The Role of a Chief Data Officer Explained

As data becomes more important in the business world, responsibility for how it’s collected, managed and used increasingly lands on the CDO.

By Michael Brenner

By Michael Brenner September 16, 2020

Data — there’s more of it, and it’s more important in the business world than ever before. Incredibly, Americans send 188,000,000 emails and 18,100,000 text messages and perform 4,487,420 Google searches every minute. Much of this information is recorded, transmitted and stored by organizations, whether that data is related to their employees, customers or prospects. What a company does next is down to one person: the chief data officer (CDO).

What Is a Chief Data Officer?

A chief data officer is a senior executive that manages the firm-wide governance and exploitation of collected and produced digital information assets. These responsibilities are manifested through systems, strategies, and services, such as analytics, machine learning, data mining, business intelligence, and even artificial intelligence.

What Is a CDO Responsible for?

It’s the responsibility of the CDO to identify and act on opportunities to improve data analytics and other data-related processes and systems. This might include predicting consumer trends or pinpointing a growth opportunity.

A CDO is responsible for all data across an organization, ranging from basic customer data sourced from social media to information generated by Internet of Things devices and sensors. This data may be structured or unstructured and may be gathered or generated in-house or purchased from a third party. A CDO ensures data is accessible and protected.

While the CDO is required to secure and maintain data, their role isn’t just about the technicalities. Instead, the CDO aims to improve the business’s understanding of data’s value — how this digital asset can provide extremely useful insights into customer behavior, preferences, habits, demographics, and more. It’s this educational and strategic aspect that results in data-backed decision-making, giving the company a competitive edge.

Why Are CDOs Necessary?

Even enterprises that recognize data for all it's worth may not manage or utilize their information efficiently. That’s where a chief data officer comes in. They play a key role in ensuring organizations are getting the most out of their data while remaining compliant with current regulations. It’s a specialized, multi-dimensional role that takes care of both data governance and analytics.

Who Does the Chief Data Officer Report to?

The CDO is a senior role — and an extremely important one at that. In most cases, the CDO reports directly to the chief executive officer (CEO). The chief data officer's work has a direct impact on how other c-suite executives (including the chief marketing officer and chief financial officer) collect, store, and use data. For this reason, the CDO may also report to the CMO, CFO, CIO, and COO.

How Can CDOs Encourage Others to Adopt Their Data Strategy?

The role of the chief data officer is relatively new, and some employees may not recognize the value of their expertise. CDOs, therefore, have to do something different. They must become known in their organization for their innovative thought-leadership, talent, and board awareness. The goal is to become an influencer with allies across departments that believe in their mission — these key players are critical to the adoption of new data strategies.

Sometimes, incentives may be required. Everyone within the company will be motivated by different factors when handling the data they encounter on a day-to-day basis.

The best CDOs, like most executives, are humble in their approach. While the CDO may grasp the sheer potential of big data, it’s critical for them to set realistic expectations and to be clear about the benefits and timeline.

The CDO and the Modern Enterprise

“Data technologies, science and processes are rewriting the rules of business and propelling organizations toward digital transformation.” — Forbes

Data has become one of the most critical competitive differentiators. Data-backed digital transformation has empowered businesses to radically rethink how they can use technology to better meet customer expectations and needs. As they begin to understand the value of their information, organizations are increasingly tightening their grip. And with a CDO on board, they can take action with confidence.

For example, insight on finance can deliver a significant revenue boost by giving stakeholders the cold, hard, factual information they need to make informed decisions. Decisions supported by data are more likely to result in positive returns.


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Similarly, more qualitative metrics can assist marketing, sales, and development teams with their strategies, whether creating a new product or facilitating a more personalized customer journey.

Beyond securing the competitive advantage data promises, CDOs assist enterprises with the ever-increasing, ever-changing collection of security and compliance requirements. Almost all businesses that deal with data are subject to some form of regulation, both in the US and across the globe.

Looking Forward at the Future of the CDO Role

Reports suggest that we’ll be producing 175 zettabytes (one zettabyte is equal to approximately one billion terabytes) of data annually by 2025. CDOs will likely play a vital part in determining how companies collect, manage, store, and use new and existing information assets. CDOs may also prove to be a valuable voice in complex debates on digital ethics.

With data leadership, specialist expertise, and an aptitude for innovation, the role of the CDO is set to stick around long-term. And a CDO in your organization could just be the key to unlocking the real value of what you already have.

Michael Brenner is a keynote speaker, author and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. Michael has written hundreds of articles on sites such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Guardian and he speaks at dozens of leadership conferences each year covering topics such as marketing, leadership, technology and business strategy. Follow him @BrennerMichael.

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