by Minda Zetlin

What’s the difference between a chief data officer, chief digital officer, and chief analytics officer?

Nov 13, 201710 mins
CIOData ManagementDigital Transformation

Companies are increasingly developing new executive roles aimed at making the organization as a whole more data-driven and digitally adept. Here's how three new tech exec titles take different approaches to tackling the same problem.

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Credit: Thinkstock

IT is changing at a rapid pace, and so too is IT leadership. With digital transformation a top concern for many organizations and the analytics revolution in full force, companies are carving out new executive roles that might otherwise fall under the guardianship of the CIO. Among the most popular technical additions to the C-suite are the chief data officer, chief analytics officer, and chief digital officer.

Although the three titles describe distinctly different functions, there’s more overlap among them than you might think. That’s because these new positions mostly came into existence for a single reason: A large organization living in a rapidly changing world and facing technological disruption sees the need for an executive who can make the organization as a whole more data-driven, more digitally adept, and better prepared for the challenges of the future.

“If you look at the work all these folks are doing in general, there are elements that tie to the product, to behavioral targeting, and to the revenue model,” says Chris Galy, chief people officer at real estate marketplace Ten-X. “All three functions tie into having the right design and infrastructure to execute on those.” That might once have resided with the CIO and in some organizations it still does. But in many enterprises, overburdened IT departments and their leaders are happy to hand off the challenges of drawing value from data and creating — and staving off — digital disruption to one of these new roles.

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Though all three titles arose from the need to create digital transformation and harness the power of data, each approaches the problem from a slightly different direction. Here’s a closer look at the roles and responsibilities of these emerging IT leaders.

The chief data officer role and responsibilities

Chief data officers oversee the data in their organizations, but just what that means varies from one company to another. In some, the chief data officer mainly manages data, making sure that it’s high-quality and meaningful, and creating the infrastructure to store and deal with it appropriately. This type of chief data officer leaves data analytics to a chief analytics officer or another function. In other companies, the chief data officer is responsible for data analysis and drawing useful insights from data. He or she may also oversee data management and storage, or those tasks might fall to IT.

The most effective chief data officers are those who leave data management oversight to someone else, says Andrew White, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “Chief data officers who say they’re adding value to their businesses don’t have responsibility for managing data,” he says. “That stays firmly with the technologists. They tend to focus on strategy and prioritization and business cases. They act on behalf of other business leads. They prioritize which decisions are top of mind for the board.”

White also believes that of the three new titles, chief data officer is likeliest to be in use long term. “Six or seven years ago, banks had chief security officers, privacy officers, chief information officers,” he says. “But even though they had lots of chiefs, no one was taking the lead on putting the business value of data to work. They came up with the chief data officer role as an attempt to put someone in charge of the business use of data and other companies copied them.”

Although some CIOs and CTOs saw this new role as an incursion on their turf, most were happy to hand off the daunting job of drawing value from data, he says. “So the chief data officer title became legitimized. There was a separate conversation about the chief digital officer title, which originally was outward facing. And chief analytics officer popped up. But the corralling title seems to be chief data officer. It will be interesting to see if it gradually sucks in all the others.”

For more on the chief data officer role, as well as salary expectations and what to look for in hiring one, see “What is a chief data officer? A leader who creates value from all things data.”

The chief analytics officer role and responsibilities

What’s the difference between a chief analytics officer and a chief data officer? It depends on whom you ask. A chief analytics officer is responsible for data analysis and business intelligence. But some experts think this is part of the chief data officer’s job. “I don’t know that there’s a huge difference between a chief data officer and a chief analytics officer,” says Mike Doonan, partner at the high-tech recruiting firm SPMB in San Francisco. “Companies are getting caught up in titles and not in what it is they’re actually trying to accomplish with the role.”

Others see the two roles as two different jobs with different backgrounds. “The chief data officer is about data enablement,” says Justin Cerilli, head of the data and analytics practice for consultancy Russell Reynolds Associates. “The analytics piece is how you drive insights off that data. How do you make that data actionable for business?” The chief data officer, he adds, doesn’t usually have a data science background, whereas a chief analytics officer usually does.

At the same time, good CAOs want to make sure they’re working with the right data and that it’s high quality. “It can be tough to get an organization to understand the data management piece of it,” Cerilli says. “I’ve seen great analytics leaders go to organizations where the data wasn’t ready for them yet and get frustrated and leave.” This is why some CAOs want ultimate responsibility for data management, and why some experts recommend giving both roles to one executive.

If a CAO is doing the job right, he or she has a high likelihood of disrupting existing business processes. That means that a good CAO must have strong relationships within the organization, a deep understanding of the business, and great communications skills. “The data science skills, the technology skills and all that — that’s all necessary but insufficient,” says Chris Mazzei, chief analytics officer at EY. “Ultimately, the organization needs to consume analytics, and that means changing business decisions.”

That’s where many CAOs can run into trouble, he says. Mazzei was at EY for 20 years before becoming CAO, most recently as chief strategy officer. “I had the benefit of understanding a lot of the business; I had relationships with the senior leaders,” he says. “I wasn’t put in the role because I was the best technical person we had in the firm. Those other skills have been really underappreciated and they’re critical because of what the objective is.”

For a closer look at the chief analytics officer role, including salary expectations and advice on how to succeed as one, see “What is a chief analytics officer? The exec who turns data into decisions.”

The chief digital officer role and responsibilities

If being the evangelist-in-chief for drawing value from data and changing business processes is part of the chief analytics officer role, that function is front and center for chief digital officers. But beyond the need to sound the call for new, more digital approaches to solving business problems, the role can mean different things in different organizations.

“It’s a bit of a cross-functional role,” says Curt Stevenson, chief digital officer at insurance software company Duck Creek Technologies. “It means very different things to different people. In some cases, it’s an internal role about maximizing digital marketing. In our case, it’s about helping our customers embrace digital and provide better experiences to their customers.”

For more on the chief digital officer role, see “What is a chief digital officer? A digital strategist and evangelist in chief.”

To whom should these titles report?

Where do chief data officers, chief digital officers, and chief analytics officers fit in the reporting structure? In a recent Gartner survey of both chief data officers and chief analytics officers, 40 percent said they reported to the CEO. Sixteen percent reported to the CIO, with the rest reporting to the CFO, CTO, or a non-C-suite title.

For organizations that expect these new titles to act as change agents, it’s smartest to have them report to the top exec, experts say. Colin Zima, chief analytics officer at data analytics platform Looker says he’s known CAOs to report to the CFO or the CIO as well as the CEO, but things are changing. “More and more, I’ve seen the title report to the CEO just in terms of trying to elevate analytics to the same level as marketing or sales.”

A CAO who does not report directly to the CEO can still create value for an organization, but it will be harder for that person to drive organizational change, he adds. “If you are working in service to the other organizations, you need to be on a level playing field with them. If you’re reporting in to the CFO, you’re not on a level playing field.”

In addition to the right reporting lines, you also need the right organizational values, and the right support from leadership to create real change, he says. “There needs to be the expectation that data is used to make decisions, and that comes absolutely from the top down,” he says. “If people expect that they can take data to make better decisions, then they will use data to make better decisions.” Google, he adds, is a great example of a company where data-driven decision-making is the norm.

“There’s a cultural expectation that even if your role doesn’t have ‘data’ in the title, you’re expected to use data to make decisions,” he says. On the other hand, he warns, “If your CMO and CFO don’t care about data-driven decisions, their organizations won’t care either. So it starts with culture.”