5 More Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum

A rather famous theme

This article is the second of two pieces reflecting on the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer. Each article covers 5 themes. You can read the first five themes here.

As with the first article, I would like to thank both Peter Aiken, who reviewed a first draft of this piece and provided useful clarifications and additional insights, and several of my fellow delegates, who also made helpful suggestions around the text. Again any errors of course remain my responsibility.
 
 
Introduction Redux

After reviewing a draft of the first article in this series and also scanning an outline of this piece, one of the other attendees at the inaugural IRM(UK) / DAMA CDO Executive Forum rightly highlighted that I had not really emphasised the strategic aspects of the CDO’s work; both data / information strategy and the close linkage to business strategy. I think the reason for this is that I spend so much of my time on strategic work that I’ve internalised the area. However, I’ve come to the not unreasonable conclusion that internalisation doesn’t work so well on a blog, so I will call out this area up-front (as well as touching on it again in Theme 10 below).

For more of my views on strategy formation in the data / information space please see my trilogy of articles starting with: Forming an Information Strategy: Part I – General Strategy.

With that said, I’ll pick up where we left off with the themes that arose in the meeting: 
 
Theme 6 – While some CDO roles have their genesis in risk mitigation, most are focussed on growth

Epidermal growth factor receptor

This theme gets to the CDO / CAO debate (which I will be writing about soon). It is true that the often poor state of data governance in organisations is one reason why the CDO role has emerged and also that a lot of CDO focus is inevitably on this area. The regulatory hurdles faced by many industries (e.g. Solvency II in my current area of Insurance) also bring a significant focus on compliance to the CDO role. However, in the unanimous view of the delegates, while cleaning the Augean Stables is important and equally organisations which fail to comply with regulatory requirements tend to have poor prospects, most CDOs have a growth-focussed agenda. Their primary objective is to leverage data (or to facilitate its leverage) to drive growth and open up new opportunities. Of course good data management is a prerequisite for achieving this objective in a sustainable manner, but it is not an end in itself. Any CDO who allows themself to be overwhelmed by what should just be part of their role is probably heading in the same direction as a non-compliant company.
 
 
Theme 7 – New paradigms are data / analytics-centric not application-centric

Applications & Data

Historically, technology landscapes used to be application-centric. Often there would be a cluster of systems in the centre (ideally integrated with each other in some way) and each with their own analytics capabilities; a CRM system with customer analytics “out-of-the-box” (whatever that really means in practice), an ERP system with finance analytics and maybe supply-chain analytics, digital estates with web analytics and so on. Even if there was a single-central system (those of us old enough will still remember the ERP vision), then this would tend to have various analytical repositories around it used by different parts of the organisation for different purposes. Equally some of the enterprise data warehouses I have built have included specialist analytical repositories, e.g. to support pricing, or risk, or other areas.

Today a new paradigm is emerging. Under this, rather than being at the periphery, data and analytics are in the centre, operating in a more joined-up manner. Many companies have already banked the automation and standardisation benefits of technology and are now looking instead to exploit the (often considerably larger) information and insight benefits [1]. This places information and insight assets at the centre of the landscape. It also means that finally information needs can start to drive system design and selection, not the other way round.
 
 
Theme 8 – Data and Information need to be managed together

Data and Information in harness

We see a further parallel with the CAO vs CDO debate here [2]. After 27 years with at least one foot in IT (though often in hybrid roles with dual business / IT reporting) and 15 explicitly in the data and information space, I really fail to see how data and information are anything other than two sides of the same coin.

To people who say that the CAO is the one who really understands the business and the CDO worries instead about back-end data governance, I would reply that an engine is only as good as the fuel that you put into it. I’d over-extend the analogy (as is my wont [3]) by saying that the best engineers will have a thorough understanding of:

  1. what purpose the engine will be applied to – racing car, or lorry (truck)
  2. the parameters within which it is required to perform
  3. the actual performance requirements
  4. what that means in terms of designing the engine
  5. what inputs the engine will have: petrol/diesel/bio-fuel/electricity
  6. what outputs it will produce (with no reference to poor old Volkswagen intended)

It may be that the engineering team has experts in various areas from metallurgy, to electronics, to chemistry, to machining, to quality control, to noise and vibration suppression, to safety, to general materials science and that these are required to work together. But whoever is in charge of overall design, and indeed overall production, would need to have knowledge spanning all these areas and would in addition need to ensure that specialists under their supervision worked harmoniously together to get the best result.

