In-depth with CDO Jo Coutuer

In-depth with Jo Coutuer

Part of the In-depth series of interviews

PJT Today’s guest on In-depth is Jo Coutuer, Chief Data Officer and Member of the Executive Committee of BNP Paribas Fortis, a leading Belgian bank. Given the importance of the CDO role in Financial Services, I am very happy that Jo has managed to spare us some of his valuable time to talk.
PJT Jo, you have had an interesting career in a variety of organisations from consultancies to start-ups, from government to major companies. Can you give readers a pen-picture of the journey that has taken you to your current role?
JC For me, the variety of contexts has been the most rewarding. I started in an industry that has now sharply declined in Europe (Telco Manufacturing), continued in the consulting world of ERP tools, switched into a very interesting job for the government, became an entrepreneur and co-created a data company for 13 years, merged that data company into a big 4 consultancy and finally decided to apply my life’s learnings to the fascinating industry of banking. The most remarkable aspect of my career is the fact that my current role and the attention to data that goes with it, did not exist when I started my career. It illustrates how young people today can also build a future, without really knowing what lies ahead. All it takes is the mental flexibility to switch contexts when it is needed.
PJT At present – at least in Europe, and maybe further afield – there is no standard definition of a CDO’s role. Can you tell me a bit about the scope of your work at BNP Paribas Fortis? Are you most focussed on compliance, leverage of data, or a balance of both activities?
JC At BNP Paribas Fortis, the CEO and his executive committee made a courageous decision back in 2016 to create a specific department dedicated to Data. The move was courageous, not only because it defined a new leadership role and a budget, but also because it settled a debate between the businesses and the IT function. At the time of creation of the department, it was decided to carve out of IT the traditional function of “business intelligence and data warehousing” and to establish a central competence centre for “analytics and artificial intelligence“, which before was mostly scattered or non-existing. On top of that, the new department was tasked to assume the regulatory duties that relate to data. More and more, banking regulation focusses on reliable reporting, traceable data flows, systematic data quality measurement and well documented metadata, all embedded in a solid organisational governance. So yes, I would say our Data department is both “defensive” as well as “offensive”. As a CDO, I am privileged to be able to work with experts and leaders in the fields of regulation, data warehousing expertise and data science innovation. Without them, the breadth of the scope and the required depth, would not be manageable.
PJT Do you collaborate with other Executives in the data arena, or is the CDO primus inter pares when it comes to data matters?
JC I would not speak of a hierarchical order when it comes to data. It helps to distinguish three identities of a Data department.

The first one is the identity of the “Governor”. In that identity, peers accept that the CDO translates external duties into internal best practices, as long as this happens in a co-creation mode. We have established a “College of Data Managers”, who are 13 senior managers, representing each a specific “data perimeter”, which in its turn rather well maps to our fields of business or our internal functions. These senior managers intimately link the Data activities to the day-to-day business functions and their respective executives.

A second identity is that of the “Expert”. In that identity, we offer expertise in fields of data integration, data warehousing, reporting, visualisation, data science, … It means that I see my fellow executives as clients and partners and the Data department helps them achieve their business objectives. Mentally (and sometimes practically), we measure up to external professional services or IT companies.

A third identity is that of the “Integrator”. As an integrator, we actively make the link between the business of today, the technological and data potential of today and the business of tomorrow. We actively try to question existing practices and we introduce new concepts for a variety of business applications. And although we are more driving in this role than we are in the role of the “Expert”, we still are fully at the service of our clients.

PJT More generally, how do you see the CDO role changing in coming years, what would 2020’s CDO be doing? Will we even need CDOs in 2020?
JC Ahah! One of the most frequently asked questions on CDO related social media! If previous two years are any predictor of the future, I would say that the CDO of 2020 is one who has solidly matured the governance aspects of Data, just like the CFO and CRO have done that for financial management or risk management. Let’s say that Data has become “routine”.

At the same time, the 2020 CDO will need to offer to his peers, the technical and expert capabilities that are data centric and essential to running a digital business.

And on top of that, I believe that 2020 will be the timeframe in which data valorisation will become an active topic. I explicitly do not use the word “monetisation” because we currently associate data to often with “selling data for advertising purposes”. In our industry, PSD2 [1] will define our duties to be able to exchange data with third party service providers, at the explicit request of our clients. From that new reality, an API-driven ecosystem will surface in which data will be actively valorised, to the direct service of our clients, not to the indirect service of our marketing departments. The 2020 CDO will be instrumental in shaping his or her company’s ecosystem to make sure this happens in a well governed, trusted and safe way. Clients will seek that reassurance and will reward companies who take data management seriously.

