What is a Chief Data Officer?

What is a Chief Data Officer?The Chief Data Officer (CDO) role has been around for some years, and most organisation have a CDO position today. Surprisingly, there is little agreement on the Chief Data Officer responsibilities. Forbes highlighted it in this article earlier this year. As I am looking at the job market and specifically Chief Data Officer postings I was surprised to find the range of roles described as CDO positions.

Big Data and the Chief Data Officer

The Chief Data Officer emerged along the hype around Big Data. The idea of data as a raw material or an asset that could generate revenue sparked interested in what effectively was a cost and problem of the CIO and CTO in most organisations. Big Data struggled a lot in the early days as people were trying to make sense of the hype. They often invest in technology or data scientists without a well-rounded strategy (see 6 Steps to Big Data success: Think business not technology) and few succeeded (see Big Data Case Study: How a FTSE100 FinTech adopted Data Science).

Big Data is tied to the emergence of the Chief Data OfficerEnter the CDO, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone on the team who looks after this strategy gap? You can imagine that the response from CIOs and CTOs were mixed and the decision on the role’s remit immediately political. Add to it the uncertainty of the role, the lack of Chief Data Officers with decades or even years of experience, the difference in industries and importance of data in operations and strategic decisions, and you have a lot of room for interpretation.

CDO != CDO

Current CDO job postings vary in their role descriptions greatly:

  • being a sidekick to a department head with a handful of people looking at data governance only
  • to pure Data Science (team) leader
  • to defining large parts of the business strategy and running majority of technical staff and reporting into the CEO.

In the first case, you could replace the CDO title with Head of Data Governance or even Team Lead. In the last case, the responsibility covers large parts of CTO and CPO responsibilities. Sometimes that makes sense because these roles may be more narrowly defined or absent/split between other roles. Relatedly, if you are interested to know what CDOs earn read ‘How much does a Chief Data Officer earn?‘.

Titles don’t matter, responsibilities do

Personally, I find myself increasingly looking over the fence at the CTO role as an alternative (and it is a role I filled in the past). My background has gravitated towards the link between business and product with data and technology. While some CDO roles give that sizable remit, I also come across CTO roles that have taken on data as a core responsibility. Usually, you find this when the product and business strategy is highly dependent on data, its storage, processing and analysis. Separating the CTO and CDO role in these tech|data|cloud-first companies is challenging. At the end of the day, someone has to own technology and data no matter what the label(s).

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