Data is the basic building block of information. Information is the embodiment of things that people want or need to know. You cannot generate information (let alone insight) without a very strong understanding of data. You can neither govern, nor exploit, data in any useful way without knowledge of the uses to which it will be put. Like the chief product engineer, there is a need for someone who understands all of the elements, all of the experts working on these and can bring them together just as harmoniously [4]).
 
 
Theme 9 – Data Science is not enough

If you don't understand  the notation, you've failed in your application to be a  Data Scientist

In Part One of this article I repeated an assertion about the typical productivity of data scientists:

“Data Scientists are only 10-20% productive; if you start a week-long piece of work on Monday, the actual statistical analysis will commence on Friday afternoon; the rest of the time is battling with the data”

While the many data scientists I know would attest to the truth of this, there is a broader point to be made. That is the need for what can be described as Data Interpreters. This role is complementary to the data science community, acting as an interface between those with PhDs in statistics and the rest of the world. At IRM(UK) ED&BI one speaker even went so far as to present a photo graph of two ladies who filled these ying and yang roles at a European organisation.

More broadly, the advent of data science, while welcome, has not obviated the need to pass from data through information to get to insight for most of an organisation’s normal measurements. Of course an ability to go straight from data to insight is also a valuable tool, but it is not suitable for all situations. There are also a number of things to be aware of before uncritically placing full reliance on statistical models [5].
 
 
Theme 10 – Information is often a missing link between Business and IT strategies

Business => Information => IT

This was one of the most interesting topics of discussion at the forum and we devoted substantial time to exploring issues and opportunities in this area. The general sense was that – as all agreed – IT strategy needs to be aligned with business strategy [6]. However, there was also agreement that this can be hard and in many ways is getting harder. With IT leaders nowadays often consumed by the need to stay abreast of both technology opportunities (e.g. cloud computing) and technology threats (e.g. cyber crime) as well as inevitably having both extensive business as usual responsibilities and significant technology transformation programmes to run, it could be argued that some IT departments are drifting away from their business partners; not through any desire to do so, but just because of the nature (and volume) of current work. Equally with the increasing pace of business change, few non-IT executives can spend as much time understanding the role of technology as was once perhaps the case.

Given that successful information work must have a foot in both the business and technology camps (“what do we want to do with our data?” and “what data do we have available to work with?” being just two pertinent questions), the argument here was that an information strategy can help to build a bridge these two increasingly different worlds. Of course this chimes with the feedback on the primacy of strategy that I got on my earlier article from another delegate; and which I reference at the beginning of this piece. It also is consistent with my own view that the data → information → insight → action journey is becoming an increasingly business-focused one.

A couple of CDO Forum delegates had already been thinking about this area and went so far as to present models pertaining to a potential linkage, which they had either created or adapted from academic journals. These placed information between business and IT pillars not just with respect to strategy but also architecture and implementation. This is a very interesting area and one which I hope to return to in coming weeks.
 
 
Concluding thoughts

As I mentioned in Part One, the CDO Forum was an extremely useful and thought-provoking event. One thing which was of note is that – despite the delegates coming from many different backgrounds, something which one might assume would be a barrier to effective communication – they shared a common language, many values and comparable views on how to take the areas of data management and data exploitation forward. While of course delegates at an such an eponymous Forum might be expected to emphasise the importance of their position, it was illuminating to learn just how seriously a variety organisations were taking the CDO role and that CDOs were increasingly becoming agents of growth rather than just risk and compliance tsars.

Amongst the many other themes captured in this piece and its predecessor, perhaps a stand-out was how many organisations view the CDO as a firmly commercial / strategic role. This can only be a positive development and my hope is that CDOs can begin to help organisations to better understand the asset that their data represents and then start the process of leveraging this to unlock its substantial, but often latent, business value.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
See Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence
 
[2]
 
Someone really ought to write an article about that!

