The modern chief data officer: A translator, a gardener and an appraiser

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Characteristics of high-performing CDOs

Given the rise of the big data, internet of things, digitization and digital transformation trends, the role of the chief data officer (CDO) has taken on tremendous strategic value. Beyond the table stakes responsibilities of capturing, retaining and capitalizing on the value of the data generated and acquired by the enterprise, the definition of the CDO role has to continue to evolve to maximize the potential of data and give credence and support to other enterprise strategies, such as digital transformation, productivity management, process optimization, customer experience enhancement, collaboration and alignment.

The most significant aspects of the CDO role find their roots in the roles of a translator, a gardener and an appraiser. CDOs can foster competitive advantage and agility through their ability to act as translators across an enterprise's organizational and departmental boundaries; their ability to act as gardeners capable of nurturing new initiatives, processes and technologies while also keeping the lights on; and their ability to act as appraisers who continuously analyze available data -- as well as data that is missing or is lying untapped or siloed and inaccessible -- and classifying, describing and enhancing and delivering it to the appropriate use cases and business drivers.

The CDO as a translator-interpreter

As the primary translator-interpreter in an enterprise, the CDO has to translate enterprise business needs into information that can lead to the identification of the appropriate data, the relevant analysis and the correct interpretations to move business initiatives. Data, when appropriately modeled, described and analyzed, offers the language that can enable often siloed departments and organizations to talk to each other on the same, level operating plane.

The CDO must develop a language that not only enables the business to talk to IT, or HR to talk to IT, or marketing to IT, or sales to IT, and vice versa, but, in addition, enables a consistent language for business, HR, sales, marketing etc. to talk to one another.

A secondary but incredible benefit of a good CDO is that it reduces the need for the entire business organization to learn to talk to IT or the entire IT team to understand business context. By facilitating the conversation to the right degree, not everyone on the business and IT teams needs to be trained and required to develop a complete understanding of the other department; this responsibility can be delegated to a much smaller team.

Good CDOs will not only translate business context into data-enabled initiatives; they will also ensure that key concepts from one domain or department are appropriately translated into concepts in the other domain. For example, a contractual violation in the business domain could be translated as a certain metric exceeding a particular threshold value. Ensuring that translated concepts are sound and accurate is immensely important.

Good CDOs will also ensure that key concepts, terminology, entities etc. are accurately interpreted and organized into cross-domain glossaries and data dictionaries enabling anyone in the enterprise to look up and understand the context behind certain concepts, systems and processes and ensure that users are easily able to onboard and assimilate into the established terminology of the enterprise.

At the same time, the CDO needs to be the gateway for the remainder of the organization to other departments. This means that the CDO has to become an expert in the style, tone and processes, initiatives, drivers, goals and success criteria of other departments and be able to ensure that initiatives are aligned and organized around the departments and organizations the CDO's office is tasked to enable. Often, these concepts get lost in translation and this can cause the CDO's office to be perceived as underdelivering and out of sync with the key corporate goals and strategies.

The CDO as the gardener

The role of the CDO as a gardener is key to a healthy data strategy in an enterprise. Table stakes require CDOs to understand the corporate strategy and roll out initiatives and investments that deliver value and capabilities to meet the corporate goals. They need to adjust their strategies and plans based on continuous assessment of the reality and make minor adjustments (changing tactics, short-term goals) or major strategic shifts. For example, a CDO might prioritize a caching layer to deliver analytical results faster to consumers or, as a strategic shift, move away entirely from batch analysis of data and choose to focus on stream processing as it might better match the latency and recency requirements of the business.

At the same time, a CDO has to act like a strategic gardener, thinking and acting continuously beyond simply tending the garden. A CDO should ensure that the data storage and processing environment is healthy, organized and described continuously with metadata that ensures that all data is clean, validated, of high quality and readily searchable, discoverable, accessible and understandable.

Usage, access and interactions that might reduce the quality of the data and analysis or might lead to information leakage or other security risks need to be monitored and mitigated. Usage that prevents or inhibits other usage and consumption of data and analysis in a shared environment needs to be monitored and throttled if needed. In addition, the CDO needs to ensure that data analysis systems are continuously monitored to offer the quality of service levels promised across various modes of access -- be it batch, ad hoc, interactive, periodic or real-time.

Most importantly, a CDO can never be at rest, satisfied with the state of the enterprise's systems, technologies and processes. The big data and IoT landscape is continuously changing, with new technologies (both open-source or proprietary) offering new and improved mechanisms to exploit existing data or enhance existing analytics and results. CDOs must continuously monitor the state of the technology landscape and their own internal decision-making processes to be ready to incorporate the right technology or process improvements, given the appropriate time, that reduce risk but set up the enterprise for continuous innovation, self-disruption and future-proofing.

The CDO as the appraiser

The CDO has to have a really good understanding of the value of the enterprise's data assets, reporting assets and analytical assets. Like appraisers, CDOs should not only know the current most valuable assets under their control; they also should know what the strategic value of a data set will be in the future or when it is integrated and enriched with another data set. They should be able to use their understanding of the business to determine strategic value and, in addition, take their strategic assessments back to the business teams to educate them on the potential of highly enriched and integrated data and the expected return on investment on various current and planned business initiatives.

CDOs should also be able to scan their data landscapes and have a good understanding of what their potential data and instrumentation gaps might be. Because instrumentation can often be a tedious activity with a not so minor impact to production systems, careful planning and a strategic rollout are required to plug instrumentation gaps without jeopardizing existing initiatives and production services.

CDOs should also continuously experiment to try and increase the understanding of the strategic assets in their organizations. Experimenting with merging and enhancing various data sets to generate a broader, more comprehensive single version of the truth and then pivoting that data for many different horizontal (security, fraud, QOS etc.) and vertical (upsells/cross-sells, demand generation etc.) purposes to align with key business initiatives is constantly required for maximum value to be extracted from the data.

At the end of the day, the CDO is responsible for the analytics, the quality of analytics and the speed at which analytics is delivered to serve key business initiatives. To ensure that the best insights are delivered in a timely manner to the teams that need them, the CDO needs to spearhead a campaign to ensure that as much as possible, all data in the enterprise is clean, well-described, annotated, resolved, validated and of very high quality. In addition, the analytics being built on top -- either as self service by the various business teams or done by the data team -- must be scrutinized for quality, accuracy and incorrect assumptions. A team that can sign off and verify or double-check the analytics and insights generated is often needed to ensure that the value from the data is appropriately generated, disseminated and proliferated through the enterprise.

The CDO and the time to value

The CDO is ultimately responsible for how fast and how thoroughly data-driven insights can be incorporated into an enterprise's strategic business decision-making and planning. The CDO position is a busy, complex job -- a role akin to that of a quarterback pushing an entire organization to align over a common language toward a common goal. The benefits a good CDO can drive into an organization are immense and often long-lasting.

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