A truth universally acknowledged…

£10 note

  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an organisation in possession of some data, must be in want of a Chief Data Officer”

— Growth and Governance, by Jane Austen (1813) [1]

 

I wrote about a theoretical job description for a Chief Data Officer back in November 2015 [2]. While I have been on “paternity leave” following the birth of our second daughter, a couple of genuine CDO job specs landed in my inbox. While unable to respond for the aforementioned reasons, I did leaf through the documents. Something immediately struck me; they were essentially wish-lists covering a number of data-related fields, rather than a description of what a CDO might actually do. Clearly I’m not going to cite the actual text here, but the following is representative of what appeared in both requirement lists:

CDO wishlist

Mandatory Requirements:

Highly Desirable Requirements:

  • PhD in Mathematics or a numerical science (with a strong record of highly-cited publications)
  • MBA from a top-tier Business School
  • TOGAF certification
  • PRINCE2 and Agile Practitioner
  • Invulnerability and X-ray vision [3]
  • Mastery of the lesser incantations and a cloak of invisibility [3]
  • High midi-chlorian reading [3]
  • Full, clean driving licence

Your common, all-garden CDO

The above list may have descended into farce towards the end, but I would argue that the problems started to occur much earlier. The above is not a description of what is required to be a successful CDO, it’s a description of a Swiss Army Knife. There is also the minor practical point that, out of a World population of around 7.5 billion, there may well be no one who ticks all the boxes [4].

Let’s make the fallacy of this type of job description clearer by considering what a simmilar approach would look like if applied to what is generally the most senior role in an organisation, the CEO. Whoever drafted the above list of requirements would probably characterise a CEO as follows:

  • The best salesperson in the organisation
  • The best accountant in the organisation
  • The best M&A person in the organisation
  • The best customer service operative in the organisation
  • The best facilities manager in the organisation
  • The best janitor in the organisation
  • The best purchasing clerk in the organisation
  • The best lawyer in the organisation
  • The best programmer in the organisation
  • The best marketer in the organisation
  • The best product developer in the organisation
  • The best HR person in the organisation, etc., etc., …

Of course a CEO needs to be none of the above, they need to be a superlative leader who is expert at running an organisation (even then, they may focus on plotting the way forward and leave the day to day running to others). For the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying that a CEO requires no domain knowledge and has no expertise, they would need both, however they don’t have to know every aspect of company operations better than the people who do it.

The same argument applies to CDOs. Domain knowledge probably should span most of what is in the job description (save for maybe the three items with footnotes), but knowledge is different to expertise. As CDOs don’t grow on trees, they will most likely be experts in one or a few of the areas cited, but not all of them. Successful CDOs will know enough to be able to talk to people in the areas where they are not experts. They will have to be competent at hiring experts in every area of a CDO’s purview. But they do not have to be able to do the job of every data-centric staff member better than the person could do themselves. Even if you could identify such a CDO, they would probably lose their best staff very quickly due to micromanagement.

Conducting the data orchestra

A CDO has to be a conductor of both the data function orchestra and of the use of data in the wider organisation. This is a talent in itself. An internationally renowned conductor may have previously been a violinist, but it is unlikely they were also a flautist and a percussionist. They do however need to be able to tell whether or not the second trumpeter is any good or not; this is not the same as being able to play the trumpet yourself of course. The conductor’s key skill is in managing the efforts of a large group of people to create a cohesive – and harmonious – whole.

The CDO is of course still a relatively new role in mainstream organisations [5]. Perhaps these job descriptions will become more realistic as the role becomes more familiar. It is to be hoped so, else many a search for a new CDO will end in disappointment.

Having twisted her text to my own purposes at the beginning of this article, I will leave the last words to Jane Austen:

  “A scheme of which every part promises delight, can never be successful; and general disappointment is only warded off by the defence of some little peculiar vexation.”

— Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

 

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Well if a production company can get away with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then I feel I am on reasonably solid ground here with this title.

I also seem to be riffing on JA rather a lot at present, I used Rationality and Reality as the title of one of the chapters in my [as yet unfinished] Mathematical book, Glimpses of Symmetry.

 
[2]
 
Wanted – Chief Data Officer.
 
[3]
 
Most readers will immediately spot the obvious mistake here. Of course all three of these requirements should be mandatory.
 
[4]
 
To take just one example, gaining a PhD in a numerical science, a track record of highly-cited papers and also obtaining an MBA would take most people at least a few weeks of effort. Is it likely that such a person would next focus on a PRINCE2 or TOGAF qualification?
 
[5]
 
I discuss some elements of the emerging consensus on what a CDO should do in: 5 Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum and 5 More Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum.

 

From: peterjamesthomas.com, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary

 

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