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The evolution of the chief data officer (CDO) and what it means for businesses today


May 13, 2023
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In 2015, Gartner defined the role of the chief data officer (CDO) as “a senior executive who bears responsibility for information protection and privacy, governance, data quality and life cycle management, along with exploiting data assets to create business value.” That is quite the list, but one that I’m sure any early CDO would likely recall and agree with.

Over the last eight years, the CDO has earned greater credibility across organizations and become a valued partner in the delivery of competitive business outcomes. The broad scope hasn’t changed, but the CDO now has greater power to influence strategy and prioritize activities.

Below I’ll outline the factors pushing this evolution and what the CDO’s blueprint looks like moving forward.

The CDO as a business champion

The first CDOs focused on improving data governance and standardization to help their organizations get a better handle on their data and technology assets. With an eye toward data maturity, the CDO office set out to establish a sustainable foundation. Meanwhile, data teams were driving digital transformation strategies and migrating their data assets into more reliable, scalable and cost-effective cloud resources. New data warehouses, lakes and lakehouses continued to pop up in multicloud and on-premise environments. While half the house was running around classifying the data for governance, the other half was busy moving that data around. 


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On the business side, there was a growing competitive urgency for accelerating insight. The data consumers on the business side understood the business challenges and opportunities better than their IT counterparts and had the self-service business intelligence (BI) tools to seek their own answers; all they needed was more data. 

With the business executives’ support, the CDO office shifted its focus to harmonizing these two sides. While immediate access to data assets became a top priority and strategic imperative for businesses, the CDO had the mandate of facilitating seamless collaboration between the data and business teams and reducing the friction in exploiting data and analytics that optimize business practices and performance.

The CDO as a C-suite partner 

As data grew more prominent and critical to business success, the CDO role emerged as its own specialty with its own seat at the C-suite table. CIOs, CDOs and business executives started to work together to accelerate the delivery of the growing list of strategic business projects that were critically dependent on data analytics. In some organizations, the CDO role reported to business leadership to ensure formal alignment with the business strategy. 

The expectations of the CDO were tremendous, regardless of where they rolled up. The CDO was at the center, between IT and business leaders, and was responsible for managing the data “currency” that both sides were dependent on. 

The best measurement of a CDO’s success was trusted business insight. The greatest sign of that success was a business executive who was able to make fast data-driven decisions because they had the trusted information that they needed at the right time and with all of the right context. 

For the IT executive, the best measurements of a CDO’s success were the traditional security, reliability and cost-efficiency metrics. There was no slowing the proliferation of new data sources, but data management standards established by the CDO helped to define where and how data could be stored and transformed.

The CDO’s blueprint

In 2023, the CDO is focused on building a strategic, sustainable data culture that maps to tangible business results. The biggest shift from the role that Gartner defined in 2015 is that the CDO is now primarily focused on the data consumer’s needs. Every dollar spent on the data foundation should enable $10 of value for the business. 

As much as the CDO role has matured, there is still no standardized strategic blueprint. The good news is that there are strong CDO communities around the world, and this collaboration has been a big reason for the rapid maturity of the role. While every data strategy will differ based on business priorities, here are three points that should be on every CDO’s agenda:

Don’t centralize first — access data at the source. Most organizations have abandoned the idea of a single source of truth, or enterprise centralization. The business urgency to access their data today and the economic climate are leading CDOs towards a single point of access. The new message to the business is that we can access our data where it sits and achieve the required level of performance today. Federating across existing datasets minimizes business disruption and enables greater investment in front-end analytics vs. back-end migration. 

Use reusable, interoperable data products to drive insights. When I explain data mesh to an executive, I ask them to reimagine how they access and use data. They need to spend their time finding the answers, not finding the raw datasets. Reusable and interoperable data products that can be easily understood and applied in dashboards or applications are the new standard. A data product integrates datasets from different sources and organizes them in a reproducible, high-performing and cost-effective package. 

Empower self-service capabilities for all users. In a data-driven organization, business teams are empowered to drive their own discovery and insight. If you want the business to move fast, let them drive. The business teams do not care where their data is stored; all they want is a simple process for finding what they need and an even simpler process for requesting access. To achieve this, the CDO needs to abstract the complexity on the back end. Stop talking about where the data is stored and start pointing your data consumers to a single catalog or data mart where they can find and immediately put to work the data products they need. 

The role of the CDO has changed quite a bit over the years, and it will continue to change as data demands evolve. The CDO is responsible for driving data-driven decisions through a business, making clear the need for this role at the C-suite level. Making data accessibility and self-service key priorities at the C-suite and even boardroom level will be integral for success in the data-driven business landscape.

Adrian Estala is VP and field chief data officer of Starburst.


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