The evolution of the chief data officer (CDO) and what it means for businesses today

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In 2015, Gartner definite the role of the chief data officer (CDO) as “a senior executive who has responsibility for information protection and privacy, governance, data quality, and lifecycle management, along with asset exploitation of data to create business value. That’s the whole list, but I’m sure any early CDO would probably remember and agree.

Over the past eight years, the CDO has gained increased credibility in all organizations and has become a valued partner in delivering competitive business results. The broad scope has not changed, but the CDO now has greater power to influence strategy and prioritize activities.

Below I will outline the factors driving this evolution and what the CDO’s plan for moving forward looks like.

The CDO as Entrepreneurial Champion

Early CDOs focused on improving data governance and standardization to help their organizations better manage their data and technology assets. With an eye toward data maturity, the CDO office set out to establish a sustainable foundation. Meanwhile, data teams were driving digital transformation strategies and migrating their data assets to more reliable, scalable, and cost-effective cloud resources. New data warehouses, lakes, and lake houses continued to appear in multi-cloud and on-premises environments. While half the house was busy sorting data for governance, the other half was busy moving that data around.


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On the business side, there was a growing competitive urgency to accelerate knowledge. Data consumers on the business side understood business challenges and opportunities better than their IT counterparts and had the self-service business intelligence (BI) tools to seek their own answers; all they needed was more data.

With the support of business executives, the CDO office changed its approach to harmonize these two sides. While immediate access to data assets became a top priority and strategic imperative for businesses, the CDO was mandated to facilitate seamless collaboration between data and business teams and reduce friction in data exploitation. data and analytics that optimize business practices and performance.

The CDO as a C-suite partner

As data became more prominent and critical to business success, the CDO role emerged as its own specialty with its own seat at the C-suite table. CIOs, CDOs, and business executives began working together to accelerate delivery of the growing list of strategic business projects that were critically dependent on data analytics. In some organizations, the CDO role reported to business leadership to ensure formal alignment with business strategy.

The expectations of the CDO were enormous, regardless of where they were presented. The CDO was at the center, between IT and business leaders, and was responsible for managing the data “currency” on which both parties depended.

The best measure of a CDO’s success was trustworthy business acumen. The biggest sign of that success was a business executive who was able to make fast, data-driven decisions because he had the reliable information he needed at the right time and with all the right context.

For the IT executive, the best measures of a CDO’s success were the traditional metrics of security, reliability, and profitability. It didn’t stop the proliferation of new data sources, but the data management standards established by the CDO helped define where and how data could be stored and transformed.

The CDO Plan

In 2023, the CDO is focused on building a sustainable and strategic data culture that maps to tangible business results. The biggest change from the role that Gartner defined in 2015 is that the CDO now focuses primarily on the needs of the data consumer. Every dollar spent on the database should generate $10 of value for the business.

As much as the CDO role has matured, there is still no standardized strategic plan. The good news is that there are strong CDO communities around the world, and this collaboration has been a major reason for the rapid maturity of the role. While each data strategy will differ based on business priorities, here are three items that should be on every CDO’s agenda:

Don’t centralize first: access the data at the source. Most organizations have abandoned the idea of ​​a single source of truth or corporate centralization. The business urgency of accessing your data today and the economic climate are driving CDOs toward a single point of access. The new message for the business is that we can access our data where it is and achieve the level of performance required today. Federation between existing data sets minimizes business disruption and allows for more investment in front-end analytics versus back-end migration.

Use interoperable and reusable data products to drive insights. When I explain the data mesh to an executive, I ask them to reimagine how they access and use data. They need to spend their time finding the answers, not finding the raw data sets. Reusable, interoperable data products that can be easily understood and applied in dashboards or apps are the new standard. A data product integrates data sets from different sources and organizes them into a reproducible, high-performance, and cost-effective package.

Empower self-service capabilities for all users. In a data-driven organization, business teams are empowered to drive their own discovery and insights. If you want the business to move fast, let them drive. Business teams don’t care where their data is stored; all they want is a simple process for finding what they need and an even simpler process for requesting access. To achieve this, the CDO needs to abstract the complexity into the back-end. Stop talking about where data is stored and start directing your data consumers to a single catalog or data marketplace where they can find and immediately put to work the data products they need.

The role of the CDO has changed quite a bit over the years and will continue to change as data demands evolve. The CDO is responsible for driving data-driven decisions throughout a company, which makes clear the need for this role at the C-suite level. Making data accessibility and self-service key priorities at the C-suite level and even in the boardroom will be integral to success in the data-driven business landscape.

Adrian Estala is Vice President and Director of Field Data for Starburst.


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