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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Chief data officer jobs are often described using sports analogies, where those on defense protect data and those on offense mold data to help drive business strategy. Now, it may be time for the offense to move the ball, some corporate data leaders said at an MIT conference this month.
Things were different in 2008, a period that saw the emergence of chief data officer (CDO) jobs in response to a near-global banking collapse. Initially, there was some confusion on the title.
"We first used the term data czar," recalled Christina Clark, CDO at Boston-based General Electric. She said defensive financial and regulatory motives largely drove the emergence of the role, but there was no one model for the job.
Mark Ramsey, CDO at London-based pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC, echoed Clark's comment. "This started with the economic crisis," said Ramsey, who works at an office in Dallas. "But, within industry, that has changed. The role has aggressively been moving to the offense."
The shift to offense is very much due to new data-driven initiatives. Companies pursue these now, with an eye toward data-savvy Fortune 500 newbies, such as Facebook, Google and Netflix.
"Today, everybody aspires to that data-driven culture," said Venkat Varadachary, CDO at American Express Co. in New York. Varadachary, Ramsey and Clark took part in a panel discussion tracing the evolution of chief data officer jobs at the 2017 MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality Symposium here.
Let's play personas
Staying on the offense means successfully nurturing the seeds of a data culture in the organization, the panelists agreed. One way to do that is by adopting a role-based approach to data product design within a company, according to Varadachary.
"We are focusing on personas," Clark concurred, "asking what a types of information a person needs to be successful at their job."
"You have to serve the data in a way that is useful to the consumer," Ramsey said. Among other things, that means preparing data for data scientists differently than it is prepared for business analysts.
CDOs should not put a lot of work into building a sophisticated interface for a user who may want a Python interface, Ramsey said, referring to the simple web dialog boxes that many data scientists use when querying databases using the Python programming language.
Ramsey said he doesn't personally like to use Excel to query data, but for some "data personas" in the organization, it is the answer. No matter which interface is used, access to data is a key to nurturing a data culture. "A hiring requirement now is that the people have enthusiasm for data, so you best offer them access," he said.
But, as with sports teams, a strategy totally focused on either offense or defense isn't likely to succeed, the CDO panelists indicated, even though they might like to spend 100% of their time on offense. In fact, defensive efforts to validate and curate data set the stage for offensive progress.
"Regulators ask very good questions," Ramsey said, adding that "working to meet regulatory requirements has helped massively with the growth function."
"The fundamentals matter quite a bit," GE's Clark said. "They allow you to move faster because you put them in place."
What data is used by whom for what?
The original, defensive CDO position grew out of startling events. Banks and other institutions were scrambling -- sometimes unsuccessfully -- to use in-house data to identify risky financial positions.
If that defensive position is truly giving way, the move may be gradual. That is according to data shared by Randy Bean, CEO of Boston-based consultancy NewVantage Partners, and moderator of the MIT CDO panel.
Bean said a 2017 survey of data managers undertaken by his firm showed that the current role of the CDO is defensive -- ensuring regulatory compliance -- in about 56% of cases. Meanwhile, the CDO's role on offense -- driving innovation and revenue, that is -- lags behind, covering the remaining 44% of cases.
But things look a bit different when survey respondents eye the future role of the CDO, as 48.3% emphasized driving innovation and data culture, while 41.4% focused on managing data as an enterprise asset.
Looking ahead, chief data officer jobs will revolve around fundamental questions, such as, "What data is being used by whom for what?'' The answers to such questions will need to be addressed, whether players are on offense or defense.
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