Chief data officer role shakes up traditional data governance

By Phil Simon, author, keynote speaker and technology expert

The arrival of big data means many things. For one, it has exposed the limits of data stalwarts such as structured query language (SQL) and relational databases. Sure, an organization's internal and structured data still matters – but it’s not the only game in town these days. Indeed, the vast majority of what we call big data is both unstructured and lies outside of enterprise walls. Grappling with issues around big data has persuaded many organizations to ink in a new box on the org chart – one for the chief data officer (CDO) role. 

Still think big data does not dramatically affect data governance and even basic management on many levels? Think again. Let’s take a closer look at what big data – specifically, the chief data officer role – means for traditional data governance.

A brief definition of the chief data officer role

By way of background, here’s a simple definition of a CDO. In my view, it represents an executive formally charged with how the enterprise uses and protects both internal and external information. To this end, the person in the chief data officer role is responsible for enterprisewide data governance. (As I'll explain later, the role may very well overlap with other executive positions.)

Before continuing, a disclaimer is in order. Much like big data, there's anything but universal agreement on the definition and responsibilities of a proper CDO. Because it's such a nascent and evolving role, it's much murkier than a garden-variety CFO or CEO. What's more, many prominent organizations choose not to employ them. Examples include Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Google.

With the term CDO defined, let's return to our central discussion.

Anointing a CDO is no elixir to data governance problems.

The different types of organizations

Of course, it's folly to think of all organizations as the same. The business and data challenges facing a midsized American company differ dramatically from those faced by large health care organizations and behemoths like Google. Oh, and legislation differs greatly based on industry and geography. To expect all organizations to manage or govern their data identically or even similarly is just plain silly.

With respect to traditional data governance, my experience shows there are generally three types of organizations:

  • Type A. Organizations that have already formalized data governance throughout the enterprise. Data governance here is continuous and systemic. Data governance councils, stewards, sponsors and teams are common.
  • Type B. Organizations that informally and invisibly practice data governance. That is, you're not likely to find any councils at these organizations. Ironically, many individuals and groups may be fulfilling similar and corresponding functions whether they know it or not.
  • Type C. Organizations that ask, “What's data governance?” (The word anarchy comes to mind here.)

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Type A and B organizations are doing data governance well. We'll leave Pandora's box closed for now.

What happens when an organization appoints its first CDO? Against the backdrop of big data, how can the CDO (continue to) make data governance sustainable? The short answer is that it depends on the following three factors:

  • The type of organization we're talking about.
  • The presence of other executives.
  • The organization’s culture.

Data governance and the chief data officer role

At least in theory, Type A organizations may seem best suited to continue successful data governance with a new CDO. After all, these enterprises are already doing things right and doing the right things. But the sailing might not be as smooth as it seems.

One potential challenge: How do the responsibilities of the CDO overlap and/or conflict with incumbent executives? I'm talking here about the chief technology officer (CTO), the chief information officer (CIO) and even the chief security officer (CSO). Forget the convoluted org chart for a moment. It's likely that new CDOs in this environment will soon step on the toes of their colleagues. Put differently, in an effort to carve out a niche within the organization, the CDO will take actions – or fail to take actions – that may ultimately cause data governance to suffer.

Type B organizations could benefit the most from the appointment of a sharp CDO. Indeed, if I were pursuing a CDO position, I would look for organizations that already get it. That is, the culture of a new CDO shock here should be minimal for one simple reason: The sentiments expressed and actions taken by the CDO merely formalize what the organization has already been doing.

Would a person in the chief data officer role be able to effect successful data governance at a Type C organization? This is akin to an organ transplant: It will either go splendidly or very poorly. Either the culture will embrace what the new CDO brings to the table or will reject it. I don't see a middle ground here.

Parting thoughts

Remember that anointing a CDO is no elixir to data governance problems. And, while most organizations may have already formalized elements of a data governance framework, that’s not enough. Many still need to tie them all together across the enterprise. Sometimes, the person best suited to make that happen is already in place. In other cases, putting someone in the chief data officer role might represent the best course of action.


Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post, Quartz, The New York Times, Fox News and many other sites.

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