UPDATE: They now have in: The Chief Data Officer “Sweet Spot” and Alphabet Soup

 
[3]
 
See Analogies for some further examples as well as some of the pitfalls inherent in such an approach.
 
[4]
 
I cover this duality in many places in this blog, for the reader who would like to learn more about my perspectives on the area, A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools is probably a good place to start; this links to various other resources on this site.
 
[5]
 
I cover some of these here, including (in reverse chronological order):

 
[6]
 
I tend to be allergic to the IT / Business schism as per: Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus (incidentally the first substantive article on I wrote for this site), but at least it serves some purpose in this discussion, rather than leading to unproductive “them and us” syndrome, that is sadly all to often the outcome.

 

 

5 Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum

A rather famous theme

This article is the first of two pieces reflecting on the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer. Each article will cover 5 themes and the concluding chapter may be viewed here.

I would like to thank both Peter Aiken, who reviewed a first draft of this piece and provided useful clarifications and additional insights, and several of my fellow delegates, who also made helpful suggestions around the text. Any errors of course remain my responsibility.
 
 
Introduction

As previously trailed, I attended the IRM(UK) Enterprise Data & Business Intelligence seminar on 3rd and 4th November. On the first of these days I sat on a panel talking about approaches to leveraging data “beyond the Big Data hype”. This involved fielding some interesting questions, both from the Moderator – Mike Simons – and the audience; I’ll look to pen something around a few of these in coming days. It was also salutary that each one of the panellists cast themselves as sceptics with respect to Big Data (the word “Luddite” was first discussed as an appropriate description, only to then be discarded); feeling that it was a very promising technology but a long way from the universal panacea it is often touted to be.

However it is on the second day of the event that I wanted to focus in this article. During this I was asked to attend the inaugural Chief Data Officer Executive Forum, sponsored by long-term IRM partner DAMA, the international data management association. This day-long event was chaired by data management luminary Peter Aiken, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Virginia Commonwealth University and Founding Director of data management consultancy Data Blueprint.

The forum consisted of a small group of people working in the strongly-related arenas of data management, data governance, analytics, warehousing and information architecture. Some attendees formally held the title of CDO, some carried out functions overlapping or analogous to the CDO. This is probably not surprising given the emergent nature of the CDO role in many industries.

There was a fair mix of delegate backgrounds, including people who previously held commercial roles, or ones in each of finance, risk and technology (a spread that I referred to in my pre-conference article). The sectors attendees worked in ranged from banking, to manufacturing, to extractives, to government to insurance. A handful of DAMA officers made up the final bakers’ dozen of “wise men” [1].

Discussions were both wide-ranging and very open, so I am not going to go into specifics of what people said, or indeed catalogue the delegates or their organisations. However, I did want to touch on some of the themes which arose from our interchanges and I will leaven these with points made in Peter Aiken’s excellent keynote address, which started the day in the best possible way.
 
 
Theme 1 – Chief Data Officer is a full-time job

Not a part-time activity

In my experience in business, things happen when an Executive is accountable for them and things languish when either a committee looks at an area (= no accountability), or the work receives only middle-management attention (= no authority). If both being a guardian of an organisation’s data (governance) and caring about how this is leveraged to deliver value (exploitation) are important things, then they merit Executive ownership.

Equally it can be tempting to throw the data and information agenda to an existing Executive, maybe one who already plays in the information arena such as the CFO. The problem with this is that I don’t know many CFOs who have a lot of spare time. They tend to have many priorities already. Let’s say that your average CFO has 20 main things that they worry about. When they add data and information to this mix, then let’s be optimistic and say this slots in at number 15. Is this really going to lead to paradigm-shifting work on data exploitation or data governance?

For most organisations the combination of Data Governance and Data Exploitation is a huge responsibility in terms of both scope and complexity. It is not work to be approached lightly and definitively not territory where a part-timer will thrive.

Peter Aiken also emphasizes that a newly appointed CDO may well find him or herself looking to remediate years of neglect for areas such as data management. The need to address such issues suggests that focus is required.

