The Data Forecast: The Ridiculous CDO

COL01 - image for new column - edWe’re Solving the Wrong Problem

Data people love to have the same conversations over and over again. Attend a data conference and you will inevitably be confronted with questions like “What skills are necessary to be a good CDO?” and “Where should the Chief Data Officer report in an organization?”

It’s as if the CDO were some sort of data superhero for whom we can pick the powers. Should our superhero be able to fly, or should she shoot little spider webs from her wrist? Should our Chief Data Officer come from project management, data governance, or somewhere else? Do these powers come from magic or a terrible science experiment?

This isn’t quite how it works.

We want our CDOs to be knowledgeable executives, accomplished managers, profound business minds, and brilliant technologists. Yes — great idea! When you do find that superhero, enjoy paying them more than your CEO. Actually, just make them your CEO. That’s the role where this kind of unicorn talent belongs.

In the real world, we have individuals, all of whom have a unique backstory, failed science experiment or otherwise. They have strengths, weaknesses, and resume gaps. We can talk of ideals, but we must hire real people that will never quite fit perfectly. A good CDO candidate will be able to help your business use data to get better at what it does. Find the best person at that, and the details of their backstory will remain of secondary importance.

So assume we have a CDO identified. This is often a new position in our organization, whose responsibilities are clearly important, but cross over many functions that we already have in our businesses. It is often a nontrivial exercise to figure out how to fit the role in organizationally. Most fundamentally, we ask our data people community whether CDOs should report to IT or the business.

Then, like enlightened scholars we instinctively lock arms and cheer together, “Of course, the business! Don’t be ridiculous! The data is too important to the business to be left to ITs crazy ways!”

Okay, let’s back it up for a minute and break this down a little more carefully:

  • Does data need technology to be made useful? (yes)
  • Does IT do technology stuff for your company? (yes)
  • Does the business rely on IT to support other essential business functions? (yes)
  • So the Chief Data Officer should report to the business and not IT? (???)

Why are we even having this conversation? IT is clearly the logical place for the Chief Data Officer to reside.

Ah – but that elicits a visceral response inside of us data folks because we know that if we put the role of the CDO inside of IT, the CDO will inevitably be less effective. Why is that? Have we completely lost trust in our technology organizations to be a trusted part of the business?

Now, my friends, we are starting to address the real problem:

We want the CDO reporting somewhere other than IT because IT is not currently a critical part of the business.

Our technology organizations have been failing the business for a long time. It’s embedded in the culture and language of IT operations. For example, “requirements gathering” connotes a one-directional flow of information from the business to IT.

It’s like a Taco Bell drive through: “I’ll have the Office 365 Burrito please, and 2 CRM Soft Tacos.” Coming right up!

IT has never learned to do much beyond assemble the requests from the core ingredients on demand. They get talked at by the business, and then do whatever necessary to keep from being yelled at.

When IT becomes overwhelmed with requests, things slow down, and eventually they start to say no. Relations between the business and IT degrade, shadow IT pops up, and everybody is angry with each other.

Enter the Chief Data Officer.

Here is a technology-ish person who cares! Who “gets” the business, and has empathy for their needs. Certainly they will be a real partner who will get it right this time…

…Even though they are typically given a minuscule team with a vague mandate, and no real authority beyond that.

We are watching history repeat itself. We’ve been down this road before. This is why we created the Chief Information Officer in the first place. The CIOs should have been addressing these data challenges all along! They got busy with other stuff, apparently, and never got around to it.

Organizations need to be evaluating why CIOs are not living up to their expectations, not where to create the same problem with yet more fake C-level titles while setting them up to fail in a new way.

CIOs need to be actual C-level executives. This means a strategic business function with a meaningful impact to the success of the company. By necessity, a role with a PNL. Success at the C-level requires a measurable contribution, and that must be a balanced one. A cost-center head cannot be an effective C-level executive.

But that is not the only problem. An even bigger challenge is that we have nobody to fill this mythical role, whether you call it CIO or CDO. Remember, our technology organizations are manning take-out windows, gathering requirements and delivering on waterfall projects with no expectation of creativity or problem solving beyond technical syntax.

This has led to a world where we have few strategically-aligned technology professionals available to perform true business executive CIO roles.

CIOs are everywhere. Most are performing incomplete functions with incomplete skills delivering incomplete value. We must stop filling our CIO positions with technology directors (or CTOs). Our Chief Data Officers aren’t real C-level positions unless they are in lieu of a CIO, and our top data people should absolutely report to the CIO.

What we need are better CIOs. What we need are people that are asked to be strategic parts of the business from early in their careers, not just when they reach the top and wonder why they don’t really have a seat at the table. We need to completely rethink the role of technology and data throughout our organizations.

These are good ideas, but are big sweeping changes that we will need years to achieve. What can be done now?

First we must learn from within. Data folks trail years behind the collaboration developments the applications side of technology have employed. Agile, DevOps, Continuous Testing/Deployment, NoSQL, Cloud Technologies — all of these can begin to help us understand how to react more nimbly.

These are relatively easy, technology-driven innovations that we can build upon. The greater challenge is rebuilding the bridge between IT and the business. This is where there is no secret formula.

Building IT into a critical business capability requires executive sponsorship, strong leadership throughout, and most importantly, empathy.

We have to want to come together to make our organizations better. In the end, stop caring so much about the Chief Data Officer. Don’t pretend that this singular position does anything by itself. Stop dancing around the real problems that are causing our organizations to fall short of their potential.

Find ways to drive business innovation with data. Invest in that however you can, however it works for your business. Your competitors are certainly doing the same. Your customers will determine the path you must take to be successful. Listen to them. Adjust. Improve. Listen some more.

We will certainly talk more about these topics in upcoming columns. Until next time, go make an impact!

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Anthony Algmin

Anthony Algmin

Anthony J. Algmin is the Principal and Founder of Algmin Data Leadership (algmin.com), a company helping organizations improve their competitiveness in a digital world. He created the Data Leadership Framework, an approach to maximizing overall data value by balancing capabilities across the many data management disciplines.

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