When Capital One appointed Cathryne Clay Doss as its chief data officer back in 2002, many wondered: Is this just an interesting curiosity, or the start of something bigger?
On the positive side, a recent survey by New Vantage Partners found that the number of chief data officers is rising steadily. Only 12% of companies represented in the NVP survey had a CDO in 2012, but the percentage was up to a healthy 68% in 2019.
It’s evidently a popular role, even if there’s little consistency in CDO responsibilities.
Some CDOs are focused on simply inventorying the organization’s data assets. Others are more focused on data quality and master data management. All focus on creating a stronger data culture, but only a few say they’re responsible for producing measurable outcomes or quantifying the value of data assets. A more recent focus is data ethics. Clearly, it’s a role in transition.
The CFO Trajectory
To better understand the potential future of the CDO role, it’s useful to understand how a similar role, the chief financial officer, evolved over time.
CFOs initially were established as financial gatekeepers. Money is the lifeblood of any organization, so ensuring proper controls was an early priority. Legislation such as the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act brought a new focus on compliance. Since then, the CFO role shifted toward big-picture strategy, advising, and partnering with the CEO. Indeed, modern CFOs are often considered “CEOs-in-waiting” because of their wide span of insight, influence, and authority.
Will CDOs evolve on a similar path? The potential is there.
In the digital economy, data is well understood to be the new value creator. A landmark 2017 Economist report stated that “the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” Yet 92% of NVP survey respondents pointed to people and process being their biggest inhibitor.
That finding could help make a case for having a CDO, but one could argue that, alternatively, functional executives should be held responsible for delivering increasing value from their respective data domains: customer data, quality data, supply chain data, financial data, and so on.
Even given this decentralized view, there’s still a case to be made for the CDO role.
Individual executives may lack the motivation, skills, and/or resources to create the required data culture needed to master their respective information domains. Another valid concern is uniform governance of data assets. A single leadership voice to help IT understand what is needed can also be valuable.
Meanwhile, successful digital transformation requires companies to join together all of their sources of information and extract even deeper value.
Much like modern CFOs integrate all aspects of financial management to create a strategic view of their organization’s future, CDOs have the clear opportunity to integrate all aspects of how their organizations gather, integrate, and create value from data.
Most CEOs can rely on their CFOs to articulate the financial strategy of their organizations. When CEOs can rely on their CDOs to articulate the organization’s data strategy, it will be a clear sign that the role has reached its potential.
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