The Chief Data Officer – Adapting to life in a changed world

22nd May 2020

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the world for almost every business and individual, not least for Chief Data Officers (CDOs).

In the new normal world no one can be sure what lies ahead, and those data strategies and plans that looked progressive and balanced a few months ago now require a radical overhaul to meet the new business priorities.

And as these priorities continue to evolve, so does the need for the CDO’s plan to be flexible and adaptive.

It’s hard to know where to focus as none of us have walked this path before, but from speaking with a number of CDOs, we’ve identified some key themes:

1. Don’t assume the current strategy and plan are right to move forward with

  • Although stewardship of the organisation’s data assets remains the overarching ambition, it may take a re-balancing of priorities to align with new and emerging business objectives
  • Be mindful of where the company is on its data journey. For example, if fundamental data quality and management is an issue, this still needs addressing before attempting more complex analytics or machine learning. Aspects of the original plan will still need to be delivered
  • Plan the ‘hows’; how to deliver in a way that supports the short-term business objectives while laying the foundations for longer-term organisational resilience
  • The landscape may be too uncertain and moving too quickly to be formulating a new strategy, so tactical changes may rule for the time being
  • The ‘new’ data strategy and plan must answer the questions the business is trying to solve, which may mean pivoting away from the original plan. When doing this, understand that strategic decisions – which could have significant impact downstream – are being made at speed and may lack the due consideration of previous planning activity

2. Keep close to the Executive and understand the business imperatives

  • Take this opportunity to promote the belief in quality data supporting decision making, and get the attention and focus this idea deserves. Become the exec’s best friend by enabling them to make decisions based on fact, and consider dedicating your best analysts to the task
  • Access to the exec allows a challenging of old prejudices and resistance to change. For example, the case for cloud stored analytics is now stronger than ever as access to data is key
  • For many companies, the priorities have changed overnight. This has meant:
  • Fast-tracking solutions and implementing in a fraction of the time
  • Data increasingly being pulled into the boardroom to inform decision-making and help navigate the crisis
  • CDOs are being placed at the heart of operations. The role is increasingly to link all functions as the dependence on information and data-driven decision-making increases
  • The ability to act on real-time data is driving contingent strategies. For many, analytical speed is crucial to visualise data in seconds rather than hours
  • Scenario planning – and defining the likely role that data will need to play – is essential work to be done collaboratively with the exec. This includes understanding what reports will be needed, supporting analytical use-cases, looking for trends/indicators etc
  • Be wary of models based too heavily on historic norms. Provide the “what if” and focus on forecasting potential outcomes. Joined up planning is an area many businesses can improve on, so promote an integrated planning cycle to see how changes ripple through the organisation
  • Be mindful that inflated expectations of what is possible will increase, as will the need to manage these more carefully than ever before. Put the assumptions and small print front and centre so the exec can understand the limitations of the data

3. Elements of the role haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve increased in importance

CDOs tend to cover a range of responsibilities, and many of these have gained greater significance during the crisis. These include:

  • Continuing to advocate good governance – The desire to get a quick answer can see people take short cuts and jump to unsubstantiated conclusions. It’s too easy to point out the difference after the event but difficult to be a dissenting voice in a crisis. Stick to your belief and if the data substantiates the outcome, speak up
  • Talking the language of the business – Engaging with senior stakeholders to understand the data needs that support the business priorities
  • Creating the bridge – Acting as the ‘glue’ between the business and the analytical community, directing data teams and communicating in a way that delivers the required insights from the data
  • Maintaining viable governance – Striking the balance between what’s required to protect the data asset whilst accepting some planned non-core data management initiatives may need to be re-prioritised

4. Capitalise on this catalyst for change

  • Execs can become your biggest champion when they start to trust the data and insight you’re providing. These leaders can ensure that data get’s a fair crack of the whip
  • This crisis has instigated innovation and rapid problem solving in many areas of the business value chain – far quicker than previously imagined. For example, 18-month IT programmes have been implemented in 8 weeks
  • Re-engineered processes, new operational disciplines and emerging reliance on new and established data streams. All of these have, in many cases, forced significant gains in new sources of revenue, cost-reduction or efficiency-savings. The opportunity is to make these gains permanent

However, in the weeks and months ahead, it’s essential that

  • The direction remains clear and the leadership community / key stakeholders are engaged around a data vision that aligns with the overall business objectives
  • The plan addresses all aspects of the change, and:
  • Aligns with the underlying business model
  • Is reflected in the organisation, systems, controls, and underlying data
  • Supports and encourages the required business behaviours

In a 2019 survey by NewVantage, Partners of C-suite and IT-decision makers, 70% of the challenges in creating a data-driven culture were attributed to people and process. Only 30% were attributed to technology. These challenges have not gone away

Even during a pandemic, instigating a wider cultural transformation across the business remains one of the key challenges for CDOs

Putting insights from data into practice is as much a cultural battle as a technical one. CDOs must lead the charge

So, what are the key takeaways?

Success for any CDO depends on the nature and definition of their role within their organisation. The job has always been a balancing act between showing the business where the next opportunities lie and identifying and reducing data-related threats.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 presents CDOs with a stark new reality, fundamentally changing how they work. But it’s also thrusting them into a critical role in the crisis response.It’s up to the individual and their teams to step-up, make a different and help their organisation strengthen their position.