The CDO – A Dilemma or The Next Big Thing?


It wasn’t so long ago that I last wrote about Forbes’s perspective on the data arena [1]. In this piece, I am going to compare and contrast two more recent Forbes articles. The first is 3 Reasons Why The Chief Data Officer Will Become The Next Big Thing by Lauren deLisa Coleman (@ultra_Lauren). The second is The Chief Data Officer Dilemma by Randy Bean (@RandyBeanNVP) [2].

While the contents of the two articles differ substantially – the first is positive about the future of the role, the second highlights some of its current challenges – there are interesting points made in each of them. In the midst of confusion about what a Chief Data Officer (CDO) is and what they do, it is perhaps not surprising that fundamentally different takes on the area can both contain seeds of truth.

Lauren deLisa Coleman

In the first piece, deLisa Coleman refers to the twin drivers of meeting increasingly stringent regulatory demands [3] and leveraging data to drive enhanced business outcomes; noting that:

Expertise and full dedication is needed particularly since data is threaded into nearly all facets of today’s businesses [4].

She states that appointing a CDO is the canonical response of Executive teams, while noting that there is not full consensus on all facets of this role. In covering the title’s “three reasons” why organisations need CDOs, deLisa Coleman references a survey by Infogix [5]. This highlights the increasing importance of each of the following areas: Metadata, Data Governance and the Internet of Things.

Expanding on these themes, deLisa Coleman adds:

Those who seize success within these new parameters will be companies that not only adapt most quickly but those that can also best leverage their company’s data in a strategic manner in innovative ways while continuing to gathering massive amounts under flawless methods of protection.

So far, so upbeat. To introduce a note of caution, I am aware that, in the last few years – and no doubt in part driven by articles in Forbes, Harvard Business Review and their ilk – most companies have set forth a vision for becoming a “data-driven organisation” [6]. However, the number that have actually achieved this objective – or even taken significant steps towards it – is of course much smaller. The central reason for this is that it is not easy to become a “data-driven organisation”. As with most difficult things, reaching this goal requires hard-work, focus, perseverance and, it has to be said, innate aptitude. Some experience of what is involved is of course also invaluable and, even in 2018, this is a rare commodity.

A sub-issue within this over-arching problem is miracle-worker syndrome; we’ll hire a great CDO and then we don’t need to worry about data any more [7]. Of course becoming a “data-driven organisation” requires the whole organisation to change. A good CDO will articulate the need for change, generate enthusiasm for moving forward and and coordinate the necessary metamorphosis. What they cannot do however is enact such a fundamental change without the active commitment of all tiers of the organisation.

Randy Bean

Of course this is where the second article becomes pertinent. Bean starts by noting the increasing prevalence of the CDO. He cites an annual study by his consultancy [8] which surveys Fortune 1000 companies. In 2012, this found that only 12% of the companies surveyed had appointed a CDO. By 2018, the figure has risen to over 63%, a notable trend [9].

However, he goes on to say that:

In spite of the common recognition of the need for a Chief Data Officer, there appears to be a profound lack of consensus on the nature of the role and responsibilities, mandate, and background that qualifies an executive to operate as a successful CDO. Further, because few organizations — 13.5% — have assigned revenue responsibility to their Chief Data Officers, for most firms the CDO role functions primarily as an influencer, not a revenue generator.

This divergence of opinion on CDO responsibilities, mandate, and importance of the role underscores why the Chief Data Officer may be the toughest job in the executive c-suite within many organizations, and why the position has become a hot seat with high turnover in a number of firms.

In my experience, while deLisa Coleman’s sunnier interpretation of the CDO environment both holds some truth and points to the future, Bean’s more gritty perspective is closer to the conditions currently experienced by many CDOs. This is reinforced by a later passage:

While 39.4% of survey respondents identify the Chief Data Officer as the executive with primary responsibility for data strategy and results within their firm, a majority of survey respondents – 60.6% — identify other C-Executives as the point person, or claim no single point of accountability. This is remarkable and highly significant, for it highlights the challenges that CDO’s face within many organizations.

Bean explains that some of this is natural, making a similar point to the one I advance above: the journey towards being “data-driven” is not a simple one and parts of organisations may both not want to take the trip and even dissuade colleagues from doing so. Passive or active resistance are things that all major transformations need to deal with. He adds that lack of clarity about the CDO role, especially around the involved / accountable question as it relates to strategy, planning and execution is a complicating factor.

Some particularly noteworthy points arose when the survey asked about the background and skills of a CDO. Findings included:

While 34% of executives believe the ideal CDO should be an external change agent (outsider) who brings fresh perspectives, an almost equivalent 32.1% of executives believe the ideal CDO should be an internal company veteran (insider) who understands the culture and history of the firm and knows how to get things done within that organization.

22.6% of executives […] indicated that the CDO must be either a data scientist or a technologist who is highly conversant with data. An additional 11.3% responded that a successful CDO must be a line-of-business executive who has been accountable for financial results.

The above may begin to sound somewhat familiar to some readers. It perhaps brings to mind the following figure [10]:

Expanded CDO Sweet Spot

As I pointed out last year in A truth universally acknowledged… organisations sometimes take a kitchen sink approach to experience and expertise, a lengthy list of requirements that will never been found in one person. From the above survey, it seems that this approach probably reflects the thinking of different executives.

I endorse one of Bean’s final points:

The lack of consensus on the Chief Data Officer role aptly mirrors the diversity of opinion on the value and importance of data as an enterprise asset and how it should be managed.

Back in my more technologically flavoured youth, I used to say that organisations get the IT that they deserve. The survey findings suggest that the same aphorism can be applied to both CDOs and the data landscapes that they are meant to oversee.

So two contrasting pieces from the same site. The first paints what I believe is an accurate picture of the importance of the CDO role in fulfilling corporate objectives. The second highlights some of the challenges with the CDO role delivering on its promise. Each perspective is valid. I would recommend readers take a look at both articles and then blend some of the insights with their own opinions and ideas.


I would like to thank Lauren deLisa Coleman and Randy Bean for both reviewing this article and allowing me to quote their work. Their openness and helpfulness are very much appreciated.


Draining the Swamp.
Text is reproduced with the kind permission of the authors.

Forbes has a limited free access policy for non-subscribers, this means that the number of articles you can view is restricted.

To which I would add both customer and business partner expectations about how their data is treated and used by organisations.
Echoing points from my two 2015 articles: 5 Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum and 5 More Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum, specifically:

It’s gratifying to make predictions that end up coming to be.

Infogix Identifies the Top Game Changing Data Trends for 2018.
It would be much easier to list those who do not share this aspiration.
Having been described as “the Messiah” in more than one organisation, I can empathise with the problems that this causes. Perhaps Moses – a normal man – leading his people out of the data dessert is a more apt Biblical metaphor, should you care for such things.
New Vantage Partners.
These are clearly figures for US companies and it is generally acknowledged that the US approach to data is more mature than elsewhere. In Europe, it may be that GDPR (plus, in my native UK, the dark clouds of Brexit) has tipped the compliance / leverage balance too much towards data introspection and away from revenue-generating data insights.
This first version of this image appeared in 2016’s The Chief Data Officer “Sweet Spot”, with the latest version being published in 2017’s A Sweeter Spot for the CDO?.


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