By: Lisa Peacock-Edwards
There is no doubt that ‘big data’ is getting bigger by the day. Such exponential growth brings both opportunity and threat. The up side is that, by capturing volumes of data and leveraging the latest data tools, smart commercial decisions can be made. The down side is that, if the data analytics function is not plugged into the rest of the organization, the potential gain will not be seized. Some companies overlook a vital truth: that there is a human element to data.
To extract value from data demands IT expertise, but the mindset and skills do not always reside in a typical IT department. An intermediary is needed, hence the recent arrival of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) to the C-suite. The purpose of this role is to understand the company’s strategic vision and to translate it into a data perspective, defining best practice in data management, use and exploitation. Of course, technical nous, algorithmic thinking and predictive modelling are fundamental skills, but these come second to business acumen and the ability to pinpoint the relevance of specific data sets within a commercial context.
Big data is at the forefront of understanding market activity, so the CDO is instrumental in helping a company’s lines of business derive meaning and value from it. He/she needs to be in tune with the company’s products, markets and customers, and be fluent in technical and commercial languages, equipped to serve as an interpreter between IT and the wider business. Fronting up to a terabyte of data can be very daunting for a non-technical executive and the CDO must provide the intellectual muscle to push data around and deliver meaningful output that packs a punch.
Analytical yet communicative
As with any newly established role, the CDO can meet with resistance, especially from IT. For that reason, and to preach the importance of data at board level, it is more effective for the role to report to the CEO than the CIO. The CDO needs to have a high EQ, building a strong relationship with the CIO, winning budget, instigating change and garnering support from line of business heads. Executive search firms working on behalf of the 90% of large companies that, according to Gartner, will have a Chief Data Officer in place by 2020, need to assess candidates differently from conventional CIO or CTO roles where soft skills have not always been a top priority.
Metrics to evidence ROI
While the business should be the owner of data assets, the CDO acts as a guardian and enabler, collecting and harnessing data to get business results that will keep internal customers coming back for more. Demonstrating success is important from the outset and the role spec needs to have a strong focus on metrics that link data analysis to KPIs (eg. sales value, operational efficiency, tighter governance) and ultimately to quantifiable results. Once the CDO has earned his/her spurs as someone who adds real value to customer facing initiatives, the role will begin to be perceived as front line, not back office.
Companies across the globe are beginning to realise that data, like talent, is an invaluable resource that needs to be nurtured. If the new face of data analytics is a CDO who has been carefully selected by a suitably qualified executive search firm, the hiring company will have on board a powerful data advocate - someone capable of engaging the entire business and extracting value that can be directly linked to increased profit.