Want to create a successful data strategy? Here's where you need to start

Data chiefs have spent the past 12 months helping the business react quickly to the challenges it faced. Now they’ve proven their value, CDOs have an opportunity to increase their remit and their responsibilities still further.

Anyone who thinks a successful chief data officer (CDO) is only measured by their ability to manage information is mistaken. While ensuring data quality is a key element of the role, the best data chiefs are increasingly going beyond numbers and engaging with their line-of-business peers to deliver digital business transformation.

Gartner's sixth annual CDO survey says as many as 93% of data chiefs believe effective communication is critical to their success. The analyst says the most important competencies for modern CDOs are influence, engagement and communication – and these are very much leadership rather than data-management skills.

"If the CDO does not exert influence across the organisation by promoting data sharing, engaging stakeholders and training the workforce to become data literate, they will likely not perform well in their role," says Gartner vice president Debra Logan.

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

While CDOs who work closely with business peers are 1.7 times more likely to be effective at consistently producing clear business value, Gartner says less successful CDOs are inclined to focus on technology instead of people.

That sentiment resonates with Sudaman Thoppan Mohanchandralal, chief data and analytics officer at finance firm Allianz Benelux, who tells ZDNet that the only way for CDOs to remain what he refers to as "hyper relevant" is to focus first on business objectives rather than the management of information and the implementation of analytics systems.

"Any investment should have a very strong and a serious link to a business outcome," he says. "You need to ensure that it's the dog that wags the tail and not the tail that wags the dog."

The message for CDOs is clear: your success is dependent on your ability to influence others and to help the organisation develop a digital business strategy that puts data at the heart of operational activities.

For other tech leaders –  such as chief digital officers, CIOs and CTOs – this requirement to focus on engagement will sound like a familiar refrain.

Earlier this year, we suggested that successful CIOs must think business first and technology very much second, referring to Gartner research that suggested IT leaders are increasingly hired for their emotional intelligence not just their technical acumen.

Now it seems as if that focus on engagement is spreading to CDOs, too. Data chiefs might have originally been hired to make sense of the huge treasure troves of information their business holds but their long-term success is dependent on their ability to move from data management into business engagement.

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

Gartner says the best data leaders today go beyond managing data and work directly with business stakeholders to create insight that creates measurable value for their organisation. 

Logan says data sharing – currently seen as a priority by 43% of data chiefs – can help accelerate digital business transformation. In fact, Gartner predicts organisations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers by 2023.

Finding better ways to share data has certainly been the priority for Marc Alvarez, vice president for data management and operations at media giant Thomson Reuters, who has spent the past two and a half years building a strategic master data management (MDM) programme alongside technology partner Winshuttle and its EnterWorks platform.

Alverez, who spoke at Gartner's recent European Data & Analytics Summit, says his focus has been on ensuring that Thomson Reuters' MDM platform is closely aligned to the company's broader business objectives.

To this end, his data team spends a lot of time communicating with line-of-business partners, such as working closely with the company's sales organisation to understand their day-to-day data challenges.

"That's led to really good levels of engagement," he says. "So we started running a lot of stakeholder sessions with various lines of business. We've walked everybody through the technology and its potential benefits."

Crucially, Alverez says those sessions were not focused on MDM per se but were instead centred on the outputs of the technology implementation process and the potential value for the business and its customers of sharing and using information.

"We're having a really good impact and we're seeing this now in our customer data," he says. "We can stitch together our customers to the products they buy and onto the accounts payable department. For the first time, we're able to bring the data in and look at it across one view, which is very helpful to the business in many different areas."

It's these kinds of stakeholder-led initiatives that are helping CDOs to prove their worth to the business. That's important, given that NewVantage Partners research last year suggested just 28% of data chiefs believe that the role is "successful and established".

Although the CDO is a relative newcomer to the C-suite, research suggests the number of companies hiring a data chief has more than quadrupled since 2012 – and the data-led developments of the past 12 months have probably been a tipping point for the enterprise's perception of the value of CDOs.

The central role of data in all organisations became clear during the coronavirus pandemic, as companies had to react quickly to real-time information and then pivot to meet fast-changing socio-economic circumstances and customer requirements.

At this crucial juncture, CDOs stepped up and provided timely solutions to the business' challenges. Such has been the level of their success that Gartner says 72% of CDOs are now either leading or heavily involved in their organisation's digital transformation initiatives.

Logan says these results show that more boards finally understand the primary role that data plays in the overall digital business strategy. Gartner says seven in 10 boards have accelerated digital business initiatives in the wake of COVID-19.

In fact, the analyst says the central role of data to digital transformation initiatives is having a consequential impact on the responsibilities of data chiefs, with the divide between the two types of CDO – chief digital officer and chief data officer – becoming increasingly blurred.

SEE: What is a chief digital officer? Everything you need to know about the CDO explained

So now the CDO has proven their value, their influence and remit could be set to increase further. But if that's a challenge, then it's a nice problem to have for data chiefs who have – until very recently – sometimes struggled to find their seat at the top table.

For CDOs looking to cement their positions, the key to success is a laser-like focus on engagement. As S&P Global Market Intelligence's chief product officer for data management solutions Warren Breakstone tells ZDNet, while business models change, one thing remains constant: data chiefs must concentrate on helping the business meet its objectives.

"The combination of technology and human capital is key," he says. "It's all about people being able to utilise the technology and the data to ultimately achieve the business' goals – I think that convergence just continues to accelerate."