© Collibra
© Collibra

The rise of the data economy has led the role of the chief data officer to grow in importance, but there is little guidance on the career path to success. 

Lowell Group CDO Caroline Carruthers and Southern Water CDO Peter Jackson have been trying to change that. The duo first teamed up to turn their advice on making effective data-driven decisions into a book called The Chief Data Officer's Playbook, and have now worked with Collibra to develop their thoughts into a Summer School for aspiring CDOs from around the world. 

Over a 10-week course, participants receive fortnightly 90-minute online webinars and three face to face classes on different aspects of the profession, backed up by practical homework such as completing maturity assessments of their own organisations.

The class beings with a discussion of the "secret ingredients" that make a successful CDO.

"In short order, these are the ability to communicate across the business both upwards and downwards and sideways and to make the data vision very clear and understandable and the ability to build relationships both into the business and into IT," Jackson tells CIO UK.

"A successful CDO certainly has to have data competency and technology competency to be credible, and they also have to have the blend of the strategic and the tactical. They have to be able to blend those two approaches together. It's like what Collibra call the offensive-defensive approach - being able to blend two paces at once to deliver business value, but with sound data governance and management.

"And the final ingredient, is we all need a little bit of luck, because the context of the organisations that we land in as a CDO varies enormously. Some may be on the front foot ready to exploit their data, and at some, it may be an awful lot more difficult."

Becoming a CDO

Carruthers and Jackson say that CDOs typically enter the profession from roles in technology, business strategy, data science, or governance, which is particularly common in regulated sectors such as finance.

Their peers have also identified a fifth route to the role: from senior positions in business operations to heading up a new data office.

"Whichever route you come in from, you need to be aware of your strengths and build your team to complement the strengths that you've got and the strengths that you don't have," says Jackson.

Carruthers considers herself part of the first generation of CDOs, who were primarily employed to mitigate risk. The generation that followed are more focused on maximising the value of data as an asset, but Carruthers believes that their predecessors will remain in high demand until all businesses develop a deep understanding of data.

Future CDOs will need a blend of both skills.

"That's why we talk about using your team so much, because the Chief Data Officer can't afford just to sit on one side of the pendulum or the other," says Carruthers. "They have to manage both."

The exact balance will depend on the maturity and needs of the organisation, as will the CDO's choice of techniques, talent and tools.

Data science tech and skills

Data science technology needs to appeal to both the IT team and the wider business, and should be user friendly for all levels of technical expertise. 

"Introducing the right technology depends on the context of what you've already got in the organisation, what their procurement strategies are, what their IT strategy is, and what the CDO has been tasked to do," says Jackson.

"If it's heavily balanced towards value adding, then you're going to be looking at tools that enable you to add value: data science tools, visualisation tools, data analytics tools.

“If however, the business context is steering you towards getting data assurance and getting quality data, then you're going to be into data governance, data dictionaries and data lineage. The blend of technologies almost matches that first generation/second generation, offensive/defensive approach."

Carruthers recommends that CDOs stick to only what is really needed and reliable, rather than hoarding data until it becomes more hindrance than help.

"A lot of that is about understanding the ebb and the flow of the data through your organisation, so really getting into the lineage of it and the importance and the priorities, because basically there's no organisation out there that has unlimited resources and unlimited money and assets to do whatever they want with," she says.

"Where can you target your priorities and how can you use data to make better decisions?"

Finding the right skills is also a challenge as the pool of data science talent is no match for the demand.

Jackson says that there are two ways in which CDOs can fill the skills gap.

"The first is to upskill people within your own organisation, because you will have had people in the organisation who have been handling data and running the business, and they understand the data," he explains.

"Very often it's easier to upskill them into new technologies and even new languages, rather than bringing in people who have the languages and teaching them about the business and data within the people. Upskilling is a really good approach. The other is using recruitment, often supported by professional services."

GDPR impact

The headlines of GDPR and data protection leaks have raised awareness, which creates an opportunity for CDOs but also new challenges.

"In some organisations, it was treated as if it was a programme, which meant it stopped when that programme finished," says Carruthers.

"I don't see many organisations that I would say are in a base state yet. And in some cases it's diverted people from thinking about the bigger picture because they focus on that one part of it."

She believes that communication skills are crucial to overcoming this barrier.

"One of the key skills of a chief data officer has to be the ability to tell stories to convey a message in a way that the business can understand," she says.

"Any chief data officer worth their salt should have been talking about starting a journey and the message to convey is that the idea of GDPR isn't a destination, it's a journey, and each step takes you closer to where you need to be."