Chief Data Science Officers Won't Supplant CIOs - InformationWeek

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Data Management // Big Data Analytics
09:43 AM
James Kobielus
James Kobielus
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Chief Data Science Officers Won't Supplant CIOs

Some believe a new C-level data scientist will inevitably control the purse strings on data-related projects. Here's why that's a bad idea.

9 CIO Tech Priorities For 2015
9 CIO Tech Priorities For 2015
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Everybody craves prestige, but there are only so many prestigious positions to go around.

Who doesn't want a C-level position and the salary that comes with it? Data scientists have seen their prestige rise over the past few years as the big data revolution has picked up steam. If nothing else, they're arguably the "sexiest" geeks in creation at this moment, or so we've been told. But you would have trouble finding one of them anywhere in the business world occupying the executive suite.

One might argue that it's only a matter of time before data scientists assume their rightful place in a corner office. After all, according to this perspective, it's more than just being hip and with the times. Many organizations that have based their strategy on big data analytics have also identified data science as a key enabler. As the chief data officer (CDO) has risen in strategic importance, it only makes sense that this individual will oversee data science initiatives, personnel, and practices.

[ Want more on this topic? Read Data Scientist: Human Today, Software Tomorrow. ]

This trend feels inevitable, and one would expect that the CDO (or whatever he or she is called) should have a strong grounding in data science. But this opens up several tough questions. Should the people in this position come from data scientist backgrounds? Should they continue as working data scientists even as they attain executive status overseeing data science operations? And should the position itself be renamed to "chief data science officer" to reflect this emphasis?

In a recent assessment of "what's hot/what's not" in data science, Lukas Beiwald, co-founder and CEO of CrowdFlower, seems to answer all of those questions in the affirmative. Beiwald's "what's hot" case for the Chief Data Scientist edges out the supposedly "what's not" Chief Information Officer. Beiwald asserts that Chief Data Scientists will "hold the purse strings when it comes to key IT buying decisions that leverage company data." The strong implication is that the former position will kick the CIO out of the executive suite. After all, a C-level position that doesn't control a slice of the budget would be a joke.

One perspective on chief data scientists vs. CIOs from Renette Youssef of CrowdFlower. 

(Image: Data Science Central)

One perspective on chief data scientists vs. CIOs from Renette Youssef of CrowdFlower.

(Image: Data Science Central)

My feeling is that giving the entire CIO or chief data officer job over to a chief data science officer or equivalent would be a bad idea. For starters, most organizations' data assets are invested in applications that don't rely on data science or advanced analytics. Online transaction processing, business intelligence, performance analytics, and data warehousing are not the province of the data scientist. Also, a chief data science officer would tend to de-emphasize the most widely used data applications (such as decision support, reporting, or office productivity), in favor of narrow specialty applications (such as advanced visualization, predictive modeling, and social listening).

The unintended result might be a sharper bifurcation of the organization between data haves and have-nots, or between an analytic-savvy elite and the analytically clueless rest of us.

Just 30% of respondents to our new Big Data and Analytics Survey say their companies are very or extremely effective at identifying critical data and analyzing it to make decisions, down from 42% in 2013. What gives? Get the The Trouble With Big Data issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)

James Kobielus is an independent tech industry analyst, consultant, and author. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. View Full Bio
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User Rank: Strategist
1/31/2015 | 10:48:18 PM
Re: Another chief, another seven digit salary
@asksqn: There's no doubt we'll see this position come to the forefront in the enterprise. The real question is: how much power will they have? What portions of the IT budget will they control? How will such a position affect the CIO, who in many cases is already fighting to reshape the IT organization into something that is valued by the enterprise? What human resources will be devoted to the DS department, at the expense of which other deparmtments? and will it be yet another place for silos to be created in the organization.

I don't have any answers yet, This trend will be worth watching closely.
IW Pick
User Rank: Ninja
1/30/2015 | 5:50:25 PM
Another chief, another seven digit salary
I think it's only a matter of time before the world sees the first CDS:  Chief Data Scientist pulling down some obscene annual salary based on the "sexiness" of the hip-to-be-square meme being fed to intended audiences (CEOs, etc.) For the moment, nobody really knows what a data scientist does exactly.  Sure, there are myriad career paths consisting of everything a DS would need to know at both traditional colleges as well as in the almost free MOOCs, but I think this country could start seeing a CDS as soon as next year.  I base this on my own personal perception given that I've seen DS marketed ad nauseum and otherwise used as a buzzword.  
User Rank: Moderator
1/30/2015 | 10:35:17 AM
At this point I think its too early to say how the CDS will evolve. In organizations I have seen with the position, it still reports to the CIO. Personally, I think the integration of data scientist into various lines of business is a better model and having the data scientists report to the CIO.  Regardless, the focus needs to be on breaking down barriers and creating a truly analytical environment where all involved have an understanding and appreciation for how data analysis can impact an organization's bottom line.

Peter Fretty, IDG blogger working on behalf of SAS

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