To turn things round, how many organisations of at least a reasonable size have one of their executives act as CFO on a part time basis?
 
 
Theme 2 – The CDO most logically reports into a commercial area (CEO or COO)

Where does the CDO fit?

I’d echo Peter Aiken’s comments that IT departments and the CIOs who lead them have achieved great things in the past decades (I’ve often been part of the teams doing just this). However today (often as a result of just such successes) the CIO’s remit is vast. Even just care and feeding of the average organisation’s IT estate is a massive responsibility. If you add in typical transformation programmes as well, it is easy to see why most CIOs are extremely busy.

Another interesting observation is that the IT project mindset – while wholly suitable for the development, purchase and integration of transaction processing systems – is less aligned with data-centric work. This is because data evolves. Peter Aiken also talks about data operating at a different cadence, by which he means the flow or rhythm of events, especially the pattern in which something is experienced.

More prosaically, anyone who has seen the impact of a set of parallel and uncoordinated projects on a previously well-designed data warehouse will be able to attest to the project and asset mindsets not mingling too well in the information arena. Also, unlike much IT work, data-centric activities are not always ones that can be characterised by having a beginning, middle and end; then tend to be somewhat more open ended as an organisation’s data seldom is static and its information needs have similar dynamism.

Instead, the exploitation of an organisation’s data is essentially a commercial exercise which is 100% targeted at better business decision making. This work should be focussed on adding value (see also Theme 5 below). Both of these facts argue for the responsible function reporting outside of IT (but obviously with a very strong technical flavour). Logical reporting lines are thus into either the CEO or COO, assuming that the latter is charged with the day-to-day operations of the business [2].
 
 
Theme 3 – The span of CDO responsibilities is still evolving

Answers on a postcard...

While there are examples of CDOs being appointed in the early 2000s, the role has really only recently impinged on the collective corporate consciousness. To an extent, many organisations have struggled with the data → information → insight → action journey, so it is unsurprising that the precise role of the CDO is at present not entirely clear. Is CDO a governance-focussed role, or an information-generating role, or both? How does a CDO relate to a Chief Analytics Officer, or are they the same thing? [3]

It is evident that there is some confusion here. On the assumption (see Theme 2 above) that the CDO sits outside IT, then how does it relate to IT and where should data-centric development resource be deployed? How does the CDO relate to compliance and risk? [4]

The other way of looking at this is that there is a massive opportunity for embryonic CDOs to define their function and span of control. We have had CFOs and their equivalents for centuries (longer if you go back to early Babylonian Accounting), how exciting would it be to frame the role and responsibilities of an entirely new C-level executive?
 
 
Theme 4 – Data Management is an indispensable foundation for Analytics, Visualisation and Statistical Modelling

Look out for vases containing scorpions...

Having been somewhat discursive on the previous themes, here I will be brief. I’ve previously argued that a picture paints a thousand words [5] and here I’ll simply include my poor attempt at replicating an exhibit that I have borrowed from Peter Aiken’s deck. I think it speaks for itself:

Data Governance Triangle

You can view Peter’s original, which I now realise diverges rather a lot from my attempt to reproduce it, here.

I’ll close this section by quoting a statistic from the plenary sessions of the seminar: “Data Scientists are only 10-20% productive; if you start a week-long piece of work on Monday, the actual statistical analysis will commence on Friday afternoon; the rest of the time is battling with the data” [6].

CDOs should be focussed on increasing the productivity of all staff (Data Scientists included) by attending to necessary foundational work in the various areas highlighted in the exhibit above.
 
 
Theme 5 – The CDO is in the business of driving cultural change, not delivering shiny toys

When there's something weird on your board of dash / When there's something weird and it's kinda crass / Who you gonna call?

While all delegates agreed that a CDO needs to deliver business value, a distinction was made between style and substance. As an example, Big Data is a technology – an exciting one which allows us to do things we have not done before, but still a technology. It needs to be supported and rounded out by attention to process and people. The CDO should be concerned about all three of these dimensions (see also Theme 4 above).

