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13 Feb 2018

Legitimising the role of the Chief Data Officer

Caroline Carruthers

When it comes to understanding the role of the chief data officer, Carruthers has literally written the book.

The CDO is a relatively new, but rapidly expanding, role in the C-suite. With it comes a whole host of responsibilities and tasks that illustrate the importance of data as an asset to an organisation.

The role is so exciting, says Carruthers, because there is no one type of person who can become a CDO. There are many different people with wide and varied experiences who have moved into the job, and each will leave their own unique mark on the position.

One thing that is key to success, however, is the ability to genuinely engage with others. Data, Carruthers notes, does not sit in a silo – so why should the CDO? Being able to get people excited about their data journey and understand where they are coming from has to be a core skill for anyone in the role.

Simplifying ‘big data’

That sense of inclusivity runs through her entire approach to the role. The term ‘big data’ is not Carruthers’ favourite for two reasons. First, it is indicative of the human tendency to overcomplicate subjects, when it is arguably best to keep them simple.

The corollary of this is that some people will be included, and others excluded. As she notes, everyone within an organisation uses data, so the terminology should be one that is as accessible as possible. By keeping it simple, as many people as possible can be involved.

Carruthers is 'absolutely convinced’ that a large number of people doing the right thing is more productive than a small team working on their own. That means that in 2018, data is about getting more people to understand that data is an asset and should be treated as such. Once that bridge is crossed, managing it becomes easier.

Trying to develop the role of the CDO, changing attitudes so that people see data as an asset, making data more inclusive; these all present major challenges in their own right. It is lucky, then, that Carruthers loves problem-solving – the bigger the better.

On her first day on the job, she learned a very important lesson about keeping things simple. Having overcomplicated an issue, she ended up looking ‘like an idiot.’ She vowed to not make that mistake again and has since applied the mantra to all aspects of the role: keep it simple.

CDO simplicity

Challenges faced by Carruthers centre on ensuring that the basics are in place around information architecture, governance, and winning hearts and minds. These are the issues that every first generation CDO faces. They’re not, she argues, the ‘rock stars’ of a company, but they do build a platform for those stars.

The CDO’s relationship with other members of the senior team is, therefore, an important one, and Carruthers believes that the perception of the role is changing within the C-suite.

Each person who comes to the role is, of course, unique. She has witnessed CDOs move on to more senior positions because of their strategic insight, while others realise the role is not necessarily what they thought it would be.

These are the typical teething problems of a newly created role, but the general trend is towards greater recognition of the data problem that most organisations have, and as a result, the importance of a dedicated chief data officer.

Going forward, Carruthers believes that the role will be ‘professionalised.’ That is to say, the role of the CDO will no longer be worth questioning, and conversations about what the role entails will stop. Instead, it will be a recognised part of the C-suite in the same way that a CFO or CIO is now.

Increasing the legitimacy of the role was a motivator for Carruthers to write the book, and it seems to have worked. Traditionally, the ‘chief’ roles that last are based on organisational assets such as money or people. Data is now finally being recognised as an asset of equal importance.

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