Big Data: Three ways Chief Data Officers can change the agenda

CDOs can struggle to deliver big benefits, but data chiefs who focus on communication, digitisation and trust can help colleagues turn information into game-changing insight.

The rise of chief data officers (CDOs), who are responsible for organisation-wide governance, management and exploitation of information, has been rapid. The number of companies hiring a CDO has more than quadrupled since 2012 and analyst Gartner estimates 90% of large organisations now have a CDO.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

But in many cases the role of the CDO still remains unclear, with advisory firm NewVantage Partners suggesting that only 28% of data chiefs believe that the role is "successful and established".

So how can data chiefs start to have more influence on the business? Hany Choueiri, CDO at Aldermore Bank, and a former data chief of both the Bank of England and HSBC, gives his three best-practice tips for data leaders who want to make a difference.

1. Focus on communicating the benefits of data

Choueiri says many data chiefs find it tough to balance the business' demand for governance with a requirement to harness the power of data-led insight.

"To me, the danger of traditional CDO roles – and why quite a number of individuals aren't probably as successful as they could be in these types of roles – is because ultimately you're seen as a compliance function; you're ultimately seen as a policymaker or a standard-setter who simply ticks boxes," he says.

Rather than focusing too much on governance, Choueiri – who joined Aldermore as CDO in September 2018 – says the best data chiefs make sure they are empowered to use technology that helps turn information into insight.

"If you don't have the ability to deliver tools and deliver capability, and demonstrate the power of data, the benefits of data – which is fast analytics at the desktop via deeper insights and accurate operational day-to-day reporting – you lose the battle and people start to question what are you actually doing," he says.

Choueiri says CDOs must make sure everyone across the business understands the value that the data function helps to create – and that means the main characteristic of successful CDOs is often less to do with data and more to do with communication. "Great CDOs are good at marketing – it's almost like being almost a salesperson," he says.

The technical skills of running data – the policy, the data lineage, and the technical aspects of the dictionary definitions of data you create within the business – are not necessarily hard things for data chiefs to master. What's trickier for CDOs is communicating the value of data in an easy-to-digest manner.

"Actually being able to take that step back, find opportunities, knowing how to champion them, and screaming and shouting in the right way when you get things right, I think that's key," he says.

2. Extend your responsibilities into closely related areas

While successful CDOs communicate the value of data clearly, they don't confine their work to all-things data. Choueiri says the best data leaders are able to think about how data can be used as one of a multitude of assets to help change the business for the better.

"I think the key differentiator for me is empowering digital transformation," he says. "I think it's one of the biggest things that CDOs can and should be doing."

As well as leading the data function at Aldermore, Choueiri heads up web analytics and digital marketing, including the use of front-end-facing portals. He is the sponsor of the firm's recently established Data and Innovation Lab and also champions the use of cloud services across the bank.


Hany Choueiri: "As a data chief, you need to provide the platform to create the insight."

Image: Aldermore Bank

Choueiri's cloud-leadership role is further evidence of the growing influence of some data chiefs. CDOs, says Gartner, can play a crucial role in determining how the organisation uses new, existing, and legacy information assets. That's something that resonates with Choueiri, especially when it comes to his responsibilities for championing on-demand IT.

SEE: What is a Chief Data Officer? Everything you need to know about the CDO role

"If you think about the role of data, and the role I play in helping to facilitate increased adoption of cloud, it's all about information; understanding information that's being put in the cloud and the classification of that information," he says.

The expansion of CDO responsibilities into areas that might previously have been held by CIOs is a trend that has been noted by many industry observers. CDOs hold expertise in helping the business use data, so it makes sense for data chiefs to extend into closely related areas, such as the exploitation of cloud services.

"If you think about what cloud can do in terms of helping organisations to digitise, it's enormous – creating scalable services, failing safe, failing fast, and potential cost reductions. So being in a position of power to help the organisation use cloud has actually got knock-on impacts across the whole organisation," he says.

3. Build trust in how data and technology help solve business challenges

While Choueiri says the role of a CDO is to help people make the most of the information the business holds, he also says data functions must enable employees outside the department to make information-led decisions safely for themselves.

"The CDO is frequently seen as a rule-setter: you can do this, you can't do that, you've got to encrypt the data, you've got to protect it before you send it externally. That all means a lot of what the CDO role is often seen about is saying 'no'. And actually, what I say to my team is, 'look, you can say no, you can't do it this way, but offer a solution'. We want to protect the bank, but you also want to offer a solution to help people work better," he says.

Choueiri gives the example of the Data Masking tool within the bank's recently implemented Talend big-data platform. This tool offers anonymisation, which means people across the bank can use data for testing and analytics while ensuring key details – such as personally identifiable information – is hashed and protected.

The aim is to use technology to help people across the business feel even more confident about the insight they use. Choueiri encourages other data chiefs to take a similarly engaged approach to knowledge creation.

"CDOs need to be diverse. You need to get inside the business because frequently data is just a governance function that sits behind the scenes, almost as a second line, which to me isn't what the CDO should be doing," he says.

"As a data chief, you need to provide the platform to create the insight. You need to take the organisation with you; identify new data sources, for example, that may be beneficial to the business. We need to do more to empower people with the tools and controls to make sure they have to worry less about the data they use."


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