The CDO Is No Elixir

Thoughts on a trendy new title.

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If Big Data is really a big deal, then don’t organizations need to formalize and legitimize it with a formal C-level position?

It’s a question that enterprises are asking themselves today; there’s never been a greater buzz about about the Chief Data Officer. Posts and thoughts advocating the creation of this new position aren’t exactly wanting. For instance, in a post called Is Visualizing Data Enough?, Brad Roberts writes:

So how can companies keep their BI priorities straight? A very good solution is one that we’ve discussed often recently: establish the office of Chief Data Officer and give that person ultimate control over the flow of all data inside the company. Because he or she has responsibility for making the most effective distribution and use of company data, the CDO alone is in a position to bring some rationality to those priorities. In the long run, just this decision – and the savings on misdirected or premature purchasing decisions—will pay for the creation of this new C-level job.

Let’s really examine the need for a proper CDO.

There’s little doubt that some if not most organizations don’t optimize the tremendous asset that is data. Tony Fisher delves deeply into this subject in his book The Data Asset (affiliate link). To this extent, perhaps some enterprises would benefit from the formal recognition of the importance of data that a CDO ostensibly confers.

A CDO is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for success with Big Data.

The problem as I see is that a CDO is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for success with Big Data. In other words, an organization can be successful without one and the presence of one guarantees absolutely nothing. Consider companies like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. They all do amazing things with unstructured information.

A simple LinkedIn search reveals that neither company sports a formal CDO. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because the vast majority of employees at these organizations understand the import of data. As a case in point, when I spoke at Netflix as part of my book tour for The Visual Organization, I mistakenly said that Netflix was responsible for one-fifth of US weeknight Internet traffic when I knew the right number. The correct fraction is one-third, and at least 20 Netflix employees immediately called me out on it:

Netflix employees at more junior levels get it. Data matters. They don’t need a CDO reminding them of that. (For more on this, see The CDO Paradox.)

Simon Says

I’m not anti-CDO. For an organization with poor internal data-management practices, however, a simple hire or appointment will not turn things around by itself.

The solution? Change the culture. Buy, deploy, and develop new tools. Hold employees accountable for making decisions based upon facts, not merely intuition. Explore new datasets.

These things are likely to result in a greater impact than merely making a high-profile hire in a change-resistant and/or dataphobic enterprise.

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What say you?


I wrote this post as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise, and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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