Chief data officers must prioritise business outcomes - not tech - to succeed

The chief data officer has risen in prominence, but the role still needs to show how it can benefit businesses rather than technology operations

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The chief data officer (CDO) role has grown in importance in recent years, tasked with managing the huge volumes of information amassed by modern enterprises. But in order to create real value from data management projects the CDO must prioritise how they can bring direct value to the business, according to a panel of experts.

“For too long we have built the business case for data management around ‘this is the right thing to do, it is a multi-year programme and give us some money and we’ll tell you when it is gone’ and not business outcomes’,” said HSBC’s EMEA chief data officer, Lorraine Waters, speaking at a roundtable at Gartner’s Master Data Management Summit in London.

“Regulatory compliance is a given, we all have to do that in regulated industries. We need to stop beating that drum, everybody is bored with it - make it all about business outcomes."

This means focusing on how data can be used to meet targets around improving customer experience, revenue and growth, regulatory commitment, and efficiency and streamlining, she said.

“If you are looking at an enterprise-wide strategy you need to start with the business priorities. So every conversation we have starts with this, and typically that is around customer experience,” said Waters.

“So don’t make up your own data priorities because they are not always in sync with what the business wants to do.”

Meeting business goals

Identifying unnecessary business is a clear opportunity for CDOs, said head of the data management group at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International, Deborah Cowles.

“Depending on whether you are trying to increase your revenue or decrease your costs you can do some very simple things, particularly around our use of data services,” she said.

“We looked at what are our half a dozen most expensive pieces of data we acquire and how many systems are acquiring them. Fundamentally do we need them - and you would be astounded by the number of time people will say they actually don’t need something.

“To us that was just very simple - we just looked at six data items and from that we have generated hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings."

Using data to assist executives in decision-making will also provide value, said Waters, and help engage with the wider business.

“Improving the [data] dashboards out there, making big data capabilities available, or improving our efficiency and data quality metrics - that all improves the executives’ ability to make data-driven decisions,” she said.

“That is a real enabler and is opening up quite a lot of doors for us and we have quite a few initiatives going on around dashboarding.”

Buy-in from senior executives

Getting support from senior executives to support data management projects is also key to having an impact across the organisation, said Eugene Kolker, CDO at Seattle Children's Hospital, Foundation and Research Institute.

“In our case it is business first, IT second. Any programme or project needs to have executive sponsors, even if I have my own budget," he said.

"Number one is the chief medical officer - he is in charge of business clinical side, which is our main business, and the second one is the CIO. And they are both SVPs - so they are very high level, which helps.”

Waters added that the higher up an organisation the CDO can engage with the businesses, the easier it is to achieve meaningful change. “Regardless of who you are reporting to, let it be a C-suite person. The ideal situation is to report into the CEO,” she said.

However, placing the role within the function of a company’s CIO also has a benefit, said Waters.

“If you have got a far-sighted CIO who can understand that the data is not about the technology, and who can understand the opportunities that it presents, working for the CIO can give you real advantage because you are pulling together the technologists, engineering and the architecture teams, and the data teams and you are all working together," she said.

“Working for the COO does keep you very business-focused - so you are not constrained by just the technology or by the architecture strategy - but there are pros and cons to both sides.”

Image: iStock

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