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June 2018

Data: Lifeblood of the Modern Organisation

A never-ending source of fascination is the power of reinvention demanded of modern organisations in the face of relentless technological evolution. One role, not new but certainly gaining greater exposure and prominence, is the “Chief Data Officer” or CDO.

A great article on CDOs was recently shared by Adam Ciperski, Director of Customer Success, Americas at Qlik. The article was an infographic by Raconteur that charted the rising demand for CDOs, link here. I recommend it as a great reference for understanding the current role and responsibilities of CDOs. However, after reading the article, it seemed that the typical CDO skill set omitted one key element.

Recent legal events, e.g., GDPR, prompted me to consider what an organisation needs for a modern, technology driven, approach to governance, data, efficiency, opportunities and risk. Why? Because understanding what an organisation genuinely needs, as opposed to what it perceives it needs, is not always obvious and titles not always determinative. So, is there a need for the CDO role to evolve? If so, how should it do so? And what skills should a future CDO have?

Although “Data” lies at the heart of the title, it is not the management of data that lies at the heart of the role, but the understanding of data, i.e., (i) what it says (analysis, not analytics), (ii) what it means (interpretation, not assumption) and (iii) what can be done (solution, not acquiescence). This is the critical distinction.

Consider, for example, the consequences of poor data handling in the case of GDPR, fines up to 4% of annual worldwide turnover or €20m. Not to mention decimation of public trust and vilification by the media. The obligations required by GDPR are that you must, by law, (i) protect the data of data subjects, clearly an issue of management and security, but also (ii) protect the rights of data subjects, which means you must be able to act based on an understanding of your data. For example, do you hold any data related to a data subject? If so, what is that data? Can you identify all the data points, throughout all your technology platforms and disparate databases, that relate to the data subject? Knowing what data you hold, can you legitimately process that data, i.e., do you have the necessary consents? What about “associated” or “indirect” data subject data?

Here you have, in one example, a minefield of data issues underpinned by the need to understand data. One may conclude two principles from this analysis: (i) GDPR (and other regulatory requirements), quite literally, makes data a matter of law and (ii) as data is dumb (it has no idea what it is) the mission critical responsibility of a CDO must be to derive, or deploy the tools to derive, that “data understanding”.

Similar conclusions may be reached if you consider strategic planning, wasted costs and efficiency, risk mitigation or even litigation preparedness. Each case requires that you “know what you know”.

The CDO is in a unique position to take on an organisation’s vision and use their understanding of the data to create the road map to achieve or prevent, in the case of GDPR, that outcome. The role of a CDO is, therefore, a hybrid of multiple functions and skill sets: business, efficiency, technology, but also law. It is a very small overlap on a Venn diagram to identify people with skills in all these disciplines. It comes as no surprise that CDO’s hail from a variety of different backgrounds; a case of people fitting the role or the role fitting the people? But few, if any, seem to have law as part of their skills base. One idea is that organisations look to the non-executive director market for multi-skilled personnel that can execute such a role or provide complementary expertise to the CDO.

The CDO’s role will, as organisations have always, continue to evolve, change and adapt to find their fit in their organisation. Be mindful to (i) not get hung up on titles or preconceptions as these will lead you down unnecessary paths and distract you from your destination, (ii) define what is right for a CDO for your organisation, personalise the role to maximise the benefit for your organisation and (iii) explore alternative, even disruptive, skill sets.

As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

I encourage all organisations to reflect on their needs, discuss what it is you want to achieve and be prepared to disrupt yourself. New perspectives can lead to new understandings.