Big Data Leadership: CIO, CAO, Or Maybe The Big Dog

In the discussion over who should lead a corporate big data initiative, maybe it should be someone other than the CIO, CAO, or CDO.

James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer

January 27, 2017

4 Min Read
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The debate over whether the CIO or someone in an analytics specific role -- chief analytics officer or chief data officer -- should lead a big data initiative is getting a bit stale. I've long felt that too many CIOs have already abdicated much of their role as leaders in utilizing data to drive the success of their companies.

Many -- certainly not all -- CIOs have settled into sort of an operations mindset, focusing on keeping the bytes flowing while executives in marketing, product development, or other departments have driven innovation. In reality, we wouldn't be discussing the need for a CAO if more of CIOs had been at the forefront in using data analytics as a differentiator five years ago.

I'm also concerned that some CAOs and CDOs might believe that data can accomplish everything, leaving humans to do little more than push buttons.

Maybe there is a third party who should be leading the big data analytics initiative: the CEO. That came up in an opinion piece written by John Weathington, president and CEO of consultancy Excellent Management Systems, Inc.

At first glance, the concept seems a bit odd. After all, the CEO has plenty to do as it is, dealing with the demands of the boards, setting direction, wrestling with C-suite power struggles, being the public face of the company, being the monarch and cheerleader for hundreds or thousands of employees. My thought: Where would the CEO find the time to deal with big data?

Thinking again, he or she had better lead the big data push because nobody is better suited.

The CEO is never going to get down in the technical weeds of cleaning data, writing algorithms, or crafting spiffy visualizations. Yet, as Weathington writes:

"The CEO is the top leader and has the ultimate responsibility for change efforts that incorporate big data analytics. First and foremost, the CEO must establish a vision of where the company is going, and that vision must clearly articulate the role big data and analytics play. If the CEO ignores or downplays big data in the company's vision, adoption will be difficult, and it will be hard to keep employees motivated about a big data project. Motivation and inspiration is key as employees work their way to a more analytic future."

The common theme in the analytics community is along the lines of "We have to get buy-in from the CEO and the board." Buy-in means giving an OK or allocating funds.

What a big data strategy really needs is for the big boss to say, "We're going to do this. If it changes people's jobs, the products we offer, or the way business gets done, we still have to do it." It's about delivering a mandate and providing leadership.

Someone on the analytics or IT team can come up with great ideas for the use of data and how it can change the company, but they have no authority over the business units and too often they have only a marginal understanding of a line manager's job in the field.

The CEO may have even less of an understanding of what really happens in the field, but what they do have are the authority and the responsibility. A big data initiative -- in fact the broader adoption of analytics -- is a multi-departmental effort. Someone in a front-line role has to understand a business problem and explain it to the analytics team. The analytics team has to understand and explain what data can and cannot do for the business unit. When results come in, someone has to know how to put data to work. That very well could impact how a second or third business unit works, and one of those groups might not like the idea. It's the CEO who has the power to get things done across all those corporate borders.

[So, what is the role of the chief data officer? 4 Ways Chief Data Officers Can Win Stakeholder Support.]

We know today how data can bring about dramatic change. We've seen the digital natives that disrupt entire industries where established players didn't move fast enough. So, there is reason for the CEO to be more than a figurehead signing off on a data initiative.

Data can tell the CEO how customer needs and behaviors are changing, where operational inefficiency is hurting the bottom line, where new product development is needed, and how services need to be delivered.

Think of the other dramatic changes that businesses have faced over the decades. For example, there was the modernization of the manufacturing line, the move to web-based marketing and sales, the never-ending challenge of deciding which products to develop and which to drop, the decision to move a headquarters location, and many more. A move to reliance on analytics and building the use of data into day-to-day and long-term decisions is just as important as all those other changes that CEOs have had to lead.

But, don't worry, CIO, CAO, CDO, and other C-suite occupants. There still will be plenty of work for you once the CEO says, "We're gonna do this."

About the Author(s)

James M. Connolly

Contributing Editor and Writer

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced freelance technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than three decades. He was previously editorial director of InformationWeek and Network Computing, where he oversaw the day-to-day planning and editing on the sites. He has written about enterprise computing, data analytics, the PC revolution, the evolution of the Internet, networking, IT management, and the ongoing shift to cloud-based services and mobility. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. He has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through such publications as Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups at MassHighTech.

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