What does a chief data officer do? Businesses can't make up their minds

Confusion over what functions a CDO should perform is prompting frustration amongst those tasked with leading organizations' data strategies, a new survey by Exasol suggests.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

Half of chief data officers surveyed by Exasol felt organizations' expectations of the CDO role were misinformed.

Image: SolStock / Getty

Today, data is one of the most valuable assets any business can possess, and yet figuring out how to maximize this value is something many organizations continue to struggle with.

The growing demand for strong data leadership has emphasised the importance of the chief data officer (CDO) role, executives who are increasingly being brought into organizations to set data strategy and manage information assets.

However, according to research by database company Exasol, there is a lack of alignment over what the role of the CDO should be, with 50% of CDOs believing that organizations' expectations of the role are misinformed.

These were the findings of a survey of 250 CDOs in the UK, US and Germany commissioned by Exasol, which also found that unrealistic demands of CDOs by company leadership are prompting many to move on from their employers prematurely.

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Half of CDOs surveyed by Exasol felt the value of their role was not yet recognized in the business world, while nearly the same proportion said that organizations' expectations for the CDO role are too high and "misinformed".

This may explain why organizations struggle to fill vacant CDO roles, Exasol said – and for those that do, it's often only a fleeting relationship, with researchers finding that CDOs have the lowest tenure of all C-suite roles. According to the 2020 Enterprise Data Management Council, just 8% have a tenure longer than three years, outside the outlier of the finance industry. Exasol's survey found that 17% of CDOs had only stayed in their previous role for between one and two years.

Peter Jackson, Exasol's chief data and analytics officer, said the relative infancy of the CDO role was part of the reason it caused so much confusion among businesses. "The exact requirements and job specifications for the CDO role will vary from organization to organization, as will their focus areas and the burning issues they face," Jackson told ZDNet.

"The CDO role causes so much confusion because it's a relatively new role, and its remit is varied – from data governance to data science. In addition, hiring decisions are often made by people who don't fully understand the challenges being faced or the variety of skills of the CDO."

CDOs ultimately face the brunt of this confusion. Of those surveyed, 23% reported a lack of support and resources from their organization, while 20% felt the scope of the role did not meet their expectations.

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Similarly, 18% of CDOs said their role was not clearly defined, adding to frustration and prompting difficult conversations with company leadership, particularly when C-suite colleagues didn't understand the problems they needed to address.

Jackson said: "The problem is that people without the right data skills or understanding don't understand that different problems require different skills. Therefore, it's important for an organization to understand its goals and then recruit the CDO with the right skillset and experience to deliver on this."


While chief data officers and the more established chief information officers (CIO) work within a similar remit, Jackson said the two roles are not mutually exclusive. "The two roles should be symbiotic," he said.

"The CIO looks after the bucket, while the CDO the water. They win by working together. CEOs and boards are also recognizing that the data leader has a different set of skills to the CIO – new skills that they need."

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Recruiting people into CDO roles presents another challenge for employers entirely: 60% of CDOs surveyed by Exasol agreed that there was a lack of support for people looking to move into the role, while 63% said the education system wasn't doing enough to demonstrate the appeal of data careers to younger generations.

"Formal qualifications don't have as much impact on candidate availability, but on-the-job experience and a proven track record of delivery are pivotal requirements that hiring managers should consider when recruiting CDOs," said Jackson.

What's more, digital transformation will never be delivered without a corresponding data transformation, he adds, "and this needs to be spearheaded by a data specialist."

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