CIOs can make or break the Chief Data Officer and big data efforts

CIOs with the business savvy, technology smarts, selflessness, and will to sponsor big data efforts can make positive differences for their businesses.

Late this summer, Gartner Research wrote about the concept of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) as one response to the growing importance of big data presence and initiatives in enterprises.

Since the Gartner post, there has been a flurry of industry responses. In October, Gartner's research quantifications were cited, with the company predicting that by 2014, more than ten percent of government organizations will have appointed Chief Data Officers, and more than 20 percent will have appointed Chief Digital Officers. Still another reaction was an open-ended thought out to CIOs as to whether their jobs could be endangered with the importation of new CDOs.

Instead, I'd like to submit the idea that what's going on now with organizational thinking about CDOs is nothing particularly new or earth-shattering from what's happened in the past. At the end of the day, all enterprises want to optimize their technology investments.


The way that technology optimization is viewed today is through the effective harnessing and analyzing of big data for actionable results that impact revenues and costs. Recently, IBM Business Analytics and Optimization Services revealed in a call with analysts that those companies most successful in their big data initiatives had an atmosphere of confidence and trust around their big data that began with trust between business executives and functions, and that extended to solid governance policies around big data that assured its safety and quality.

This success and trust has implications for CIOs and CDOs alike.

We already know that companies well along in their big data strategies have built or are building data science teams with specialized knowledge required for big data. At the same time, many are realizing that the marketplace is in short supply of these specialists - so they are opting to either "build their own" big data specialists or, at least for a short time, to outsource the data science tasks to a consultative organization that has those capabilities.

Someone has to do it

In all cases, there is near universal recognition that someone - whether it is the CIO, the CDO, the CEO, or some other business leader - must assume ultimate responsibility for the big data function.

Here are several possibilities:

1. Establish another C-level executive in the person of the CDO

The argument is that the business will be coordinated and cooperative in its big data work if the CDO position reports directly to the CEO. However, there are counter-arguments as well. Does another C-level executive create more infighting and non-cooperation among high-ranking executives?

And what about other newly created "C" positions like the CSO (Chief Security Officer), CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) and CSCO (Chief Supply Chain Officer)? Should these also report to the CEO?

2. Have the CDO answer to business management

The thinking behind this is that the CDO is tied directly into the business, and this is where big data should be - but it has its pitfalls because the CDO has too many managers to answer to.

3. Have the C
DO report to the CIO.

This can make sense because IT touches every business aspect in the company - but it's only going to work if the CIO is visionary, selfless and dialed into the business.

What do I mean by this?

Simply, that CIOs must understand the specific problems in the business that technology needs to solve - and they have to support the best set of goals for the business, even if these goals run against their personal and professional aspirations.

These CIOs need to be technology-savvy, but a majority of their time needs to be out in the business, communicating with stakeholders, and creating a structure where the CDO and the big data team can succeed. CIOs who are fixated on technology for its own sake or glued to the engine room can't do this - nor can this be done in businesses that view the CIO position as "Head of the Engine Room."

Can CIOs deliver leadership to CDOs and team with other C-level executives so the company succeeds with its big data strategies?

"The vast majority of CIOs are amazing," said Thornton May, executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College. "They understand the business better than just about anyone else. They have mad relationship skills and actually care about their people. They are wicked smart and scary funny. I am so tired of academics, consultants and vendors beating the 'they only speak geek' drum. The empirical evidence does not support this misconception."

Bottom line

May is right; there are great CIOs out there - and also, the not so great ones. Those with the business savvy, technology smarts, selflessness, and will to sponsor big data efforts can make positive differences for their businesses at a time when positive results are eagerly awaited.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...