Data Culture

3 Takeaways from the 2019 Chief Data Officer Symposium

Chief Data Officer
Barr Moses headshot

Barr Moses

CEO and Co-founder, Monte Carlo. Proponent of data reliability and action movies.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Chief Data Officer Symposium at MIT for the first time. More than 60 CDOs were there, hailing from across the United States, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, and more. There was representation from the top data organizations at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and academia. For me, it crystallized that the upcoming year is going to be an important one, as the role of the CDO becomes better defined — and starts to impact industries everywhere.

I was inspired by the energy at the conference, and wanted to share what the most innovative CDOs are doing today that struck me as timely for every data-first company to be thinking about:

#1: CDOs are defining the role for themselves but also for the data industry

As CDOs work to shape their roles — and as their importance to the bottom line grows — it’s prompting a natural reflection on what companies should expect from their data and what it means to be truly data-driven. Some of the key takeaways I heard at the Symposium were:

  • The importance of offense, not only defense, in your data strategy
  • Managing and investing in the “fundamentals” of your data
  • Getting closer to revenue and proving the ROI of your data efforts

Note: For a longer rumination on the key takeaways, Tom Davenport has a great summary over at Forbes.

But what most struck me about the above priorities — and what they signal in terms of the maturity of the role and business — was that this is a unique moment for the rise of the CDO. (After all, when it comes to government, you know we’ve got a trend on our hands: earlier in July the White House mandated every agency nominate a Chief Data Officer.)

In the private sector, the CDO role’s growing importance in the organization has been signaled by:

  • Reporting structure getting closer to the CEO
  • Growing responsibilities, including Analytics, Data Engineering, BI
  • Defined mission and charter tied to company goals

Every organization today needs to have a data strategy, and the CDO is the perfect person to be at the helm of that. But the challenge is how to make data initiatives successful beyond the boundaries of the data function and impactful for the broader organization.

One CDO shared with the group that he created a new role called “Head of Data Literacy,” serving the entire business. This person is responsible for ensuring that each business unit in this ~10K employee organization is “fluent in data.” For example, they are creating a scorecard for each business unit to measure the performance of the function in terms of data skills such as Excel, SQL, R, Python, etc. They are then helping each function define goals for their data literacy aspirations (i.e., what skills should each person know and to what level of depth and breadth); training / educating the teams to help members improve their skills; and overall getting more “data-fluent” as an organization.

It is quite powerful to have a single point of accountability in the organization on the hook for getting the entire company to be data-literate in a very concrete, measurable way.

#2: Using data to drive meaningful business value, and quantifying it

On a panel during the Symposium, one CDO shared this great metaphor for how to think about the value of your data “defense” efforts:

Picture this: your company is a metaphorical grocery store. Imagine if all the items were disorganized on the shelves, and shoppers couldn’t find the items they needed — what a terrible experience. Similarly, that’s how consumers of data feel when your data is unorganized — they wouldn’t know where to find the data they need. Now imagine that the items in the store were covered with brown bags. Shoppers wouldn’t know what they’re buying. Similarly, that’s why you need to collect and organize metadata to describe and make sense of your assets.

I’ll note that large tech companies have built homegrown solutions addressing some of this, like Amundsen from Lyft and DataHub from LinkedIn.

But the most innovative CDOs don’t stop with defense. Companies are now using data as a competitive advantage; for example, using it to identify new markets ripe for disruption, new products or features to be developed, new methodologies for improving cost and efficiency. In fact — when done well — your data strategy will not only be tightly linked but also strongly influence your business strategy. Data teams today act de facto as business partners to functions, taking a seat at the table as active thought partners to their marketing, sales, customer success, product, and engineering counterparts. It is not uncommon to see data teams partake in their business partners KPIs for performance. The business success is the data organization’s success.

#3: Seeking out and adopting new technologies, driven by business needs

Bringing innovation and automation to an industry can radically change the way business gets done — from how we build, operate, and succeed. Personally, I think we will see this innovation in the form of automation and engineering concepts being newly applied to data. I wrote previously about data reliability and how teams are evolving to become more proactive in how they manage their “data downtime” and the need to solve this problem in an AI/ML/automation-first, scalable way. Companies who excel in the adoption of data and new technologies to manage that data will have the upper hand.

One CDO, based out of the East Coast, shared on a panel that one of the first things she did in her role was to organize a trip for her company’s data leaders to visit their counterparts at peers on the West Coast. They met with forward-thinking data organizations to exchange best practices, learn about useful new technologies, and ensure they are pushing their thinking when it comes to data, automation, AI/ML and more. Another CDO of a Fortune 500 financial institution indicated she sees automation as a top priority for her organization; so much so that almost 30% of her and her team’s work is related to identifying and adopting new platforms to make her data team more effective!

The pace of innovation and change in the data industry is tremendous, and I can’t wait to see where we are just a couple of years from now. Whether you’re in a data scientist, analyst, engineer or business role, we all have the responsibility of being the best data stewards we can, and shepherding our organizations through this transformation. One thing is clear: It is certainly a special time in history to be a part of this movement.

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