Why the Chief Data Officer (CDO) Role Is Regressive & Dangerous

Why the Chief Data Officer (CDO) Role Is Regressive & Dangerous

The rise of the CDO is regressive because data is an input to information & knowledge, and it is dangerous because it reinforces the propensity of organizations to focus on the moment rather than on strategic action and wealth creation.

CDO role: Regressive and Dangerous

With big data comes a new corporate role, yet another executive seeking a seat at the tables of power. As more and more Chief Data Officers (CDO) get anointed, I can’t help but raise a caution flag for three reasons. First, the idea of managing enterprise data in a holistic way is but a fraction of the role that a Chief Information Officer (CIO) should play. Second, appointing a CDO regressively pushes attention away from value to managing an input. Finally, the CDO role is dangerous because it reinforces the Industrial Age propensity of organizations to focus on execution over strategy.

Some analysts, like Cutter’s Larissa Moss make the case for the CDO (see The Role of Chief Data Officer in the 21st Century). The Commerce Department just named its firsts CDO (see Commerce Department names Ian Kalin first chief data officer) and the Chief Data Strategy Forum 2015 is about to commence in Boston. All of this CDO activity calls for strategic dialog about roles, definitions, and strategy.

The rise of the CDO

When an emergent technology arrives, like big data, it may be perceived that an existing role, in this case, the CIO, may be ill-equipped to deal with it’s implications. Vice Presidents of Manufacturing went through much the same issue when the concept of Total Quality Control first infiltrated the literature, and then became a meme, ultimately leading to the creation of a Vice President of Quality role.

Much like quality circles and Six Sigma, new ideas like machine learning, data security and the distributed data architectures have added new ideas at the edge of the CIO role.

Other CDO responsibilities, however, like developing a data and analytics strategy, helping the organization gain value from their data, and moving organizations toward more data-driven decision making are all responsibilities that should already align with CIO job descriptions.

The problem is they don’t. Most organizations aren’t very good at leveraging their data, even though they have less of an issue with managing it (read, not losing it in a catastrophic way from a failure to back it up) and keeping it accurate, at least in transaction-based industries. While many CIOs have achieved their goal of making it to the executive management table, the necessary emphasis on business has left many CIOs less technically knowledgeable than those they manage, and even less attuned with emerging technologies and their implications. Senior leaders reading about Big Data and its benefits perceive a skills gap, perhaps even an opportunity gap, and are now looking to shore up the perceived threat by installing someone with clear accountability for data.

The regressive CDO

The CDO role, however it gets defined, is regressive. Data exists at a lower level of granularity than information. The CIO should already employ multiple data analysts and architects across business units and functions. And the good ones should, with their business hats on, be working with their senior analysts to leverage the value of their data. Without data there is no information. It is my position that everything is data, even “information” that isn’t currently being acted upon, and it is the role of humans and computers applying codified intelligence to create information out of data. The majority of computing is data management and manipulation. The primary role of analysts and analytics is to transform data into information.

CIOs failing to effectively manage data does not imply the need for a new role. What it implies is perhaps a redefinition of the CIO’s scope, or improved performance and execution in a discipline that has created so much data about it that any CIO missing the importance of data to his or her role should probably be dismissed from their job for not paying attention.

The rise of the CDO also raises the issue around the demise of the CKO, the Chief Knowledge Officer. Although CKOs still exist, it is no longer a growth role, but it should be. The CDO role points at a weakness in CIO responsibilities or accountabilities, while the movement away from CKOs has much to do with organizations focusing on the near term, pushing away from anything that is conceptually complex or forces them to actively consider their long-term continuity. Most organizations have not only adhered to the industrial view of measurement for determining their success, they have accelerated the rate at which they execute so that anything future-oriented appears to be a waste of money. The CDO role falls firmly into this model because a focus on interpreting data in order to execute the next transaction better, or to entice the next customer more, is more important than determining what an organization needs to know to meet its 10-year strategic objectives. Agility and adaptation, though watchwords in talent management, create discomfort and disruption, which leads to inefficiencies.

If organizations were responsibly strategic they would employ a CKO who understood what knowledge the organization required to deliver on its goals and objectives and overcome its strategic challenges. The CKO would know what information was required to inform those responsible for acting strategically as well as tactically, and the information requirements would drive the necessity for data. And if the CKO was doing his or her job well, they would also be examining all of the human, intellectual and digital capital of the organization to determine if those stores of capital contained actionable knowledge that could be transformed into new products, services or applied to make processes more efficient. The CDO may exist, but only as part of a triumvirate in which knowledge necessarily trumps its inputs.

The CDO is Dangerous

And that brings us to why the role of CDO is dangerous. Not only does it break up the holistic management of data, information, and knowledge, it reinforces the execution-oriented bias of modern organizations. It is not that modern organizations should be inefficient, but efficiency isn’t a strategy, nor is it the means toward continuity and long-term wealth creation. Efficient organizations can do the wrong things in ever more effective ways, never perceiving an existential threat because they are so focused on measuring the moment. Knowledge-focused organizations, on the other hand, should know what makes them work well, and also what opportunities and threats exist that they need to exploit or avoid. The CDO may fiercely explore how to transform data into dollars, but he or she will also, more likely than not, contribute to strategic missteps as organizations focus ever more diligently on their data and fail to embrace the insights in the information or empower insightful humans to act on what that information is telling them.


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Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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