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The chief data officer's dilemma: CDO role in flux

How to balance data safety with innovative big data expansion was at issue at an MIT symposium where the chief data officer role was considered.

Being in a CDO role today requires a good sense of equilibrium because it can land one somewhere between the roles...

of gatekeeper and innovator, attendees were told at the recent MIT Chief Data Officer & Information Quality Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.

Many chief data officers find they must focus on protecting their company's data and creating mechanisms for delivering quality data securely to users within the organization. That stems in part from the financial crisis of 2008.

After 2008, interest arose in the CDO role when a faltering Lehman Brothers showed how little some companies knew about their actual business, and how hard it was for them to trace data representing its deals and connections. The possibility of prosecution for ineptness with data was a concern. Strings of data breaches added to the urgency to enlist a CDO to protect data better.

However, other CDOs are being asked to use data in a different way: to inventively grow the business, pressed to follow the path of Silicon Valley companies that have turned data acumen into new business opportunities.

Just as many CDOs are tasked to do both -- to protect and open up the data at the same time.

While a job definition is still hard to nail down, the ranks of chief data officers seem to be growing. Analyst company Gartner has estimated that 90% of large organizations will have a chief data officer by 2019, but the CDO role appears still to be evolving.

Consultant, author and MIT event keynoter Tom Davenport used a sports analogy to describe the CDO's dilemma. It seems the CDO may have to play well at both ends of the court.

"There's a need to combine offense and defense. The defense is around security, privacy, governance and so on. The offense is around digitization, analytics, new data products and so on," Davenport said. "Successful CDOs have to combine some of both of those things, if they are going to keep their jobs."

Custodial clients look for data innovation

That makes the basic nature of the CDO's role challenging, according to one from a financial services provider.

"It's a balancing act," said Ranjana Young, CDO at Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. She said a key skill for a CDO is the ability to coordinate transition.

"The need for change management skills is much higher than you might estimate ahead of time," said Young, who is currently operationalizing a data strategy begun 18 months ago. Data innovation, not just data curation, is part of the agenda, she said.

"We are looking at ways in which we do data management for our custodial clients. They are very interested in how they can leverage our data platform," she said. "The customers are looking for innovation in terms of data. And, they are very interested in taking advantage of that."

As chief data officer, she said, she works closely with the company's chief digital officer to coordinate how data is used.

Who do you report to?

Where CDOs are positioned in the corporate hierarchy -- who they report to -- continues to be a factor in how they pursue their mission, according to attendees at the MIT symposium.

This can vary across industries, with, for example, CDOs in consumer goods industries less likely to report to a CIO. When the CDO answers to the CIO, it tends to put them on the defensive side of the CDO equation, some symposium participants agreed.

The defensive objective of "staying out of jail" may have been an early impetus to hire a CDO, but that may be changing, according to Mark Ramsey, CDO at GlaxoSmithKline PLC, a pharmaceutical and vaccine maker headquartered in Brentford, England.

''What keeps you up at night has changed," Ramsey told attendees during a panel session on the evolution of the CDO role. "Now it's, 'I don't want to be Googled,' or, 'am I not using data to transform the business?'"

Still, the CDO straddles two worlds, according to Forrester Research analyst Gene Leganza. For the CDO, Leganza said, "there is no shortcutting on the 'defense.' But it's not just about helping to get the company's data act together, either. It's about moving the needle on the business."

While the ranks of CDOs grow, the evolution of the role continues. For now, the CDO is a bit of an improviser, writing the CDO story on the fly.

Next Steps

Dig deeper into a CDO job description

Find out whether the CDO will eclipse the CIO

Watch a video on when to fill a CDO role

Dig Deeper on Data governance strategy

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Is the chief data officer role overblown? Do you think a unique role is required to steward data today?
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For most companies, I think that the answer is no. But many corporations are extremely top heavy and like to create a c-suite role for everything.
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