Chief Data Officers Are A Good Idea — But How Is That Going To Work?

Gene Leganza
Vice President, Research Director
February 13, 2013

It seems to be popular these days amongst industry pundits to recommend that organizations add a new Cxx role: the Chief Data Officer (CDO). The arguments in favor of this move are exactly what you'd think: the rapidly accelerating importance of information in the enterprise, and, as important, the heightened perception of the importance of information by business executives. The attention on information comes from all the rich new data that simply didn't exist before: sensor data from the Internet Of Things, social media, process data — really just the enormous volume of data resulting from the digitization of everything. Add to all that: new technology to handle big data in a reasonable time frame, user-friendly mobile computing in the form of tablets, data virtualization software and data warehouse appliances that significantly accelerate the process of getting at the information for analysis, and the promise of predictive analytics, and there's plenty of cause for an information management rennaisance out there. With a little luck, the activity it catalyzes will also improve enterprises' ability to manage the data and content that's not so new but also very important that we've been struggling with for the last decade or so. 

The only argument against creating this role that I've run across is that if CIOs and CTOs did their jobs right, we wouldn't need this new role. That's pretty feeble since we're not just talking about IT's history of relative ineffectiveness in managing information outside of application silos (and don't get me started about content management) — we're adding to that a significant increase in the value of information and a significant increase in the amount of available information. And then there's the fact that the data could be in the cloud and not managed by IT, and there's also a changing picture regarding risk that suggests a new approach.

So it's easy to look at the historical information management immaturity of most enterprises and conclude we need a new model. And, since organizational changes often highlight that something new is being viewed as important to the enterprise,  it's also pretty straightforward to envision a new CDO role as a focal point of all this new value. But I've read maybe a dozen posts and articles by various advisory types, including one in the prestigious Harvard Business Review,  and I have yet to see anyone walk through the implications. Specifically, what would be the charter of this new role (and the organizational unit that would report to it), where would it report, and what roles would report into it?

For the charter, it's easy to see that the CDO would take on planning a strategy for taking advantage of all the opportunity out there. But would they focus on new stuff or also assume responsibility for all the existing information management functionality currently in the enterprise? Would they build data labs, hire data scientists, and pursue R&D for new business value? Would they wave a big stick and insist that business units appoint data stewards to work with IT information architects to define the information architecture? Would they manage information governance processes? Would they take over planning of the information management technology roadmap or coordinate with the existing architects or technical SMEs?

As for where the position would report, I expect a lot of people would look to a business reporting relationship to reflect the new awareness of the importance to the business. But then the charter and who reports into this position becomes quite interesting — are we talking about moving all current information management staff out of IT and into the business? If so, what's the mechanism for coordinating with all the application, middleware, OS, etc. SMEs who work constantly with the information management staff? And if it doesn't make sense to move a significant chunk of IT functionality out of IT, what's the mechanism for coordinating any cool new things coming out of the CDO's labs into the mainstream architecture? Where do information architects live in this new world, and what's the relationship between the EA practice and the CDO's domain?

If the CDO were to become a role that stayed in IT and reported to the CIO, there are still plenty of questions. Does that create a sufficiently powerful role to influence business activity? Again, do all existing information management staff move into the new CDO organization? If so, how will that work within the general trend of more federated organizations that we're seeing? If we're not talking about moving all those staff, how does the new CDO influence all the information management practices in existence, mature or otherwise? What really changes?

I firmly believe that the definition of a CDO role is a good idea and collectively we'll figure out one or more good models. There's plenty to be worked out to make this effective, and there are no easy answers as far as I can see. We will see different models emerge and not all will succeed. But I get inquiries about every other day from someone rethinking their organizational approach to information management, so things are moving. 

This is a subject I'd really love to hear from you on. Do you think a CDO role is a good idea? What would that role do? As importantly, what would they NOT do? Where should they report, and who should report to them? 

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