PJT Of course, senior roles tend to exist because they add value to their organisations, what do you feel is the value that a CDO brings to the table?
JC I have already mentioned the CDO’s challenge to be schizophrenic ally split between his or her various identities. But it is exactly that breadth of scope that can add value. The CDO should be an “executive integrator”. He can employ “governors” and “experts”, but his or her role in the peer team of executives is to represent the transversality of data’s nature. Data “flows”, data “unites”. More than it is “oil”, data is “water”. It flows through the company’s ecosystem and it nourishes the business and the future business potential. As such, the CDO needs to keep the water clean and make sure it gets pumped across the organisation, so that others can benefit from the nutrients it. And while doing so, the CDO has a duty to add nutrients to the water, in the form of analytical or artificial intelligence induced insights.
PJT Focussing on Analytics, I know you have written about how to build the ideal Analytics team and have mentioned that “purple people” are the key. Can you explain more about this?
JC Purple people are people that integrate the skills of “red” people and “blue” people. Red people bring the scientific data methodologies to the table. Blue people bring the solid frameworks of the business. Data people as individuals and a Data department as an entity, must have as a mission to be “purple” and to actively bridge the gap between the fast growing set of data technologies and methodologies on the one hand and the rapidly evolving and transforming business challenges on the other hand. And of course, if you like Prince [2] as a musician, that can be an asset too!
PJT In my discussions with other CDOs [3] and indeed in my own experience, it seems that teamwork is crucial for a CDO. Of course, this is important for many senior roles, but it does seem central to what a CDO does. My perspective is that both a CDO’s own team and the virtual teams that he or she forms with colleagues are going to have a big say in whether things go well or not. What are your views on this topic?
JC You are absolutely right. A CDO or data function cannot exist in isolation. At some times, transversality feels a burden because it imposes a daily attention to stakeholders. However, in reality, it’s exactly the transversal effect that can generate the added value to an organisation. At the end of the day, the integration aspects between departments and people will generate positive side effects, above and beyond the techniques of data management.
PJT Artificial Intelligence in its various guises has been the topic of conversation recently. This is something with strong linkage to the data field. Obviously without divulging any commercial secrets, what role do you see AI playing in banking going forwards? What about in our lives in general?
JC It’s funny that AI is being discovered as a new topic. I remember writing my Master thesis on the topic a long time ago. Of course, things have evolved since the 90s, with a storage and computing capacity that is approximately 50,000 times stronger for the same price point. This capacity explosion, combined with the connectivity of the internet and the cloud, combined with the increased awareness that data and algorithms have become central elements in a many business strategies, has fundamentally re-calibrated the potential of AI.

In banking, AI and Analytics will soon help clients understand their finances better, will help them to take better and faster decisions, will generate a better (less friction) client experience for “the easy stuff” and it will allow the banks to put humans on “the hard stuff” or on those interactions with their clients that require true human interaction. Behind the scenes, Analytics and AI are already helping to prevent fraud, monitoring suspicious transactions to detect crime, money laundering and fraud. And even deeper inside the mechanics of a bank, Analytics and AI are helping prevent cyber-crimes and are monitoring the stability of the technological platforms onto which our modern financial and societal system is built.

I am convinced that the societal role of banks will continue to exists, despite innovative peer-to-peer or blockchain driven schemes. As such, Analytics and AI will contribute to society as a whole, through their contribution to a reliable and stable financial services system.

PJT With GDPR [4] coming into force only a couple of months ago, the subject of customer data and how it is used is a topical one. Taking BNP Paribas Fortis to one side, what are your thoughts on the balance between data privacy and the “free” services that we all pay for by allowing our data to be sold?
JC I believe that GDPR is both important legislation and brings benefits to customers. First of all, we have good historical reasons to care about our privacy. In times of societal crises or wars, it is the first weapon that is used against society and its citizens. So we should care for it deeply. Second, being in an industry for which “trust” is the most essential element of identity, protecting and respecting the data and the privacy of clients is a natural reflex. And putting the banking question aside for a moment, we should continue to educate aggressively about the fact that services never come for free. As long as consumers are well informed that they pay for their convenience with their data, there is no fundamental concern. But because there is still no real “paid” economy surfacing, the consumer does not really have a choice between “pay-for-service” or “give-data-for-service”. I believe that the market potential for paid services, that guarantee non-exploitation of personal data, is quietly growing. And when it finally appears, consumers will start making choices. Personally, I admit to having moved from being on all possible digital channels and tools, towards being much more selective. And I must admit that digital life with a privacy aware mind is still possible and still fun.
PJT It seems to me that a key capability of a CDO is as an influencer. Influence can take many shapes, from being an acknowledged expert in an area, to the softer skills of being someone that others can talk to openly. Do you agree about this observation? If so, how do you seek to be an influencer?
JC It’s a thin line to walk and it depends on the type of CDO that you are and the mandate that you have. If you have a mandate to do “governance only”, then you should have the confidence of delivering on your mandate, just like a CRO or a CFO does. For that I always revert to the phrase: “we agreed that data is a valuable asset, just like money or people or buildings, … so let’s then act like it.” If you have mandate to “change”, to “create value”, then you have to be an integrator and influencer because you can never change an organisation and its people on your own.
PJT Before letting you go, a quick personal question. I know you spent some time at the University of Cambridge. I lived in this town while my wife was working on her PhD. Like Cambridge, Leuven [5] is a historic town just outside of a major capital city. What parallels do you see between the two and what did you think of the locals?
JC Cambridge is famous for its “punts”, Leuven for its Stella Artois “pints”. And both central churches (or chapels) are home to iconic paintings by Flemish masters, Rubens in Cambridge and Bouts in Leuven. Visit both!
PJT Jo, thank you so much for talking to me and giving readers the benefit of your ideas and experience.

Jo Coutuer can be reached at via his LinkedIn profile.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, neither Ltd. nor any of its Directors had any shared commercial interests with Jo Coutuer, BNP Paribas Fortis or any entities associated with either of these.

If you are a Chief Data Officer, a Chief Analytics Officer, a Director of Data, or hold some other “Top Data Job” and would like to share your thoughts with the readers of this site in an interview like this one, please get in contact.


Payment Services Directive 2.
Prince Rogers Nelson.
Two recent examples include:

General Data Protection Regulation.

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