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The Expanding Role of the Chief Data Officer

It’s a time of increasing influence in the C-suite, but only if the CDO connects the dots by showing how data can add business value, say experts at Earley Information Science roundtable

The chief data officer is one of the newest arrivals in the C-suite. The title didn’t even exist until Visa coined it in 2001. But with the increasing importance of data analytics to all businesses, more companies are bringing CDOs on board – there are now about 2,000, according to the Gartner Group – and their roles are expanding. Their impact varies, however, as debates swirl over governance issues, often leaving data on the sidelines, stuck in silos. Meanwhile, many companies don’t yet see the need for a CDO, and make do with their chief information or chief technology officers.

But while CIOs and CTOs are essential to keeping the lights on in a company’s data infrastructure, and to provide safeguards against cyberattacks, a strong CDO has a singular role to play in harnessing the power of data to increase business value, according to a panel of information management experts who participated in an Executive Roundtable discussion hosted on Feb. 22 by Earley Information Science (EIS), a leading consulting firm focused on organizing information for business outcomes.

“Data is the new oil, fueling everything in the virtual world,” said one of the experts, Seth Earley, Chief Executive Officer and founder of EIS. “Simply put, it provides the competitive advantage.” And it is the CDO who is best positioned to turn the spigot on to fuel that advantage, he added.

Governance is certainly needed to organize and deploy the mountains of data that companies accumulate about markets, products and customers, Earley said, but the term is off-putting and CDOs often don’t help themselves by being too abstract and becoming mired in minutiae. “So don’t call it governance,” he said. Instead, “weave governance into the process and tie the data to metrics and key performance indicators to focus on the right things.” – Business objectives and strategies that are important to people in the company. In short, “cut through the noise and the distractions to get to the value.”

The roundtable discussion, “The Evolving Role of the Chief Data Officer: Increasing Influence in the C-Suite,” was led by David Hatch, Senior Vice President for marketing at EIS. Besides Mr. Earley, the panel included Mark Nance, CDO at American Fidelity, and John Nicodemo, Global Leader, Data Quality, at Dun & Bradstreet. 
“Everything we touch turns to data,” said John Nicodemo. “The volume and velocity of data is overwhelming – instead of insights, the result can be more chaos.” The CDO’s goal, “is to find the truth among the silos, to pull together the disparate data across the entire enterprise,” and not to get stuck in the mechanics of the process and lose sight of the business value.

As important as the CIO and the CTO are, it is the CDO who can help solve business problems, said Nicodemo, adding, “The CDO role is really a vocation, to connect the data with the rest of the organization.” 
But the CDO can’t do it alone, said Mark Nance. “It’s all about change management.” On one level, it is a top-down effort supported by senior executives, but it is also about, “lighting a grass roots fire, with all hands on deck.” The data ecosystem has to span all business units, so that the entire company becomes, “data aware and data driven.” Data needs to be used as a weapon, Nance argued, in order to capture market share, drive organizational improvement and produce, “actionable insights,” that will raise revenue, cut expenses and enhance customer engagement.

The CDO will have to employ some form of governance to make all of this happen, but not one that is bureaucratic in nature, the panel agreed.

“Regulation has to be natural – all about the business and doing the right thing,” said Nance. To innovate, you can’t be locked down. “You need some freedom,” he said. “But not the Wild West.”

The CDO’s job, Seth Earley said, “Is to get the right people to the table,” focusing on the right metrics, and to turn data governance, “Into business as usual.” That means the CDO, “Has to be more than a cheerleader. Mechanisms have to be put in place.”

The roundtable featured a real-time survey of the webinar attendees: 

  • Nearly half, or 46%, said that there was no CDO role at their organization. Just 12% of the participants’ companies had a CDO in place for more than a year. Another 19% had recently defined the role but hadn’t yet filled it and 23% were using other executives to do the work.
  • When asked about the significance of data to their organization, 29% said it was critically important (driving almost all decisions and outcomes) and another 29% said it was important (affecting major decisions and internal and customer-facing operations). At the other end of the spectrum, 19% said that innovation comes more from market trends and 6% said that data played no role in decisions, process innovation or customer interactions.
  • In terms of the top-most goal of CDO/data initiatives, there was this ranking: revenue growth (48%), efficiency gains (21%), innovation – new products or services (17%) and risk/security/compliance (10%).

Use this link to access a recording of the roundtable. And here is a related article on digital governance.

About Earley Information Science: EIS helps organizations establish a strong information architecture and management foundation to drive strategic business outcomes and enhance operational performance. EIS has more than 20 years of experience in working with Fortune 1000 organizations globally across many industries. Corporate headquarters are in the Boston metropolitan area with consultants working on projects around the world. For more about Earley Information Science, visit our website at or contact us at