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that some of the attendees at the CDO forum hailed from the extractive industries. We had some excellent discussions about how safety has been embedded in the culture of such organisations. But we also spoke about just how long this has taken and how much effort was required to bring about the shift in mindset. As always, changing human behaviour is not a simple or quick thing. If one goal of a CDO is to embed reliance on credible information (including robust statistical models) into an organisation’s DNA, then early progress is not to be anticipated; instead the CDO should be dug in for the long-term and have vast reserves of perseverance.

As regular readers will be unsurprised to learn, I’m delighted with this perspective. Indeed tranches of this blog are devoted precisely to the important area [7]. I am also somewhat allergic to a focus on fripperies at the expense of substance, something I discussed most directly in “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards. These perspectives seem to be well-aligned with the stances being adopted by many CDOs.

As with any form of change, the group unanimously felt that good communication lay at the heart of success. A good CDO needs to be a consummate communicator.
 
 
Tune in next time…

I have hopefully already given some sense of the span of topics the CDO Executive Forum discussed. The final article in this short series covers a further 5 themes and then look to link these together with some more general conclusions about what a CDO should do and how they should do it.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Somewhat encouragingly three of these were actually wise women, then maybe I am setting the bar too low!
 
[2]
 
Though if reporting to a COO, the CDO will need to make sure that they stay close to wherever business strategy is developed; perhaps the CEO, perhaps a senior strategy or marketing executive.
 
[3]
 
I plan to write on the CDO / CAO dichotomy in coming weeks.

UPDATE: I guess it took more than a few weeks, but now see: The Chief Data Officer “Sweet Spot” and Alphabet Soup

 
[4]
 
I will expand on this area in Theme 6, which will be part of the second article in this series.
 
[5]
 
I actually have the cardinality wrong here as per my earlier article.
 
[6]
 
I will return to this point in Theme 9, which again will be part of the second article in the series.
 
[7]
 
A list of articles about cultural change in the context of information programmes may be viewed here.

 

 

A Dictionary of the Business Intelligence Language

Software Advice article

Michael Koploy of on-line technology consulting company Software Advice recently asked me, together with four other people from the Business Intelligence / Data Warehousing community, to contribute some definitions of commonly-used technology jargon pertinent to our field. The results can be viewed in his article, BI Buzzword Breakdown. Readers may be interested in the differing, but hopefully complementary, definitions that were offered.

In jockeying for space with my industry associates, only one of my definitions (that relating to Data Mining) was used. Here are two others, which were left on the cutting room floor. Maybe they’ll make it to the DVD extras.
The equivalent of the Unicorn dream sequence in Bladerunner, but imbued with greater dramatic meaning...

Big Data Rather than having the entirely obvious meaning, has come to be associated with a set of technologies, some of them open source, that emerged from the needs of several of the major on-line businesses (Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Amazon) to analyse the large amount of data they had relating to how people interact with their web-sites. The area is often linked to Apache Hadoop, a low-cost technology that allows commodity servers to be combined to collectively to store large amounts of data, particularly where the structure of these varies considerably and particularly where there is a need to support unpredictably-growing volumes.
   
Data Warehouse A collection of data, generally emanating from a number of different systems, which is combined to form a consistent structure suitable for the support of a variety of reporting and analytical needs. Most warehouses will have an element of data stored in a multi-dimensional format; i.e. one that is intended to support pivot-table like slicing and dicing. This is achieved using specific data structures: Fact tables, which hold figures, or measures (like profit, or sales, or growth); and dimension tables, which hold business entities, or dimensions (like countries, weeks, product lines, salesman etc.). The dimensions are often nested into hierarchies, such as Region => Country => City => Area. Warehouse data is generally leveraged using traditional reports, On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) and more advanced analytical approaches, such as data mining.

Approximately 5.5 cm isn't THAT big is it?

The above comments are perhaps most notable for representing my first reference to the latest information hot topic, the rather misleadingly named Big Data. To date I have rather avoided the rampaging herd in this area – maybe through fear of being crushed in the stampede – but it is probably a topic to which I will return once there is less hype and more substance to comment on.