The Amorphous CDO Role Takes Shape

After being largely undefined for a few years the role of Chief Data Officer may finally be taking shape, as illustrated in a survey of federal agencies.

It's interesting to see that the Chief Data Officer role seems to be proving its value, at least in federal agencies. However, I think the important part of a new Meritalk survey about government CDOs is that the CDO role itself may be getting some clarification.

For the past couple of years there have been plenty of advocates for the addition of a CDO in enterprise-level organizations. However, elements like the exact responsibilities, where the CDO fits in the org chart, and how the CDO differs from the CIO have been kind of vague. Lots of people have had varied ideas about the CDO role.

The new study by Meritalk, funded by Vion, Calling the Plays: The Evolving Role of the CDO and Federal Big Data provides some insight into what a CDO really does for a living.

One caution about the research -- when it discusses matters such as what percentage of federal agencies that have a CDO are finding positive results. There were 150 respondents from agencies, but it's a bit unclear how many actually have a CDO in place today. For the record, the report says, "Agencies with a CDO are significantly more likely to be successfully managing big data than those without – 69% to 40%."

So, what are the CDO's responsibilities in the federal agencies?

Two thirds of the agencies with a CDO (76%) say that the executive "has taken ownership over data management and governance issues." That's still kind of mushy.

But the primary responsibilities are more concrete:

  • Centralizing organizational data (55%)
  • Protecting organizational data (51%)
  • Improving data quality (49%)
  • Managing open government data efforts (43%)
  • Bridging the gap between IT and operations (43%)
  • Leveraging data to help set and achieve realistic goals (41%)

One responsibility not listed here is that of being an advocate for the use of data in decision making and in innovation. On the surface, the "leveraging data" responsibility could include an advocacy role. However, I read that one as being more about finding data to respond to requests rather than being proactive in seeking out data that can change the way business gets done. That's where innovation comes into play.

While the adoption of data analytics and a data mindset are crucial for improving decision making and efficiency in existing applications, the CDO should be positioned to identify opportunities for new ways of doing business. CDOs don't want to be limited to changing government forms to collect additional data types. They should be looking at existing and new data sources, perhaps in other agencies or in the public sector, that will help their own agencies provide better, even new, services. That's the whole big data concept. Maybe they could even help shrink the federal bureaucracy. So, my wish list for the CDO job description includes a call for innovation. What would you add to that job description, whether the CDO works in the public sector or in private business?