An Open Letter to Chief Data Officers

Community Blog
Written by Jason Larson

OCTOBER 13, 2020

Dear Chief Data Officer,

I am one of your biggest fans. I’ve interviewed dozens of data and analytics leaders at some of the world’s largest organizations, and I always walk away from those talks with awe and admiration. 

The scope of your role. The dizzying demands on your teams. The sheer ambiguity of what “CDO” even means. All in a digital universe estimated at 44 zettabytes. The World Economic Forum tells me that if this number is correct it means there are “40 times more bytes than there are stars in the observable universe.” Impossible. To. Imagine.  

There is no question the pandemic and social unrest has either reinforced or accelerated the importance of data-driven decisions for every corner of society. The gut is an unruly guide. These are turbulent times and we need our leaders in business and government and everywhere – and everyone – in between to make good decisions based on good data and analytics. Yes, data is having a moment. But how to turn this moment into CDO momentum?

Or, rather, here’s my burning question for you, Chief Data Officer: What are you going to do to keep the love of data alive? I ask this question with compassion because I know it’s been a hard road up to here. The cultural roadblocks have been daunting in establishing a data-driven organization. For many of you, there’s been a lack of resources and funding to support your programs. Poor data literacy and lack of relevant skills or staff is pervasive in many organizations.

These are significant challenges and with crisis comes opportunity. 

In Evanta’s virtual town hall discussions since Covid-19, it’s been awesome to hear the great work and pride of data and analytics leaders across the globe. You’ve been the nervous system of the business. Everyone is demanding your attention, and you’re providing services in days that used to take weeks. You’ve leveraged AI to help make sense of what might come next and how best to respond, recover, and clear a path for a promising future. For many of you, it’s the first time you’ve truly been in the spotlight. This is exciting. This is scary. This is hard. And the attention can recede as quickly as it came. To paraphrase one CDO in a recent town hall: The most important thing for our profession right now is to not backslide.

To not backslide. I could hear a mix of delight and dread in this CDO’s voice and the sentiment rang so true based on how other CDOs have been talking about these crazy times. And I thought nothing of data lakes or RPA or NLP or decision trees. Instead, things like managing change and engaging with stakeholders to foster data literacy came to the forefront of my mind. It is the non-technical aspects of your role that need to be addressed to not backslide.

Here are three areas in the sphere of data leadership that every CDO should mature or refine to seize the moment and keep the love of data alive.

  1. Lean-in to data literacy

Granted, not everybody in your organization needs to be Edward Tufte, but the art of educating and inspiring your company to read, write, and communicate data in context is a critical step to becoming a digitally savvy enterprise. I use the word art intentionally. This is about seizing the moment we’re in (who isn’t clamoring for data these days?) and strategically executing on a stand-alone data literacy program that scales up your company’s ability to “speak data” fluently. 

Good BI tools hold little value if your organization doesn’t have a broader understanding of how data can impact business decisions – and how to select the right tools and data to drive better outcomes. To make the entire enterprise part of the D&A organization, plan a robust training program that considers who within the company are data “experts,” “practitioners,” and “learners” and so on. Map the social network and identify the domain data and analytics leaders. Establish cross-functional teams to experiment with data discovery and prototyping analytics. The enterprise is looking to you to usher it along. Without data literacy, there is little hope in defining and focusing D&A initiatives that are the business.

  1. Become a master change agent

As cliché as it may be, the only constant is change. And this cliché is on steroids as the world wrestles with not one, but two crises. New business models and ways of working are spinning out by the day. Pre-Covid, most CDOs hit cultural roadblocks when trying to effect change. While those cultural roadblocks still may persist, we’re in the middle of a data awakening. There’s an appetite for data-centric business strategy on a scale that simply didn’t exist before – and now is the time to capitalize. Ask yourself: What kind of leader are you? Are you a contractual leader or inspirational leader? Have you considered how to pull the levers of one’s motivation to change and the personal value that is attached to it? On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your emotional engagement as a change agent? Would your team consider you a courageous leader?

  1. Be the business

Don’t talk data. I will repeat. Do not talk data. To replicate the DNA of your D&A program as the business, you must have a deep understanding of how the business makes its decisions and the key outcomes it is driving toward. Only then will D&A initiatives align with business objectives or, dare I say, become one. To talk data is to take all of the life out of that data and disassociate from what it is intended to serve: the business. What the business needs from you is a brother or sister, a confidante, a close companion that is the best storyteller in the family.

So, Chief Data Officer, I will ask you again: What are you going to do to keep the love of data (leadership) alive?

Jason Larson headshot

Jason Larson

Director, Content at Evanta, a Gartner Company

Note: The CDO challenges and recommendations in this article are inspired by first-hand accounts and survey feedback of Evanta’s CDO communities and Gartner’s research titled “Leadership Vision for 2020: Data and Analytics Leader.”

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