The Enigmatic Chief Data Officer

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If you turned back the clocks a decade or two, just about every company (less a few forward-thinking ones like Capital One) would have scoffed at the idea of making room in the c-suite for someone to manage the company’s data. As hard as it is to believe, the idea of a chief data officer (CDO) playing a pivotal role at any level at any company, wasn’t a concept until a few years ago, indicated by a survey that noted an overall increase in the prevalence of the CDO—climbing from 12% in 2012 to 68% in 2018. 

In hindsight, it’s easy to fault the snail-like pace at which companies have adopted CDOs. In reality, however, it shouldn’t be that surprising. In the early 2000s, the digital world as we know it today was still in its infancy. So, too, were the use cases for businesses. Nobody knew what to do with the data, so why roll out the red carpet into the board room for someone to manage it? It wasn’t until the financial crisis of 2008 that major players in the business world started appointing individuals in a leadership capacity to govern their data. Back then, this included, almost exclusively, central banks and insurance companies who tasked a CDO with playing data defense. 

Today, CDOs are taking the entire business world by storm. Just like the slow adoption made sense at the turn of the new millennium, the current surge does the same. Between the proliferation of data and the uptick in all things digital, companies are inundated with data. Understandably, they need someone to manage it. That’s where the chief data officer comes in. 

What is the Role of a Chief Data Officer (CDO)

Finding a concise definition of someone’s role who sits at or near the top of a company shouldn’t be difficult. For the majority of the c-suite positions, that’s true. However, when you look for a definition of a chief data officer, you’ll likely be left scratching your head while glossing over definitions that paint very different pictures. Sure, some people resort to a general definition, like “the person responsible for data utilization and governance across the organization.” Ok, that’s fine. But would you say the definition of a CEO is someone who “runs the company?” You could, but it wouldn’t get you very far. Imagine hiring a CEO and saying, “here, your job is to run the company.” How successful would they be? It’s no different than telling a CDO that their job is to “govern the data.”

What about the attributes of a successful CDO? Or the specifics of their role and where it lives within the organization? Who do they report to? What’re their primary, day-to-day responsibilities, and their core business objectives? These are the parts of the definition that are missing and causing so much confusion. 

That confusion is illustrated in a 2018 survey that asked respondents—more than half of whom are CDOs themselves—the primary attribute of a successful CDO within their company. To no surprise, the responses varied. Some said their organization desired an external change agent, while others said theirs wanted a “veteran” or “insider.” Some respondents said they wanted a line-of-business executive who owns business results, while others wanted a technology executive. The same survey also found that 51 percent of respondents felt the chief data officer should report to the executive committee. In comparison, 38 percent felt this person should sit on the executive committee. See the confusion? 

So, in 2020, can we affirmatively define a CDO? No, not really. What this individual does will depend entirely on the business and its priorities. Maybe they manage the data science and analytical side of the business. Perhaps they look for ways to monetize the data. Some may focus on data architecture, while others work to establish data governance programs within the company. Who they work with (and report to) will vary as well. It’s all subjective. Data is a powerful tool, but only if a company uses it in a way that’s right for them.

Has the Role of a CDO Changed Due to COVID-19? 

While it’s hard to nail down a concrete definition for the modern-day CDO, it’s easy to realize that this role—defined or not—will evolve in the post-pandemic world. Most notably, CDO will need to be prepared for an even greater influx of data due to many digital habits, like e-commerce, accelerating to the mainstream. While not a bad thing by any means, this influx of data will put pressure on existing systems, teams, and processes. CDOs who rest on their laurels will fall behind their contemporaries who are more forward-thinking.

That said, arguably the most significant impact of COVID-19 on CDOs is the spotlight it’s brought on the data industry and the executive-level position. Now completely immersed in digital and data, companies without a CDO will quickly hire one. Those already with one will up their investments to give them more resources. For existing CDOs, this will make a competitive advantage harder to come by. Because of this, CDOs will have to put on their thinking caps and find new, more effective ways to win. 

Finally, the elephant in the room: Ethics. With more data, CDOs are going to have to be even more on their toes to stay attuned to ever-evolving regulations around the world. In 2021 and beyond, data management, specifically on how it’s collected, safeguarded, and shared, will reign supreme. 


As data comes in higher volumes and varieties, especially in the post-pandemic world, businesses of all shapes and sizes will have to evolve, and it should go without saying that one of those ways must be to invest in a chief data officer. As we near the end of 2020, the role of a CDO remains loosely defined, and while the day to day of one CDO may vary greatly from the next, they all share a similar goal: use data, the company’s most valuable asset, to help it grow. 

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