5 More Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum

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This article is the second of two pieces reflecting on the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer. Each article covers 5 themes. You can read the first five themes here.

As with the first article, I would like to thank both Peter Aiken, who reviewed a first draft of this piece and provided useful clarifications and additional insights, and several of my fellow delegates, who also made helpful suggestions around the text. Again any errors of course remain my responsibility.


By: Peter Thomas, [email protected], previously published here.

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Introduction Redux

After reviewing a draft of the first article in this series and also scanning an outline of this piece, one of the other attendees at the inaugural IRM(UK) / DAMA CDO Executive Forum rightly highlighted that I had not really emphasised the strategic aspects of the CDO’s work; both data / information strategy and the close linkage to business strategy. I think the reason for this is that I spend so much of my time on strategic work that I’ve internalised the area. However, I’ve come to the not unreasonable conclusion that internalisation doesn’t work so well on a blog, so I will call out this area up-front (as well as touching on it again in Theme 10 below).

For more of my views on strategy formation in the data / information space please see my trilogy of articles starting with: Forming an Information Strategy: Part I – General Strategy.

With that said, I’ll pick up where we left off with the themes that arose in the meeting: 

Theme 6 – While some CDO roles have their genesis in risk mitigation, most are focussed on growth

Epidermal growth factor receptor

This theme gets to the CDO / CAO debate (which I will be writing about soon). It is true that the often poor state of data governance in organisations is one reason why the CDO role has emerged and also that a lot of CDO focus is inevitably on this area. The regulatory hurdles faced by many industries (e.g. Solvency II in my current area of Insurance) also bring a significant focus on compliance to the CDO role. However, in the unanimous view of the delegates, while cleaning the Augean Stables is important and equally organisations which fail to comply with regulatory requirements tend to have poor prospects, most CDOs have a growth-focussed agenda. Their primary objective is to leverage data (or to facilitate its leverage) to drive growth and open up new opportunities. Of course good data management is a prerequisite for achieving this objective in a sustainable manner, but it is not an end in itself. Any CDO who allows themself to be overwhelmed by what should just be part of their role is probably heading in the same direction as a non-compliant company.

5 Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum
First Article in series

Read the first article in this series, also written by Peter Thomas.

Go to Article

Theme 7 – New paradigms are data / analytics-centric not application-centric

Applications & Data

Historically, technology landscapes used to be application-centric. Often there would be a cluster of systems in the centre (ideally integrated with each other in some way) and each with their own analytics capabilities; a CRM system with customer analytics “out-of-the-box” (whatever that really means in practice), an ERP system with finance analytics and maybe supply-chain analytics, digital estates with web analytics and so on. Even if there was a single-central system (those of us old enough will still remember the ERP vision), then this would tend to have various analytical repositories around it used by different parts of the organisation for different purposes. Equally some of the enterprise data warehouses I have built have included specialist analytical repositories, e.g. to support pricing, or risk, or other areas.

Today a new paradigm is emerging. Under this, rather than being at the periphery, data and analytics are in the centre, operating in a more joined-up manner. Many companies have already banked the automation and standardisation benefits of technology and are now looking instead to exploit the (often considerably larger) information and insight benefits [1]. This places information and insight assets at the centre of the landscape. It also means that finally information needs can start to drive system design and selection, not the other way round.

Theme 8 – Data and Information need to be managed together

Data and Information in harness

We see a further parallel with the CAO vs CDO debate here [2]. After 27 years with at least one foot in IT (though often in hybrid roles with dual business / IT reporting) and 15 explicitly in the data and information space, I really fail to see how data and information are anything other than two sides of the same coin.

To people who say that the CAO is the one who really understands the business and the CDO worries instead about back-end data governance, I would reply that an engine is only as good as the fuel that you put into it. I’d over-extend the analogy (as is my wont [3]) by saying that the best engineers will have a thorough understanding of:

  1. what purpose the engine will be applied to – racing car, or lorry (truck)
  2. the parameters within which it is required to perform
  3. the actual performance requirements
  4. what that means in terms of designing the engine
  5. what inputs the engine will have: petrol/diesel/bio-fuel/electricity
  6. what outputs it will produce (with no reference to poor old Volkswagen intended)

It may be that the engineering team has experts in various areas from metallurgy, to electronics, to chemistry, to machining, to quality control, to noise and vibration suppression, to safety, to general materials science and that these are required to work together. But whoever is in charge of overall design, and indeed overall production, would need to have knowledge spanning all these areas and would in addition need to ensure that specialists under their supervision worked harmoniously together to get the best result.

