Big Data

Why CEOs must lead big data initiatives

When the CEO is at the helm of big data analytics efforts, your company will have a competitive advantage. Find out why.

Image: iStock

Any company that makes a sizable investment in big data analytics clearly feels like it's of strategic importance to the company—but how important? Is it reasonable to assume that analytic efforts can be delegated to the chief information officer, chief analytic officer, or some other high-ranking officer in the company, or is this a job that's only suited for the top seat: the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)?

When big data first hit the scene, it seemed natural to give the CIO a few dollars so he or she could play with it for a bit. With all the hype and buzz about big data, it was hard not to imagine there might be something there, but most of the world struggled with what big data was and what it meant for them. So, the logical thing to do was pass it over to the CIO—if anyone would know what big data was all about, that's the person, right?

But that was then, and we're much smarter today. Lessons learned over the years from the companies that have been successful with big data have taught us that a big investment in big data and analytics means it's part of the corporate strategy, and the only person accountable for that is the CEO.

SEE: Executive's guide to IoT and big data (free ebook) (TechRepublic)

Remember where big data fits in the corporate strategy

I've written about getting the right return on investment on big data and how important it is to tie big data investments into the corporate strategy. If this isn't done properly, you run the great risk of squandering valuable time, money, and resources for little or no benefit. This is the most common mistake of the early big data pioneers.

Big data is the cart, and corporate strategy is the horse. You'd be remiss if you didn't involve others like the CIO (who knows more about data lakes and machine learning?), but it's the CEO who owns the corporate strategy.

All the time and money spent hiring and training data scientists, devising sophisticated dashboards and analytics, and standing up data lakes is for the purpose of supporting one or more strategic outcomes. And although it's wise for the CEO to stay out of the gory details, it's vitally important for the CEO be involved and understand how big data supports the company's strategic outcomes—it's the only way to effectively lead the organization to its intended vision.

SEE: The best ways to sell your big data projects to the CEO (TechRepublic)

Leadership in the Information Age

The CEO is the top leader and has the ultimate responsibility for change efforts that incorporate big data analytics. First and foremost, the CEO must establish a vision of where the company is going, and that vision must clearly articulate the role big data and analytics play. If the CEO ignores or downplays big data in the company's vision, adoption will be difficult, and it will be hard to keep employees motivated about a big data project. Motivation and inspiration is key as employees work their way to a more analytic future.

In most cases, becoming a more analytic company requires a transformation that can be frustrating and difficult. People who are comfortable trusting their instincts will be asked to trust their data instead. People who are accustomed to taking immediate action will be asked to run numbers first. It's important for the CEO to keep the workforce motivated as they make the transition; this involves listening to their concerns, and spending a lot of time explaining why the company is taking a more analytic position.

There's no way to explain why big data is important without tying it into the corporate strategy. Even if the CIO has the ability and motivation to address the organization on the importance of big data, he or she doesn't carry the same influence as the CEO. When the CEO talks to the company about the importance of big data and shows the workforce how big data supports strategic outcomes, it sends a clear message that everyone should get on board.

SEE: Quick glossary: Business intelligence and analytics (Tech Pro Research)

Follow the leader

Leading by example is a tried and true method for organization-wide adoption. If analytics is an important component of the corporate strategy, then the CEO must walk the talk. The CEO should be an innovator—and even be ahead of the early adopters—when it comes to corporate strategy. This is very different from how companies operate today; most companies like to wait until their new ideas are fully fleshed out before bringing them in front of the CEO. I suggest the opposite—get the CEO in there first.

This has the wonderful side effect of clarifying and solidifying the relationship between big data and the corporate strategy. The CEO has strategic outcomes in mind and hopefully an idea of how big data can help, but when he or she gets to actually see big data analytics in action, the relationship becomes clearer. That's why it's so important for the CEO to be your primary user. There will likely be refinements to the corporate strategy and the way it's supported by big data analytics as the CEO continues to play with the technology.

This also has a cascading effect that benefits organizational adoption. When top management sees the CEO diving in headfirst with new analytic technology, they will likely follow suit. And once top management starts using and talking about new analytic approaches, their direct reports will likely follow suit. With a little help from a well-organized change management effort, these new behaviors will flow down throughout the entire organization. This is the most reliable way to make the shift to a more analytic organization.

SEE: 5 key points when presenting big data project updates to the board (TechRepublic)


Although big data analytics has been in the limelight for a while, it's still a rarity to find a company where the CEO clearly leads the analytic efforts. This is unfortunate for most, but a key competitive advantage if you can exploit this insight.

Any significant investment in big data warrants a strong relationship with the corporate strategy—the CEO's chief accountability. It's incumbent on the CEO to develop an ROI schematic for how big data analytics will support the company's vision, and then lead the organization by example with a clear message that big data matters.

If you haven't done an ROI schematic on your big data efforts, work with the CEO to get that started now. Then engage your organizational change team, because it's going to be a fun ride. With the CEO at the helm, you can't go wrong.

Also see

About John Weathington

John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox