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What kind of CDO are you?

02ND APRIL 2019


My recent appointment as Chief Data Officer for Engine UK got me thinking about the role of CDO. Questions in my mind included; do I want to be a CDO? Is it an aspirational role or for the nerd on the board? Based on my background was I destined to become one or am I not even qualified? Reflecting on these thoughts in my head, I came to the conclusion that the confusion is down to the same thing that is affecting so many things in life these days – rapid change.

CDOs haven’t been around very long compared to the CEO, CFO, CMO, CIO and even CTO. Capital One appears to be the first in 2002 but this didn’t spark an immediate rush. Most large organisations have only had CDOs since 2010 onwards and, even now, only 2% of the FTSE100 have a CDO in a board position.

But things are changing fast as data, analytics, and technology are now being seen as enablers of personalisation and enhanced customer experiences; the new battleground for businesses. It also appears that businesses today can be classified into two groups: those who are disrupting others through frictionless or enhanced experiences and those being disrupted. The CDO role is critical to both the tech start-up and the established business that needs to transform.

Let’s go back to the start for a moment. The first CDOs were heads of data governance, helping businesses become compliant with developing regulations with a focus on the law, permissions and processing – not deemed the most exciting of roles by some. What a business needs from a CDO now is breadth in knowledge and experience; of delivering commercial growth to delight shareholders; changing how organisations operate; placing the customer at the centre of their decisions and actions; using enhanced analytical techniques (both human and machine) and technology-driven experiences to please customers.

To be a fully-rounded CDO today you’d need to have skills and experience in the following areas:

Data regulations and compliance
At the bottom of the needs hierarchy, every business needs someone who knows what good practice looks like and takes responsibility for systems, processes, and policies. It’s a significant duty to try to make sure that the company never suffers reputational damage or receives a fine following a data breach or marketing execution sent to customers. The skill here is to not simply be the voice in the business that says “no” to everything based on being risk-averse. The modern CDO needs to recognise that data, while unequivocally belonging to the customer, is an asset for the business and needs to enable better relationships that deliver value to both parties.

Customer Strategy
I deliberately didn’t write data strategy here. It’s important and falls within the role of CDO, however, the data strategy must ladder up to what the business is trying to achieve for its customers. A CDO should work with the CMO and their marketing organisation to define what customer experience they want to achieve – and, therefore, what data and technology are needed to achieve it. They should do the same with the other business functions such as sales, production, innovation, distribution and even finance and HR. The CDO needs to be customer-centric, service-orientated and commercial. The development of this strategy supports the business case that the board needs to approve to unlock the investment in what follows. Getting the business aligned to what’s possible and what needs to be true to get there is critical, so the CDO needs to listen and help set the vision for how the business becomes the disruptor.

Data as an asset
It has often been said that people are every business’ greatest asset. Being an asset means being of value – and people are only valuable if they are good at what they do. For data to be a truly valuable asset, it has to be good and to be good it has to be accurate, timely, available, easy to use, and consistent over time. The CDO should not be expected to be responsible for data quality, but it is their role to explain its importance to the business and inspire others. Data quality is an unavoidable enabler for everything.

Insight, not data
In 20 years, no one has ever thanked me for bringing them lots of data, no matter how good the quality was. Decision-making groups want to know what the data tells them so they can decide what to do differently. The CDO is expected to address never-before-answered questions and have a crystal ball to predict the future using machine learning and other artificial intelligence techniques. They are also expected to explain what is causing good and bad performance, so attribution and other modelling are necessities. Analytics and data science have become key skills for the CDO.

Technology expert
Providing joined-up experiences across paid, owned, and earned media, as well as frictionless services once prospects become customers, requires a data and technology platform fit for purpose and the future. The CDO needs to align with the CMO and CTO on how to get the best from what’s in place today and shape the roadmap and business case for the future. They need to be demanding of the IT department while being respectful of the high workloads caused by legacy systems. In house vs agency is a key decision to be made with pros (speed) and cons (self-sufficiency and IP) of each approach.

Having asked for the time and resources, made everyone care about data quality and invested in new technology, the time comes to show the value. If proving incremental value is the first challenge then claiming it is the second. Success has many fathers and others will be keen to take the credit unless the CDO has engaged the organisation in the new activity so that it can share in the glory.

So back to the original questions:

Do I want to be a CDO? Yes, in that it is so much more than governance and is central rather than peripheral to the commercial operations of the business.

Is it an aspirational role? Yes, it is important to most businesses and vital to many. To do the job well requires experience in a number of technical and commercial areas and the ability to influence and lead people.

Am I qualified? Time will tell…


Will Lowe, Chief Data Officer