Data is the basic building block of information. Information is the embodiment of things that people want or need to know. You cannot generate information (let alone insight) without a very strong understanding of data. You can neither govern, nor exploit, data in any useful way without knowledge of the uses to which it will be put. Like the chief product engineer, there is a need for someone who understands all of the elements, all of the experts working on these and can bring them together just as harmoniously [4]).

Theme 9 – Data Science is not enough

If you don't understand the notation, you've failed in your application to be a Data Scientist

In Part One of this article I repeated an assertion about the typical productivity of data scientists:

“Data Scientists are only 10-20% productive; if you start a week-long piece of work on Monday, the actual statistical analysis will commence on Friday afternoon; the rest of the time is battling with the data”

While the many data scientists I know would attest to the truth of this, there is a broader point to be made. That is the need for what can be described as Data Interpreters. This role is complementary to the data science community, acting as an interface between those with PhDs in statistics and the rest of the world. At IRM(UK) ED&BI one speaker even went so far as to present a photo graph of two ladies who filled these ying and yang roles at a European organisation.

More broadly, the advent of data science, while welcome, has not obviated the need to pass from data through information to get to insight for most of an organisation’s normal measurements. Of course an ability to go straight from data to insight is also a valuable tool, but it is not suitable for all situations. There are also a number of things to be aware of before uncritically placing full reliance on statistical models [5].

Theme 10 – Information is often a missing link between Business and IT strategies

Business => Information => IT

This was one of the most interesting topics of discussion at the forum and we devoted substantial time to exploring issues and opportunities in this area. The general sense was that – as all agreed – IT strategy needs to be aligned with business strategy [6]. However, there was also agreement that this can be hard and in many ways is getting harder. With IT leaders nowadays often consumed by the need to stay abreast of both technology opportunities (e.g. cloud computing) and technology threats (e.g. cyber crime) as well as inevitably having both extensive business as usual responsibilities and significant technology transformation programmes to run, it could be argued that some IT departments are drifting away from their business partners; not through any desire to do so, but just because of the nature (and volume) of current work. Equally with the increasing pace of business change, few non-IT executives can spend as much time understanding the role of technology as was once perhaps the case.

Given that successful information work must have a foot in both the business and technology camps (“what do we want to do with our data?” and “what data do we have available to work with?” being just two pertinent questions), the argument here was that an information strategy can help to build a bridge these two increasingly different worlds. Of course this chimes with the feedback on the primacy of strategy that I got on my earlier article from another delegate; and which I reference at the beginning of this piece. It also is consistent with my own view that the data → information → insight → action journey is becoming an increasingly business-focused one.

A couple of CDO Forum delegates had already been thinking about this area and went so far as to present models pertaining to a potential linkage, which they had either created or adapted from academic journals. These placed information between business and IT pillars not just with respect to strategy but also architecture and implementation. This is a very interesting area and one which I hope to return to in coming weeks.

Concluding thoughts

As I mentioned in Part One, the CDO Forum was an extremely useful and thought-provoking event. One thing which was of note is that – despite the delegates coming from many different backgrounds, something which one might assume would be a barrier to effective communication – they shared a common language, many values and comparable views on how to take the areas of data management and data exploitation forward. While of course delegates at an such an eponymous Forum might be expected to emphasise the importance of their position, it was illuminating to learn just how seriously a variety organisations were taking the CDO role and that CDOs were increasingly becoming agents of growth rather than just risk and compliance tsars.

Amongst the many other themes captured in this piece and its predecessor, perhaps a stand-out was how many organisations view the CDO as a firmly commercial / strategic role. This can only be a positive development and my hope is that CDOs can begin to help organisations to better understand the asset that their data represents and then start the process of leveraging this to unlock its substantial, but often latent, business value.


Notes


[1]
See Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence

[2]
Someone really ought to write an article about that!

[3]
See Analogies for some further examples as well as some of the pitfalls inherent in such an approach.

[4]
I cover this duality in many places in this blog, for the reader who would like to learn more about my perspectives on the area, A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools is probably a good place to start; this links to various other resources on this site.

[5]
I cover some of these here, including (in reverse chronological order):


[6]
I tend to be allergic to the IT / Business schism as per: Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus (incidentally the first substantive article on I wrote for this site), but at least it serves some purpose in this discussion, rather than leading to unproductive “them and us” syndrome, that is sadly all to often the outcome.