What is a Chief Data Officer?
A Chief Data Officer (CDO) is a high-level management professional, responsible for overseeing how an organisation manages, stores, and uses their data. The CDO develops the organisation’s data strategy, leading the data team in gaining valuable insights from data and ensuring that data is used to support business goals.
Many businesses collect vast amounts of data but fail to utilise it effectively. As data expert Caroline Carruthers puts it, ‘we have lost focus on why we are collecting data, what we are hoping to get from it, and what benefits we can derive from it’. It’s the CDO’s job to change this.
The CDO is a very senior role within an organisation, as is indicated by its position in the ‘C-suite’ of employees. This means the CDO is level with roles such as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer within the organisational framework.
Chief Data Officers typically work in large organisations that deal with vast quantities of data. Although CDOs can work in any kind of business, they are most often found in tech companies, where the level of data collection tends to be even higher than usual. Having a member of senior management dedicated to data in such an organisation can be a real difference maker.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the Chief Data Officer role, let’s get a clearer picture of what they do by covering some of their key responsibilities.
Responsibilities of a Chief Data Officer
In order to truly modernise how an organisation uses its data, the CDO has a number of key responsibilities. Here are the top 5 things that they usually look after:
Data strategy development
Developing a data strategy that supports the organisation’s goals is a key responsibility of the CDO. To do this, they must fully grasp the business’ goals, determine its key data assets, and produce a roadmap to leverage data effectively. The data strategy developed and implemented by the CDO must have buy-in from other C-suite executives.
Data governance and compliance
CDOs must ensure that their organisation’s data is accurate, secure, and compliant with regulations. As a result, the CDO is responsible for implementing procedures around data quality, access control, and data privacy.
Data analytics and insights
CDOs must be able to leverage advanced analytics techniques, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, to extract meaningful insights from data. CDOs then collaborate with other data science professionals to identify trends, patterns, and business opportunities using these insights. This allows the organisation to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to market changes and customer preferences.
Innovation and data monetisation
CDOs are leaders of innovation and change. Exploring new ways to monetise data and finding opportunities to develop new products, services, or streams of revenue are paramount.
Data culture and advocacy
The CDO has the ultimate responsibility for the organisation’s data culture. The CDO needs to foster an environment in which data-driven decision-making can thrive across all business areas. To change data culture and see the greatest benefits, the CDO needs to develop initiatives to educate and empower others when it comes to data.
It’s worth noting that the CDO position is still a relatively new one, so the scope of the role is still being defined and may change slightly from business to business. Despite this, these core responsibilities remain the same.
How to become a Chief Data Officer
As mentioned, Chief Data Officer is a senior role, and it can take a significant amount of time to develop the skills and experience needed to be considered a suitable candidate. But no matter where you are in your career journey, there are a number of ways to set yourself up for success as a CDO.
Formal education and qualifications
Given the seniority of the CDO role, many employers require their CDOs to have formal education in their field. Whilst it may be possible to work your way up into this position, formal education is generally seen as desirable as a representation of your expertise. If formal education is an option for you, business technology or data may be a great place to start.
Make an effort to interact with experienced data professionals, no matter what stage you’re at in your career. Networking allows you to learn new skills and gain an insight into the different roles available in data analytics and management. Do some research on the professional network platforms available and consider industry events and conferences you may be able to attend.
Consider an internship
Internships can be a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience in your chosen field. If you’re new to data, or early on in your career, an internship will give you the confidence that you’re on the right path and that a career in data is right for you.
If you’re a student, your university may offer support in finding internships for students. You could also reach out to technology companies in your area to see if you might be able to offer support as an intern. You never know where these opportunities might lead!
Secure a job in data
Data science or data analytics experience is key to eventually landing a CDO role. The skills in data collection, management, and analysis that you’ll gain in an entry-level data analyst role are essential building blocks on the path to CDO.
Plus, if you already have an idea of the company you’d like to work for, aim to secure roles in similar companies, working with their data, as this will show your interest in the specific field, which can make you a more attractive candidate for your dream role.
Secure some executive experience
Not only must you have relevant industry experience, you also need to demonstrate that you’re able to lead teams and initiatives in a senior role. This executive experience can range from supervisor and management roles to high-level executive positions: you just need to be able to demonstrate that your experience has prepared you for the demands of being a CDO.
Why businesses need a Chief Data Officer
We’ve already covered the key responsibilities of the Chief Data Officer, in terms of data management, analysis, and security, and discovered that the overarching benefit of a CDO is clarity and direction when it comes to data.
Carruthers makes the case that CDOs are so vital because they mitigate against data errors. ‘There is no single big reason to convince you to hire your first CDO, but there are a multitude of small mistakes happening every day that all add up’ – preventing those mistakes is a compelling reason to hire a CDO.
Carruthers goes on to provide an example of how data errors can be costly without the strategy of a CDO. ‘If someone in your sales department enters the wrong company name in the billing name field on the CRM, such as ACME Ltd rather than ACME (UK) Ltd, an invoice will be raised on 90-day payment terms for the wrong company. You may not find out until day 89. So, because the sales team made a tiny error, it has cost the company 90 days of cash flow. Or how about reputational damage because you base your decisions on flawed data that you were convinced was right?’ A CDO would help mitigate against risks of such errors.
Chief Data Officer skills
Successful Chief Data Officers possess a number of key skills that allow them to excel, including:
It’s no secret that the most effective results will be achieved through good relationships. Strong relationships support cohesion and the development of new ideas, but also allow the CDO to gain the support of their C-suite colleagues to deliver the data strategy vision. Likewise, the CDO will never be able to implement successful change without support from other areas of the business. In fact, the CDO will rely on other parts of the business to deliver much of the data strategy. For example, IT will deliver the technology and customer support for improved data entry.
It’s no secret that Chief Data Officers need to be knowledgeable when it comes to data. CDOs must know where and how to source data, and about relevant regulations and privacy, so the organisation can be safe in its use of data. The CDO needs sufficient knowledge not only to develop data strategy, but also to bridge the gap between the specialists and the board.
Data analytics and data management
Data analytics, the process of using raw data to make conclusions about information, is a crucial skill for a Chief Data Officer. CDOs need to consider many approaches to data analytics: what happened (descriptive analytics), why it happened (diagnostic analytics), what is going to happen (predictive analytics), and what should happen (prescriptive analytics). This understanding of data analytics allows CDOs to set high standards of data collection.
CDOs also need to be able to utilise a variety of software tools to make the most out of data, such as spreadsheets, data visualisation, reporting tools, data mining programmes, and open-source languages for optimised data manipulation.
Strong presentation and data storytelling skills are a must for CDOs, as they need to be able to offer a compelling case for their data strategy and explain complex data concepts in simple terms. CDOs need to be able to appeal to all areas and levels of the business to secure buy-in.