Disentangling data: data governance and the role of the CDO

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In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage and control the terabytes of data embedded within different parts of an organisation.  The evolution of the “data lake” into the “data ocean” has resulted in the necessity for companies to assign a custodian representing key stakeholders’ interests.  A perennial hot topic is the role of the chief data officer (CDO); according to Gartner, 25% of major global organisations will have appointed a chief data officer by the end of next year (Gartner, 2014)[1].

This article aims to discuss the topic of the CDO and in particular, data governance; what characteristics are required by the person entrusted to harness data and protect stakeholder interests in an organisation? Does the seniority of this person warrant a title at C-level to be truly effective?  Time to look at these points in more detail.

The rise of the CDO role

With more and more businesses relying on an online or digital route to market, managing and analysing data is an increasingly crucial step for organisations.  The realisation of the importance of data and the appointment of CDO roles is most prevalent in the banking, government and insurance sectors (Gartner, 2014)[2].  However, recent appointments in the other industries, such as media and advertising, are on the increase.  In our view, the rise of the CDO and the importance of effective data governance will continue with the success and increase in revenues the role can support.  The increasing focus on value creation through Big Data projects brings the necessity for someone to be accountable for the strategic asset that data is.

The CDO & data governance

In the simplest terms, data governance is the overall management of the availability, usability and security of the data used in an organisation.   As the business exploitation of data continues to gather pace, companies are realising that governing data is an organisational responsibility and models are required to protect data on different levels.  As a result, the individual entrusted with this task must ensure that good governance is implemented to prevent lack of data availability, poor timeliness, damaged currency and slow velocity.  Up to this point, the CDO is the most popular term to describe the person who fits this role.  So far, several states and cities in the US have created CDO positions including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.  Still relatively rare in the UK, steps are being taken to cement the need for the CDO, with the first European CDO Leadership Forum taking place in London in February.


As a starting point, to implement a successful data governance program, the right person needs to be identified for the job.  To manage, control and gain value for an organisation’s data, it is our view that this person will be expected to possess a unique blend of skills, experience and sometimes, a suitable suite of qualifications.  Under the right leadership, data has a value that can help drive increases in profitable business.  Therefore, CDOs will need to have strong communication and leadership skills.  From a business transformation perspective, individuals will be in a unique position to really inspire innovation with new data exploitation technologies that can be cascaded throughout the organisation.  Experience in building a case at the C-level for new technology investment will be of the highest importance, as the CEO and other members of the board must buy-in to the vision of data governance implementation. Other key requirements include experience in setting up information analytics teams; not to mention Business and IT teams for data management.

CDO – C-level or not?

However, before boardrooms start to expand to accommodate this new position, does the role really garner C-level status within an organisation? The responsibilities of the CDO are fairly straightforward; however, opinion is split when it comes to where the CDO should be positioned in the boardroom, if positioned there at all.  Some industry experts agree that the chief data officer position should reside alongside the chief information officer (CIO) and the chief technology officer (CTO).  Early adopters of the CDO position tended to place the role with the CIO, therefore reporting to IT.  However, more recently, the argument has been raised for the responsibility to be moved out of IT and into the business side of an organisation in order to promote development and growth based on data analysis.

CDO Career Path  

To conclude, it is useful to consider the requirements for anyone interested in reaching the level of chief data officer.  As big data and analytics move up the list of key C-level and board priorities, the importance of having a chief data officer become more prevalent.    This individual is likely to require a unique blend of business and technical skills to carve out a successful career and deliver real value to their employer; business financial management, compliance and regulatory requirements as well as strong skills in data governance and business intelligence are more than likely to be key components of the role.  Therefore it is our view that the route to this role can be found from multiple facets of an organisation; an individual with a hybrid understanding of marketing, IT and finance is most likely to suit – wherever they are currently located within the business

CDO Candidate Advice

As with many senior management positions, the success of the CDO role will likely come from superior political and managerial skills.  For those considering a move from data professional to senior executive and CDO, MBN advise demonstrating soft skills and personal development matched with strong examples of building and maintaining multiple stakeholder relationships.   Providing instances of the ability to develop and guide data strategy through the building of collaborative teams will no doubt be very important to really drive results.  As the individual tasked with data governance, which we have discussed earlier in this article, candidates will no doubt be required to have a strong understanding of best practice and quality improvement in this field.

If you would like any more information on data governance or the role and requirements of the chief data officer, we would be happy to help.  Contact MBN Solutions on 0845 070 1130 or email info@mbnsolutions.com.

[1] Gartner Newsroom: 30 Jan 2014.  Available at http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2659215

[2] Gartner Newsroom: 30 Jan 2014.  Available at http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2659215