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The evolving role of the chief data officer

The job of the chief data officer is expanding to be more strategic as the need for organizations to connect and make sense of vast sums of data continues to grow.

In a world filled with a seemingly limitless amount of data, the role of the chief data officer is increasingly critical for organizations of all sizes.

The CDO role has expanded in recent years, found an IDC report on the state of the chief data officer, based on a survey of 1,291 global organizations.

CDOs in the past had mostly been focused on data governance and compliance, but now are also responsible for helping organizations use data to improve business operations, according to the report, released Aug. 19 and sponsored by enterprise data integration vendor Informatica.

The notion that the role of CDO has expanded in recent years also surfaced as a key topic at the annual CDO Summer School that ran from July 30 to Sept. 3.

CDO Summer School started in 2018 and is run by data governance vendor Collibra in partnership with the authors of The Chief Data Officer's Playbook, Caroline Carruthers and Peter Jackson.

Caroline CarruthersCaroline Carruthers

In an interview, Carruthers, chief executive of Northampton, U.K., IT consulting firm Carruthers and Jackson, noted that the role of the CDO is still is a modern construct.

"Data has actually been around since the dawn of time," Carruthers said. "The practice of actually managing data as an asset and looking after it as such is still relatively new."

Data has actually been around since the dawn of time. The practice of actually managing data as an asset and looking after it as such, is still relatively new.
Caroline CarruthersChief executive, Carruthers and Jackson

She said that in the today's digital economy, data has become a foundational element for decision-making.

Organizations still will often group in data management responsibilities with general IT operations, but that's less than ideal in Carruthers' view. Just because an organization has an IT group, that doesn't mean that group was actually looking at the data and thinking about how to create more value for the organization from tit.

Where the role of CDO fits in an organization

As a relatively new role, CDO reporting lines are not uniform. Carruthers said she has seen all kinds of reporting structures, including having a CDO report to a CTO, or to a CIO.

However, it doesn't matter too much who the CDO reports to as long the role is aligned with the business, she said.

Meanwhile, Ela Wardowski, vice president and data governance lead for Comerica Bank, and a graduate of the CDO Summer School, said the true role of the CDO is at the intersection of business and technology.

"At the end of the day, the data has to align with the business processes," Wardowski said. "It provides direction as well as the indicators for strategy and further development."

Tools to make the chief data officer role manageable

Part of making the most of data is having the right tools. Wardowski said that in her experience, an enterprise data catalog is critical to provide a scalable and standard way to define data.

A unified storage method, like a data lake, where an organization can centralize data, can be another critical tool, Wardowski said. Simply using a data lake isn't enough, though. Organizations also should have a defined set of processes for how data is centralized and what governance policies will be put in place, she said.

Going a step further, it's important to use some form of data profiling tool to identify data quality, Wardowski said.

"You have to put in place the data quality rules and measure them so that you have some kind of scorecard that you can understand what the quality is," she said.

Key challenges for the role of CDO

Data quality is one of the biggest challenges overall for chief data officers, according to Carruthers.

Organizations often want to jump straight to the exciting data science and analytics aspects of data, without first laying the right foundation, she said. That helps ensure that the data being analyzed is actually of good quality and is useful and accurate.

"It doesn't matter how wonderful a model you have, if you feed it total garbage, you're going to really struggle get anything useful out of it," Carruthers said.

For Wardowski, the big challenge is the sustainability of the role of CDO itself.

"Some people think you put the role in place, the problems get solved and you move on, but the role of CDO is really a strategic role," she said. "The CDO has to be a strong partner at the executive suite level."

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