s widely echoed a year later. In an enterprise.nxt article on the top five big data and analytics predictions for 2019, James Markarian, chief technology officer of SnapLogic, an app, data, and cloud integration tool provider, says, “The days of forgetting that the ‘I’ in CIO stands for ‘information’ are over.” The CIO’s role is shifting hard toward “leading a company’s data and information strategy rather than infrastructure and security,” according to Markarian.

That has all the markings of a major turf battle, and one that CDOs potentially have already lost—that is, unless CDOs shift their roles to something less confrontational with the CIOs to whom they report and more relevant to the C-suite above them both.

Changes in the CIO role affects CDOs

It’s not as if friction between CIOs and CDOs was unexpected; the roles overlap in many ways, in areas like selecting data tools and establishing data rules.

However, one less obvious distinction between them is their worldview. Not all CDOs came to the table with IT experience, so the differences between CIO and CDO skill sets and business goals can be strikingly different.

A recent Forrester report says 47 percent of CDOs come from an IT background, but that means more than half of them do not. According to the Forrester analysts, the latter come from the business side: 13 percent with a corporate strategy background, 11 percent from a business analyst function, and 9 percent from marketing and sales. The remainder got the job after a start in “a line of business, risk and security, consulting, customer experience (CX), and other non-IT backgrounds.”

Given the CIO encroachment, this is a good time to think about leveraging skills that lie outside of IT’s purview, rather than fighting over control of data management’s more technical aspects.

Seeking digital transformation? Eight essentials for hybrid IT from 451 Research

Instead, look for the CDO sweet spots that lay the groundwork for meaningful changes to the CDO role. Among them:

Chief unifier of all the factions

Data democratization is a prominent business goal shared across industries. That goal is to make data available and usable by anyone in the organization, so that every decision, in every business unit, is data-driven.

To varying degrees, data democratization has occurred, although often with an unwelcomed twist: incompatible factions and a lot of in-fighting. But that provides an opportunity for CDOs, who know more about the field than does anyone in a given department.

“CDOs are uniquely positioned to play a critical role in organizational evolution. Independent of technology, enterprises need to align their different factions—such as DevOps, LOBs, and central IT—around some type of common data strategy or guiding principles,” says Peter Smails, CMO at Imanis Data, a machine learning-based big data backup provider.

“We see this at almost all the enterprises we speak with,” Smails adds. “This is why you see the proliferation of the CDO title.” Smails expects this role change to continue for the next decade.

Chief conscience for corporate responsibility

New, tougher regulations such as GDPR make companies liable for protecting data and respecting individual data privacy. The penalties for failing to do so are costly. But even companies motivated more by using data for good need a guiding conscience onboard to ensure the company makes the right moves for the right reasons.

“The CDO today has a critically important responsibility that’s often overlooked: They need to serve as the ‘chief conscience’ for the company,” says Harry Glaser, co-founder and CEO at Periscope Data, a data visualization and BI platform provider.

As an example, Glaser says, using AI or machine learning data for classification, prediction, and ranking “runs a strong risk of delivering immoral outcomes if unchallenged.” Certainly CDOs have to ensure the resulting AI inferences don’t have negative financial implications on a business, but they can also watch to ensure that AI-driven actions do not render a morally upsetting impact on society.

“As leader of the data team, the CDO can be the human governor of these AI systems who understands the potential for harm when analyzing the data and implications that come from it,” Glaser explains.

Chief collaborator across the business

The CDO has to be a collaboration expert, with both technical data skills and business skills, says Glaser. Modern CDOs can’t spend all their time driving and directing data science teams. They have to work with every team that touches data. And they need to help both teams and individuals with varying skill levels work together.

“Some CDO responsibilities are obvious, like data governance, data quality control, master data management, etc.,” says Glaser. “But this new expanded role now certainly requires them to take control of business analytics and data strategy.”

“In the age of citizen data scientists, when everyone wants to explore data on their own, this is especially tough, because everyone is more eager to participate in the process,” Glaser adds.

Chief enforcer of the data strategy

While CDOs have always been charged with data governance and compliance, making those calls have become trickier in the face of increased demands for data access. It also isn’t helpful that nearly everybody in the organization is ingesting and digesting data, oftentimes willy-nilly.

CDOs have to develop finer-tuned strategies that stifle infractions while still driving innovations. But that’s easier said than done.

“CDOs today have more data ingestion points into the organization. Some of the sources are not necessarily corporate-sponsored or aligned to corporate vision but affect information being fed to the organization,” says Ian McClarty, president and CEO of PhoenixNAP Global IT Solutions, a managed services provider.

“The CDOs need to take a hard look at what data is being artificially brought in,” McClarty adds. They must then "either require better enforcement and education to curb the data ingestion or embrace the data as an asset augmentation and better monetize the information.”

While there are numerous tools that can detect everything from data ingestion and origin to adherence to compliance rules, it still takes a smart, strategic leader to write those rules and policies, make judgments on where to hold and when to bend, and generally enforce the lot in a fair and logical manner. In other words, this is solid CDO turf that extends far beyond technical prowess.

The changing CDO: Lessons for leaders

  • CDOs and CIOs are headed for a collision in responsibilities. Both roles need to adapt: CIOs as data management strategists and CDOs as data usage overseers.
  • The corporate social responsibility movement will stall out and costly penalties for privacy infractions will increase unless there is a specified chief conscience leader inside the corporation. CDOs are uniquely suited to that role.
  • When it comes to data usage and impacts, CIOs traditionally look inward while CDOs look outward. Corporations need both views to succeed in highly competitive and fast-changing markets. To maintain both perspectives, it’s better to build on both roles than try to merge them.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.