Twenty years ago, no one had heard of a chief data officer. Now the position is central to C-suites in a majority of major companies (65% in NewVantage Partners’ 2021 survey). The rise in prominence of data executives goes hand in hand with the rise of the importance of data in the modern business world: Every company must become truly data-driven, and data executives play an outsized role in making that happen.

That being said, odds are if you’re an executive reading this, you’re thinking about adding a data executive of some kind to your team. (Or maybe you want to be one yourself some day!) But what are data officers, and what do they do? How can they deliver value to their organizations — and what does that mean for you?

“It’s complicated…” — the evolving role of the data executive

The role data plays in the fate of every company is constantly evolving, as is the role of the data executive. Similarly, the duties of this vital C-suite player are not fully agreed on yet, even by those who hold the title. Further complicating matters is a group of similarly named leaders (including CIO, chief analytics officer, and vice president of analytics) that likely have different domains. Regardless of what they’re called, in an organization that also has an information or analytics executive, collaboration is crucial.

When the position first formed nearly two decades ago, it was mainly to focus on playing defense with data — keeping it secure — from external threats. A lot of those remnants of the past remain in the position, but as the value of data has soared, a data executive’s success is increasingly tied to business goals. Some of these lofty objectives include defining a robust data strategy which historically focused on:

  • Operation: Making sure data is available to users who need it, in a format that’s usable and easy to access
  • Incremental improvement: Guiding the organization to data-informed ways to decrease costs and gain efficiencies
  • Analytics and data science: Providing necessary aids so the organization can gain intelligence from data gleaned internally and externally
  • Governance and security: Ensuring enterprise data is maintained, secured, and handled safely and deliberately

The changing demands placed on data executives 

Although data executives’ focus areas are still developing, organizations increasingly expect them to take the lead in some of these key ways:

  • Value creation. Combining data, domain expertise, and an analytics platform opens up opportunities for “new revenue for your company and a ton of new value for your existing customers,” according to Sisense Managing Director of Data Monetization and Strategy Consulting Charles Holive. Seventy percent of CDOs are charged with revenue generation as first priority, and 14% get compensated based on revenue gains.
  • Data quality, availability, and security. CDOs work to ensure data across the organization is clean and correct. Moreover, they balance the competing demands of data security, access, and quality across sources and through subordinate organizations.
  • Data-driven culture. Even though data’s relevance has become obvious, efforts to create a data-driven culture have proven ineffective overall. CDOs are now instrumental in guiding departments to infuse intelligence into workflows, so employees engage with data automatically at key decision-making points. In addition, CDOs lead the charge to educate employees on how to use data, though 61% recognize a skill-set gap still remains.

Developing the modern data strategy

Data strategies vary from organization to organization, but across industries they typically contain components such as:

  • A strong data management vision: “What do we want data to do for us?”
  • A deliberate tie to business objectives, which can then drive short-term and long-term data goals and tactics
  • Metrics to gauge success, allowing the executive and stakeholders to detect (and replicate) victories, as well as curtail experiments that aren’t yielding worthwhile results
  • Overarching guidance for how leadership sees data’s role in business, including clear ethical lines

The data executive plays an essential role in crafting this data strategy. In fact, today’s fluid environment forms a perfect opportunity to redefine it in light of new technological, cultural, and business needs. 

The data strategy of the future will be formed by three imperatives:

1.  Provide new value to the organization. When data leaders understand stakeholder concerns across the business, they can help them leverage the power of data in new and exciting ways. That will transform organizations from the inside out, with the result that data becomes a differentiator (or even a revenue stream) with customers and partners.

2. Rethink data-driven culture. Instead of trying to force a data-driven culture, change the way you think about it with next-gen analytics. Use AI to bridge skill set gaps, and leverage low-code tools to minimize talent shortages. In the end, make data use easy by bringing it to the people, rather than requiring action from them. 

3. Ensure streamlined data processes and consolidate when needed. To minimize tech creep or misinformation within the organization, build a robust, trustworthy system that lends itself to automating data access, delivery of insights, and more.

The data executive of the future

The role of the data executive is certain to keep evolving in coming years. As more companies come to embrace the power of data, CDOs will naturally move beyond their current responsibilities. When employees find data-derived intelligence infused throughout their workday, the data officer’s role will have taken a major turn. 

This much is certain, though: The CDO of the future will continue to meet the challenge of how best to apply the data at hand — whatever it is — to the organization’s short- and long-term business goals.

Mindi Grissom is Director of Product Marketing at Sisense. She has over 5 years of experience in the technology industry, helping thousands of organizations transform their business with data and analytics.

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