From Custodian to Chief — The Rise of the Chief Data Officer

From Custodian to Chief — The Rise of the Chief Data Officer

Does your company have a Chief Data Officer (CDO) yet?  In a December 2012 report, Gartner group reported on the trend towards this new C-level leader in large organizations responsible for dealing with the threats and opportunities created by increasing information complexity and incoherence.  Gartner predicts that by as early as 2017, 20% of large enterprises will have a CDO on their senior management team.

As with any new role, there’s still a lot of confusion around what a CDO’s responsibilities are and what their relationship should be with other leaders in the organization, particularly information-related roles such as Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  The Harvard Business Review compares the CDO to the emergence of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) several decades ago.  As then with the CMO, creating a CDO position seems like a good idea, but the practical implications are far from worked out.  It seems fairly clear at this point that the CDO’s main responsibilities lie in the area of information governance, but, as Forresters points out, there’s still no clear consensus on what this might entail, whether the CDO should report directly to the CEO or somewhere lower down, and how such a major shift in leadership responsibility might actually happen in practice.

Even though it may take a few years, I suspect CDOs will eventually become common and be a critical part of the leadership team in many organizations.  And unlike any other change in the C-suite in recent decades, the rise of the CDO has direct implications for records and information managers.

In this 2008 brief (which is the earliest reference to the CDO position I have found), Deloitte contrasts the role of a CDO with current information-related roles.  They posit that most information governance today is custodial in nature — managing and controlling data, ensuring it is accessible and discoverable, keeping costs down, etc.  The CDO’s job, they say, is to turn information into a strategic asset, developing systems and methods for creating opportunities that would not otherwise be seen within the vast amounts of data within an organization.

What does this mean for information managers?  First, I think just being aware of the existence of the CDO position in a growing number of organizations should create an occasion for self-reflection — are we, as today’s information managers, simply information custodians?  If we think outside the box of our traditional roles, is there an opportunity for strategic initiatives and developing systems which could create benefits and opportunities for our organizations?  Normally we think of this type of thing as the province of the CIO or CMO (e.g. big data), and perhaps we should start exploring how we could support them in their strategic goals for our organizations.

Second, in organizations considering the creation of a CDO position, what does this mean for the redistribution of responsibility at senior levels and how might this affect your department?  In a company with a CDO reporting to the CEO, the CIO’s responsibilities become mainly focussed on information/data infrastructure.  The CTO becomes more exclusively focused on creating new technologies and possibly commercialization of those technologies.  A records and information management department may quickly find itself reporting to a new CDO with a vastly changed mandate, or shuffled off into irrelevance.  We often think of the organizational shifts of senior management as either irrelevant or out of our control, but in fact we have a lot to offer any senior leaders looking to harness an organization’s data, and we owe it to ourselves and to our employer to make sure our views are known at the highest levels of the organization.

And finally, is the CDO’s office a reasonable destination in the career path of a records or information manager?  The skillset of a CDO is not just technical, although there is an IT component to it.  It also requires substantial business savvy, and perhaps most importantly an understanding of information and how it can be created, organized and directed.  This last area is one in which information managers arguably have greater competence than anyone else in the organization.  As a long term career goal, becoming a CDO is higher than most information managers have probably considered, but I think there may well be a viable path to the C-suite, at least in some organizations, for those of us who have the right skills and leadership potential.

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    Sheila Taylor
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